Syrian militia commander vows to protect local Christians

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

A Syrian militia commander has promised to protect the last remaining Christians in the local community during a visit to the local Christian community in Ras Al-Ein in the north of the country.

Currently controlled by a coalition of Islamist militia groups, Ras Al-Ein is located near Syria's border with Turkey. Commander Abdulaziz Al-Sawadi, also known as Abou Barzan, leads the forces in charge of an area 25 miles west of the town.

According to a local resident who spoke to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a charity that champions freedom of religion and belief, Commander Abdulaziz Al-Sawadi toured the town on 22 June, telling residents that he was committed to strengthening his relationships with local communities and building stronger channels of communication.

As he took time on his visit to tour St Thomas Syriac Orthodox Church and the church's library, the commander also reassured his audience that he was seeking to develop effective mechanisms for managing complaints and feuds, especially those related to property.

"We were delighted to welcome Abou Barzan and his staff to our town and church," CSW's local source said.

"Our relationship with them goes back to 2019 and we have always appreciated his understanding of, and respect for, the religious and ethnic diversity of our town, and his commitment to fostering a friendly relationship with the different communities, a relationship built on trust, cooperation and respect for civilians' rights."

The same resident also told CSW that the community had not encountered any issues related to land and property rights in the areas coming under Commander Al-Sawadi's authority, and that landowners had continued to enjoy full control over their farms and crops. This stood in stark contrast to the areas controlled by other militias like the Al-Moutasem and Suliman Shah Brigades, where landowners faced unlawful taxes and bribes and, in some cases, had seen their land confiscated.

"We have reached out to [the brigades] several times but they have constantly ignored our complaints and treated us disrespectfully and threatened us," the resident said.

CSW also spoke to a senior tribal chief, who denounced the actions of other militia commanders.

"As Sunni Arab tribes, we denounce the behaviours of militia groups such as Al-Moutasem and Suliman Shah. They don't represent us; they only represent themselves and their backers," he said.

"They are worse than Assad's officials, who were corrupt but didn't interfere with personal and religious freedoms. They are warlords who betrayed the aspirations of the 2011 uprising."

CSW's Founder President Mervyn Thomas commended Commander Al-Sawadi's actions, and called on other militia forces to follow his example.

"We commend this gesture by Commander Al-Sawadi. We encourage him to continue to demonstrate commitment and respect to human rights and the protection of civil society, and call on other armed groups to follow this example," he said.

Mr Thomas also urged governments involved in the region to work towards peace in Syria, and ensure that the human rights of civilians caught up in the conflict were protected.

"We also call on the UK and US governments, the EU and UN to press the Syrian opposition and the Turkish government to restrain the armed groups loyal to them from committing violations, and to raise the issue of human rights, especially freedom of religion or belief and women's rights, in all bilateral talks," he said.

"The Syrian opposition and the Turkish government should act immediately to end all forms of human rights abuses, some of which amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, in the areas under their control."