The US has a unique opportunity in eastern Syria to continue to play a positive role in the region, where religious freedom is flourishing, according to a US official who was interviewed by The Jerusalem Post.
Nadine Maenza, who has been on the ground for weeks meeting with locals, is a commissioner with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Her visit has included all the areas of eastern Syria where the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is in control.
This is the area of Syria where the US has played a role since 2015, helping to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which defeated ISIS. After 2017, when ISIS was defeated in Raqqa, the US role has shifted several times. From working "by, with and through" the SDF, including training and equipping almost 100,000 fighters, the US sought to stabilize the region.
However, US President Donald Trump wanted to reduce the US role and was threatened by Turkey that if the US didn't follow Ankara's orders, then Turkey would attack US partners, the Kurds, in eastern Syria.
That disaster unfolded in October 2019. Kurds and minority Christians and Yazidis were ethnically cleansed, and Turkish-backed extremist groups hunted down women and minorities in areas around Tel Abyad. The brief chaos ended with several agreements, including some Syrian regime and Russian units ending up as a kind of buffer between Turkish-occupied areas of northern Syria and the areas controlled by the SDF where US patrols continue.
Maenza first traveled into this complex area last year.
"I had been watching northeast Syria since I joined USCIRF in 2018," she told the Post. "I learned about the remarkable conditions for religious freedom in northeast Syria from USCIRF, and we watched as the president almost pulled out in 2018, and we became concerned [about] what could happen to religious freedom."
She met with key officials from the area, including Ilham Ehmed, the co-chairwoman of the Syrian Democratic Council.
Having seen the area of eastern Syria directly after the invasion, speaking to doctors who treated wounded civilians and seeing civilians fleeing Turkish bombs, Maenza was enthusiastic about protecting the freedom of religious minorities in areas still run by the SDF and where the US has influence.
"This is a unique environment for religious freedom," said Maenza.
"I saw the conditions and saw how this is a unique environment for religious freedom," she said.
For those such as Maenza who have worked on religious-freedom issues in the Middle East, the last decades have been difficult. Religious minorities such as Christians and Yazidis have been ethnically cleansed, encountered genocide, bombed, kidnapped, raped and systematically expelled from many areas, such as Sinjar and the Nineveh plains in western Iraq.
This was done by ISIS. But before ISIS, it was done by groups linked to other Islamist and Jihadist extremists. The fabric of the region – once a rich mosaic of minority groups that had roots going back millennia – has been torn about rapidly in the last year.
In Syria, for instance, Christians had to flee areas such as Tal Tamr during the shelling by Ankara, and they had already been forced out of areas by ISIS, including along the Khabur River. The defeat of ISIS enabled some to return. But these groups look across the region and see only threats.
For instance, for Armenians in Syria, they already suffered genocide in 2015. Dumped in the desert of eastern Syria, they remade their lives over 100 years only to be attacked again by ISIS. Now, they look across the border to Armenia where tens of thousands of Armenians are once again being expelled.
The US and Western countries that speak about religious freedom seem to be doing little to help. However, eastern Syria is one area where minorities have found refuge.
"You go to [eastern] Syria and you see stability, and it's working where there could be a place for religious minorities," Maenza said. "I have done a lot of work on eastern Syria all year, and I've been here six weeks and visited the regions and see the conditions and understand how the government works."
This important visit enabled her to meet with groups and officials from across the spectrum. She said she planned her trip, and the autonomous government did not interfere. She also had security and was safe.
The eastern Syria autonomous region has also made major strides in gender equality.
What she found was an area with robust governance. From the local level, starting with communities of 100 to 150 families, the autonomous administration has put in place committees with male and female co-chairs. This means that in addition to supporting minority groups, it has made major strides in gender equality.
This is in contrast to the Turkish-occupied areas of northern Syria where women's faces are rarely, if ever, seen in local government structures and where discrimination against women and suppression or extermination of minorities tends to be the norm.
The autonomous administration has different groups in its local government, including Arabs, Turkmen, Christians, Kurds and all the other minority sects in eastern Syria, Maenza said. This is a diverse region. It is also a region with groups that have had different loyalties over the years and different treatment by the Syrian regime.
For instance, the Syrian regime denied citizenship to many hundreds of thousands of Kurds. The regime claimed to protect Christians, but it also threatened them. Some Arab tribes sided with ISIS, while others sided with the regime during the war. Others look to Turkey for support.
This means that from Iran to Russia to Turkey, many powers can exploit and interfere in the relatively poor areas of eastern Syria to stir up controversy. Turkey did that this month, exploiting a controversy with France over cartoons to encourage protesters in Tabqa, Syria, to attack a church.
The area is an example of how extremism can be successfully combated, Maenza said. She cited failures in Iraq and Afghanistan as a contrast. In eastern Syria, the impact of governance, security and ideology have come together to beat back ISIS, she said.
"And in ideology, theirs is based on gender equality, tolerance and religious freedom, and they embrace that with ethnicities and religions represented and man and women co-chairs," she said.
Christians in this area support the autonomous administration but are also fearful that the Assad regime will return, Maenza said. Their fear means they often don't want to openly join the local administration or play a major visible role.
Like many minorities in history, these Christian groups are caught in a tenuous position. They are vulnerable because despite Damascus's claims to protect them from Turkey or ISIS, they could also be targeted by the regime if they are not seen as loyal enough. They have become pawns in this respect for the regime.
The lack of clear US support for the region means its future is uncertain.
The lack of clear US support for the region, beyond a small military footprint, means their future is uncertain. Maenza has argued that the US should recognize the autonomous administration. Instead, the US has generally kept its own partners at arm's length, preferring a military-to-military role in eastern Syria, while the US State Department does not work with the autonomous administration.
This creates contradictions, such that US Central Command tweets in Kurdish, proudly meets with fighters from eastern Syria and boasts about the training of local forces. But the US does not even seem to recognize the region.
Meanwhile, Iran, Russia and Turkey do the opposite in Syria. They work with their partners and allies on the ground. This leaves many wondering what the US will do next, especially under a new administration in Washington.
Locals are working to support religious diversity and minorities, such as Christian groups, Maenza said. She cited Tabqa, where locals have helped protect dozens of Christian homes and four churches. Despite the recent protest, the local administrators say they want Christians to return.
"There is a way forward. It is a win-win for the US and the autonomous administration," Maenza said, regarding a continued US role in the area.
"They don't need nation building and a forever war," she said. "It is unusual. Eighty percent of the oil and fertile soil [is here]. They are in a situation that they have security; the best fighting force. They just need to be able to survive."
They have the tools, but they need US sanctions to be tweaked to allow business and investment into this part of Syria and recognition by political forces in Washington. They need official visits and more support. They don't need more US troops. With recognition they can thrive as part of their own plan for a federal Syria in which they have a role in the postwar reconstruction and administration.
Nevertheless, fears persist of a new invasion by Ankara or another zigzag in policy from Washington.
"If this area falls, there won't be any Christians or Yazidis left, and if we can preserve this, then this will bring stability and be a refuge for minorities," Maenza said.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.