Mesopotamia Relief Foundation

Why Help?

Why Help the Villages of the Khabur?

In February 2015 in northeastern Syria, ISIS took over all of the Assyrian Christian villages of the Khabur River valley south of the river. Those north of the river were mostly unharmed, but remained meters away from a frontline with ISIS for three months. As they took over the area, ISIS kidnapped over 200 people and held them hostage for a year, until a massive ransom was paid. This event devastated the area completely, and of the original 15,000 residents, only about 500 remain. Entire villages lie empty, their houses, churches, and schools abandoned. A few residents have returned, or stayed, but in the immediate aftermath of ISIS’s campaign, residents were given visas to countries like Sweden, Australia, and Germany, and only a few have come back. There are, however, residents remaining, and some would like to come back but feel that the current situation does not allow. If your entire village were destroyed and abandoned, would you return by yourself if no one else is living there?

Services have returned to the area slowly, though they have gotten worse again since the Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria in October 2019. There are many difficulties complicating people’s return. Climate change in the valley and a reduction in the supply of water for irrigation has led to a decrease in agricultural production. In 2019, the area saw record rainfall and what should have been a record crop, but fires – most of them likely started deliberately by ISIS – have destroyed many crops of Christians and Muslims alike. Now, Syria’s currency is collapsing and the coronavirus has affected Syria’s economy, just like everywhere else. Other Christian areas in the Middle East that were hit by ISIS, primarily the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq, have seen massive rebuilding efforts funded by churches, NGOs, and governments from around the world. No similar effort has been made in the Khabur Valley. There are a number of causes for this, but all of them can be overcome.

Assyrians who have stayed, by choice or because they have no other option, could use support from the outside to help them survive. If nothing is done, a piece of Christian civilization, past and present, will disappear from the Middle East altogether. More importantly, real individuals who are still in the villages will continue to suffer, and Syria will miss out on an important source of food through agricultural production in the valley. Efforts elsewhere, like those in the Nineveh Plain in Iraq, have been successful at encouraging people to stay and to return. A similar effort is possible in the Khabur, it just needs help from the right place.

The Tragedy of February 2015

On 23 February 2015, ISIS fighters came down from the Abdul Aziz mountain range in northeast Syria and in a matter of hours took over nearly the entire southern bank of the Khabur river from the city of Ras al-Ayn along the Turkish border to the provincial capital of Hassakah, a stretch of about 40 kilometers. The residents of the villages in this area were primarily Assyrian Christians, and ISIS had been threatening the area for months. Patrols of ISIS members would enter the villages, tear down crosses, and threaten to impose the jizya tax on residents, but they had not yet established a military presence in the area. That all changed on the morning of February 23, 2015.

Leading up to the attack, the security situation in the area was unstable; the Syrian government had withdrawn from this area, leaving security to the YPG (a Kurdish acronym for the People’s Protection Units), the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units, the now-famous female Kurdish fighters), the Syriac Military Council, and the Khabur Guards, who would all later join with other groups to form what is called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Fighting had been occurring in the area for several years between the many groups involved in Syria’s civil war. Following ISIS’s threats to the villages of the Khabur, the Syriac Military Council and Khabur Guards in-creased their presence in the Christian villages of the Khabur, but ISIS had more fighters and better weaponry than those defending the villages, many of whom were students or professionals who had never fought in a war before.

Leading up to their offensive of 23 February 2015, ISIS began shelling the area, specifically the village of Tel Hormiz, but they were initially held back. But when they swept through the area on 23 February they were able to create a frontline 40 kilometers wide in a matter of hours, making it impossible to effectively defend the area. Moreover, in February 2015 the Khabur River was overflowing, making it difficult to send reinforcements across the river; crossing was limited to a few bridges that join the northern and southern banks. Those defending the village were able to stop the ISIS advance at the river, sparing the villages on the northern side from ISIS, and although ISIS was able to cross the river several times during the four months that they controlled the southern side of the river, they never managed to hold territory on the northern bank. As the attack unfolded residents fled to the northern side of the river, but then came the biggest tragedy of the entire incident: ISIS began capturing civilian residents as hostages. Most were taken on the southern side of the river, but ISIS even managed to cross the river and kidnap residents of the village of Tel Jezira, on the river’s northern bank, hauling captives back across the river in boats.

The incident came as a shock to the Assyrian community worldwide. Over two hundred of their brethren were now being held by the world’s most notorious terrorist group, a group that considered them infidels because of their Christian faith. They were first taken to the Abdul Aziz mountains, then to the town of al-Shadadi, where they would spend six months. They were then taken to ISIS’s capital of Raqqa, where they would stay until a ransom was paid with money raised by Assyrians around the world. At first the community refused to pay, and three of the hostages were killed to send a message. This prompted a worldwide fundraising effort to raise money to secure the release of the others. The amount paid to ISIS for the hostages is not known, but is believed to be in the millions of dollars. One girl never returned, and residents believe she was married off to an ISIS fighter.

In the meantime, the global battle against ISIS had begun. An international coalition to defeat ISIS had been set up in 2014, and supported an offensive by the Syriac Military Council and their Kurdish allies to retake the villages on the Khabur, which they did in June 2015 after four months of ISIS control. They managed to retake the area entirely from ISIS, but between the fighting, kidnapping, and instability, residents had left the area en masse. The Assyrian villages of the Khabur became ghost towns, and ISIS had deliberately destroyed most of the churches that had come under their control.

Five years later, of an original 15,000 or so residents, only about five hundred Assyrians live in the villages of the Khabur valley. Many of those residents are older, with their children living abroad. People from the area are now living in Australia, Sweden, Norway, Germany, and elsewhere. A few are still in Syria but outside of the villages, including the nearby cities of Qamishli and Hassakah. Some are in Lebanon, but most there are trying to go abroad. Most importantly, there are real people in the villages trying to rebuild their lives.

A Tragedy Compounded

After the devastation of 2015, the villages were largely emptied of their residents. In a few villages, Kurdish refugees from the area of Afrin took up residence, causing controversy locally as this threatened to bring about demo-graphic change that would change the identity of the villages. However, most villages remained empty, and the local governing authority, the Autonomous Administration, banned the sale of Assyrian property to non-Assyrians, maintaining—in the short term, at least—the Assyrian identity of the villages. In 2019, however, tragedy struck the area again. Turkey’s government, with a green light from the United States, decided to invade north-eastern Syria to remove the Kurdish YPG from the area. Turkey used jihadist groups as proxies in this fight, who damaged and looted churches in the cities of Tel Abyad and Ras al Ayn. Christians and other minorities fled areas under Turkish control. The Turkish invasion came to the doorsteps of the Assyrian villages of the Khabur, with villages such as Tel Tawil now falling right along the frontlines. Facing an existential threat, the Syrian Democratic Forces in charge of the area invited the Syrian government back into the area, along with Russian troops, which led to an overlap in security structures. The United States government then also reversed its decision to withdraw, which led to a confusing situation where political and military control is not always clear. Today, both Russian and American troops patrol through the area, though it remains primarily under American domination, and an American base sits near the southern edge of the villages.

In the wake of the Turkish invasion, however, thousands of displaced Kurds and Arabs came from the city of Ras al-Ayn. Given the existence of empty houses in the villages, the Assyrian authorities allowed them into the villages in what was meant to be a temporary solution to a humanitarian crisis. There is a fear now, though, that this may have invited a permanent demographic change. Many of the villages have only one or two Assyrian families remaining, while the majority of residents are now Kurdish or Arab. The legal status has not changed, however, and land rights are being protected and the sale of land to non-Assyrians remains prohibited. In the short term, sup-port to the remaining Assyrian community will allow them to remain in their homes until a political solution is found to the Syrian crisis, at which point most of those now in the villages want to return home to Ras al-Ayn. Nonetheless, many of the Assyrians who remain don’t have anywhere else to go. They have to scrape out a living in their home villages, whether they are the last Assyrian house in their village or one of many.

In light of all of these challenges, Syria is facing an unparalleled economic crisis, worse than any point previously during the ten-year conflict. The Syrian lira has collapsed and continues to decline in value. This has devastated people’s savings and made it impossible to invest in anything that will help improve livelihoods in the near future. Even once-wealthy individuals find themselves unable to buy new farm equipment or buy high-quality seeds be-cause they simply do not have the capital. This is where support can be especially valuable: providing interest-free loans or small grants to individuals to allow them to invest in the most basic improvements, particularly after the devastating fires of 2019 wiped out equipment, trees, and crops. With a collapsing currency and skyrocketing pric-es, it is nearly impossible for anyone to rebuild.

The Villages Today

Today, most villages in the Khabur are filled with Kurdish and Arab IDPs from Ras al Ayn, with only a few Assyrian households remaining. However, some villages are better off than others, and a few villages still have significant Assyrian populations. At the center of the villages of the Khabur is the town of Tell Tamer, which is the economic hub for the area and has a population of about 10,000. While Tell Tamer historically had an Assyrian majority, most residents today are Arab and Kurdish. Only about 300 Assyrians now live in the town. Tell Tamer has a full range of services: pharmacies, schools, stores, and restaurants. It is the center of life in the area, and is on the main highway that connects Syria’s northeast to the city of Aleppo, which means that services catering to travelers are particularly successful. The main road through town is lined with shops selling snacks, coffee, and tea. The municipal administration for the Assyrian villages of the Khabur is in Tell Tamer. There are also a few historically Kurdish and Arab-populated villages scattered among the Assyrian Christian villages of the area.


The economy in the Khabur River valley centers entirely around agriculture. The primary crops in the area are wheat and barley, along with grapes, olives, pomegranates, and other produce. There is both irrigated farmland, from the Khabur River, and dryland (rainfed) agriculture. The winter of 2018/2019 saw significant rainfall, reducing the amount of irrigation needed that year. Before the Assyrian Christians of the valley fled, almost everyone owned at least a small plot of land which they farmed. Today, those who remain farm all the land and send 30% to the landowners who are abroad, most of whom are also receiving refugee support in the countries that have taken them in. This is a source of resentment for those who have remained, who receive no support from anyone, and work others’ land while sending them the rent. Historically, the Syrian government put little investment in the infrastructure of the northeast, so while much of the country’s agricultural output is grown here, there is a lack of facilities like mills, which increases transportation costs and makes farming in the area less profitable. The nearest olive mills, for example, are in Raqqa and Manbij, nearly a day’s journey away.


The security situation in the Khabur Valley is tense. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) remain in control the Assyrian villages of the Khabur, but Turkish-backed jihadists are only a few kilometers away from some of the villages. The broader political situation in Syria is complicated, and the Syrian government considers those who have fought for the Christian armed groups that defended the area from ISIS to be pro-Kurdish separatists, meaning that many of those in the villages can’t travel even to government-controlled parts of Syria without fear of arrest. Within the villages themselves, local security forces known as the Khabur Guards and Natore provide security, and are made up primarily of Assyrian Christians from the area, though some Arabs have also joined the forces. Some Assyrians are also members of the Syriac Military Council, which is primarily responsible for defending the front line against Turkey and its proxies.

Fires of 2019

On March 23, 2019, the US-led coalition against ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared that ISIS had been formally defeated. The last piece of territory they held had been conquered. Everyone, including governments, security analysts, and journalists, expected that the group would shift to traditional guerrilla and under-ground tactics used by Islamic terrorist groups in Iraq and elsewhere. One particular tactic, however, caught every-one by surprise. The winter of 2018/2019 brought record rains to northeast Syria. There were many negative con-sequences from this, such as severe flooding in some areas, but it also brought one of the most abundant crop seasons Syria had ever seen. It also, apparently, gave ISIS an ideal opportunity to wreak havoc in a way that is al-most impossible to prevent or detect. They began lighting fires throughout Iraq and Syria, including in the Khabur Valley, in a direct attempt to destroy those who opposed them or who, like the Assyrian Christians of the Khabur, they believe should not exist. The scale of this tragedy is hard to convey. While some fires are presumably caused by nature, or inadvertently by humans, the scale of the fires was too extensive to be entirely an accident. Fires were often started simultaneously in different areas, and local authorities did not have the resources to put all of them out in a timely fashion. Compounding the problem, the abundant crop season meant that harvest was slow. Few farmers own their own harvesting equipment, and must hire custom harvesters to bring in their crops. The increased workload for harvesters in the area meant that land went unharvested longer than in most years. This gave an opportunity to ISIS or its sympathizers to wreak havoc throughout northeast Syria, and the issue was much more extensive than just the Assyrian villages of the Khabur. Some reimbursements were provided for wheat and barley crops, but nothing was provided for equipment and trees. The collapse of the Syrian currency means that most farmers do not have the capital to replace damaged or destroyed equipment and trees.


Services in the villages continue to decline. The electricity grid covers only a few hours a day. A village generator covers a few more hours a day, but the situation is grim. Water is scarce. Trash collection has stopped. People are incredibly adaptable, and have figured out solutions that allow them to manage, but tasks that we take for granted elsewhere take up significant time in the villages.

Climate Change/Drought

The climate of the Khabur River valley has undergone significant change in the last several decades, exacerbated by poor agricultural practices. As agriculture is the primary and essential component of the area’s economy, this is a problem that must be effectively addressed in order for life in the valley to continue into the future. Before 2011, the Syrian government was studying a plan to move water from either the Tigris or the Euphrates to the Khabur, but the war put this – and all other economic development projects – on permanent hold. If one looks at this as an opportunity, however, it can also provide a chance to improve the agricultural techniques used in the valley to be more suitable for a changing climate and uncertain water supply.


One of the most poignant symbols of the area’s situation is that of its churches. They are either destroyed or empty. Only in Tell Tamer is mass given every Sunday. When ISIS took over the southern bank of the Khabur River they destroyed churches deliberately. In villages like Tell Hormiz, and Tell Jezira, almost all of the buildings remain standing, but the churches are rubble. Other than an occasional cross that has been set back on the site, there is almost nothing that would suggest that a church had ever been at the site. In some villages, such as Tell Jomaa, impressive new churches stand empty and unused, a sign of the sudden and unexpected exodus. More recently, Turkish shelling heavily damaged the new church of Tel Tawil.


In the years following 2011, when the civil war in Syria began, the country split into competing areas of jurisdiction, primarily the Syrian government, the op-position, ISIS, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In the northeast, the Syrian government withdrew from the area starting in 2012, and the next several years saw clashes between the government, various Islamist armed groups, and the Kurdish-led YPG (a Kurdish acronym meaning the People’s Protection Units). The YPG eventually allied with various groups, including the Christian-led Syriac Military Council and the Khabur Guards, to form the Syrian Democratic Forces. When ISIS took over the Khabur in 2015, it was the YPG, YPJ (the female-led Kurdish unit tied to the YPG), and the two Christian units – Syriac Military Council and the Khabur Guards – that defended the area. As these groups began to take territory, it necessitated the formation of a governing structure, which they called the Autonomous Administration (sometimes translated as the Self Administration).

The Autonomous Administration is not recognized by the Syrian government, who considers it an illegal infringement on the sovereignty of the Syrian government. However, given the American, British, and French military support to the Syrian Democratic Forces, it has become the de facto government of the area, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. The idea of the Autonomous Administration is quite revolutionary for Syria, but many skeptics of the idea remain, including within the Assyrian community. That being said, many Assyrian and Syriac Christians also back the movement, and are involved in the administration at all levels. Its critics see it as a Kurdish nationalist project, since the primary segment of the administration is the PYD, a Kurdish political party.

The crux of the Autonomous Administration’s approach to governance is the right of each element of Syrian society to have its religious and cultural rights, and for decisions to be made at the local level whenever possible. Each town, for example, is divided into communes, which look after the most basic needs of residents. A new curriculum has been developed which teaches Kurdish students in the Kurdish language, Arabic students in Arabic, Syriac students in Syriac, etc. Critics of the curriculum complain that it is not recognized outside of northeast Syria, which makes it difficult for students to study elsewhere.

While not everyone agrees with the approach of the Autonomous Administration, they have so far been supportive of our project in the Khabur.

Why Has No One Helped?

There are unlimited needs in northeast Syria and limited resources coming in from abroad. The small number of individuals in the villages is another barrier to many organizations already working in northeast Syria who want to help the largest number of people possible. Why help 800 people living in the Khabur, when there are close to 70,000 people in the al-Hol refugee camp who need more immediate assistance? This mentality, while understandable, has constricted the support that might have otherwise come to the Khabur. Some organizations have conducted small-scale humanitarian or development projects in Tell Tamer, to limited success, but these have generally not targeted the Assyrian villages and would not address the more fundamental issues preventing Assyrians from returning to the area. Other organizations have made big promises but have failed to deliver anything substantive. As the security situation has deteriorated since the Turkish invasion of 2019, most international NGOs have ceased to work in Tel Tamer.

The US government has provided aid to northeast Syria, but most of that aid has gone to areas destroyed by the US military during the campaign to take back ISIS. The humanitarian challenges in places like Raqqa and Manbij, devastated by American airstrikes, are enormous, and US government money has so far prioritized those areas rather than areas farther east, like the Khabur. There are bureaucratic and logistical challenges to providing support for the Khabur, but these challenges can be overcome. Adding a layer of complication is that access to the Khabur Valley is controlled via the Semalka/Fishkhabur border crossing between the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and northeastern Syria, but as an organization we have successfully navigated this process so far. While the possibility of unexpected delays is always present, dealing with Middle Eastern bureaucracy is a matter patience and perseverance.

Why Help, and What Can Be Done?

The first question one can ask with regards to the villages of the Khabur is why should we help? We would respond: If the Assyrian Christian villages of the Khabur are abandoned, a piece of Christian history in the region of its birth will be gone, never to return. A living dialect of Jesus’s language will disappear. We will have given in to ISIS’s plan to rid the area of anyone not like them. Most importantly, we will have abandoned living, breathing individuals who are trying to preserve what is left of their land and their community.

There are two main goals for the future of the Assyrian villages of the Khabur River in northeast Syria: preserving the population that has remained, and encouraging those who have left to return, particularly those who want to return but feel that the conditions do not allow at the moment. There are some people who simply will not return. They either do not see a future in the area, are now comfortable in their new life abroad, or some combination of the two. However, there are those who want to return but either do not see sufficient economic opportunity, or are waiting to see support from somewhere, anywhere, that gives them a feeling that there is solidarity with their situation. They need moral support as much as material support, and economic or reconstruction projects targeted to the area will certainly provide this. It also serves as a reminder that there is safety and security in the area, be-cause they will see that priority is being given to rebuilding by those in the area and from elsewhere. Seeing the level of destruction in the villages, and the lack of response from the international community, it is easy to sympathize with those who feel abandoned. In the end, however, any project that serves residents currently remaining in the Khabur, whether or not it encourages anyone to return, will help ensure a future for the Assyrians of the area. But we must act now, before it is too late.

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