quarta-feira, 19 de junho de 2019

"The Syriac people in Syria are not happy with the regime"

This is a full transcript, in the original English, of my interview with Johan Cosar, a Swiss born syriac Christian who fought against the Islamic State. English is not Johan's first language, some of the answers have been edited for clarity. The published news story, in Portuguese, can be read here.

Esta é uma transcrição integral, no inglês original, da minha entrevista com Johan Cosar, um cristão siríaco, nascido na Suíça, que combateu o Estado Islâmico. O inglês não é a primeira língua de Johan, por isso algumas das respostas foram ligeiramente editadas, por uma questão de clareza. A reportagem, em português, pode ser lida aqui.

You did your military service in Switzerland? 
Yes, like any other Swiss.

And did you enjoy it?
Actually, the first days I wasn't that happy. But as the weeks went by I enjoyed it more. I took it like a new education, a new challenge, and at the end one of my instructors, who had really motivated me, I think he saw the leadership I had in me, and he captured it and cultivated it. So that is why in the end I decided to continue and I signed a five year contract as a sergeant. 

What was your specialty? 
Mountain infantry and local combat, small special forces, if you'd like. 

Did it ever cross your mind that you might ever need to use that training in the Middle East?
No, not at all. I was so far from the Middle East, even if I do have roots in the Middle East there was no reason to think about it. So, in 2011 I finished my military duty, in November, and around that time the first demonstrations began in Syria. You could see that something was going to happen. 

Your roots are in Turkey?
My father was born in Syria, but my mother is from South East Turkey, but very close to each other, separated by only a small border line. 

Was the Syriac identity and culture present in your education? Did you speak Syriac at home?
Yes, of course. 

I was talking about this with some friends just a few days ago. I had the great opportunity to grow up in two big cultures. One, the Middle East culture, especially the Syriac/Assyrian culture, where all the civilizations came from. 

And, of course, at home – especially my father – was pressuring us to not forget our own roots, and not to be ashamed of them, because you can be good for no other culture if you deny your own. So, at home, still today, we speak Syriac, and I have one brother and one sister, and many cousins, and we don't regret or deny our culture. The whole family is connected this way.

But at the same time I had a Swiss education in Switzerland, we had a good education and the great opportunity to have a good education. So I grew up with two cultures and this made me very happy and very cultured. 

What is that made you first go to Syria?
My father had been involved in fighting for the rights of our people for a long time. And by going there and back he kept mentioning what was going on there, and pressing me to go and see what was happening. 

I finally decided to go in 2011, to report in a free-lance way, because everybody was talking about Syria from outside Syria, and that is a big mistake, talking about something that you can't see, and that you are not involved in, just from seeing and listening from outside, is a big mistake. Especially since my people were there. I had people who could finally achieve something, after 2000 years. I thought "let's try this trip, go in, and achieve something good for my people too". 

So that is why I decided to leave Switzerland, for around six months, reporting what was happening in Syria from inside. I made some reports for friends in radio and newspapers. But things didn't go like I'd planned. 

What was your first idea when you began to see the first signs of the Arab Spring?
Hope, of course. And helping the people. 

I have had much contact with Christians from Syria, mostly from Damascus, Aleppo, and so on, and they tend to be very much pro-regime, or at least against the rebels. But that is not the universal reality. The Christians from Qamishli maybe saw this with hope that they could get more rights?
I think that even the Syriac Christians in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, right now, think like we do, but they can't express their own opinions, for one reason, because around Aleppo, Homs and Damascus there is only the regime, no other forces and no other solution. In Northeast Syria there was the Syrian regime, there was ISIS, there were jihadists and us. So the people could choose. 

Are you including the Free Syrian Army as jihadists?
At the beginning, no. At the beginning I was one of those who appreciated what they were doing. But after we started seeing them chant Allahu Akhbar after every attack, I realised this was going to change and become something else. 

The Syriac people in Syria are not happy with the regime. They are controlled. It's a fake protection, protection under the name of being controlled. For our people, at the moment, if you have to choose between ISIS and the regime, or between the revolutionaries of this time and the regime, of course they are going to choose the regime, because the others have nothing to offer them, they are chopping off heads, forcing people to leave their homes, not accepting their culture or their religion... It's an easy decision. 

But if the regime could give us – which isn't going to happen – the chance to go there and to present ourselves and give the people a choice...

This is the difference between North-eastern Syria and other places. I am sure, absolutely sure, that the Christians do not see the Assad regime as their saviour or protector anymore, because they saw what happened. Where was the regime in Al-Qaritain? In Qunaitra? In all the places where ISIS came in, made mass destruction and left? Where was the regime in the Khabour area? In Hassekah? 

I think that in 8 years of war the people opened their eyes, they are not blind anymore.

So you were in Syria when something happened to your father…
[Johan’s father was kidnapped by regime agents, who then told the family that he had died in custody, although they never provided the family with a body]
I was in Syria when my father was kidnapped. We met each other the day before. It was not the main reason for me to go to Syria or to stay in Syria. Of course, the love I had for my father, and how much we were attached to each other, is unbelievable, because we were like friends, even in this movement. 

But that was not the main reason he and I were there. It's a cause, a purpose, that is what brought us there and made me stay there. 

Do you believe he is still alive? 
I do. It is still a matter of 50/50. As long as we don't have a sure answer we keep up the hope. I can't say if he is dead or alive, so let's keep it like this.

What year was he kidnapped? 
August 12th, 2013.

So by that time you were already in Syria full time?

And you were already involved with the military aspect?
Not that much... I started to be involved one month later, with training. So it was the very beginning of everything at that time. 

So in 2013 you began training, is that when the Syriac Military Council began to form?
The SMC officialised in January 2013, but in practical terms, in starting to form and organise itself, it started in August and September.

When you began with the training, were you aware you were breaking Swiss law?
At the beginning I didn't even think about it. I saw the state of emergency we were in and I didn't think about it. When you see the jihadists coming, very close to you, when you see people are being kidnapped, abducted, and killed, from the groups very close to you, you don't think about laws. 

What was the state of the people you were training? Did any of them have any military experience, or were they beginning from zero?
I had people who were veterans from the Assad regime, but it was like training somebody from zero. Because the military education I had was very different from theirs. So you can say that all the people I trained was from zero, because giving them a Western training is like teaching them a new language. 

When does the Syriac Military Council begin to be involved in actual conflict?
Our first session, about 1 month, was in October 2013. 

Already allied with the Kurds?

Were the YPG better prepared?
YPG were, of course, better prepared. They are old fighters. But we reached their level of preparation very well. 

Did they respect the Syriac fighters?
Of course, very much. They had very high respect for us. The Syriac Military Council is still very well respected by the YPG and other military forces because at that time that I was there fighting with them they could see how ready we are for everything, so there is great respect of the Kurds for the Syriacs. It is not only about the military forces, there is a lot of respect about what we are. 

Because traditionally, over the past 100 years, the Syriac and the Assyrian people have not been a fighting people. Was it difficult to convince people to take up weapons?
100 years ago we were not, but 2000 years ago we were. We tried to take back that feeling. 

It wasn't that hard. The most difficult thing was to convince them that the we were in the wrong status to begin with. That was the main difficulty, to change the minds of the people, not just making them fight, but to fight for what? 

You can bring people during a war and let them fight, that is easy, but if they don't know what they are fighting for, that is your main problem. One day you will stop fighting ISIS, and then? You have about 1000 people, with military training... If they don't have any goals they can turn against you, they become a threat, but if they are educated, if they have a goal, if they are really focused on a purpose, on a way, it becomes much easier. But if you have 1000 people who are just fighting, they become like a gang after that. 

Which we see in several places in the world. So what is that goal?
At the beginning it was just to have our own rights, to be recognised as a people, with our culture, our religion, our language, like any other people, and like indigenous people of Syria, not just a minority, because we are not a minority in Syria. There are more than three million Christians in Syria, more than Alawites, more than Kurds. So we are not a minority in Syria, we are not a minority in the Middle East, we are indigenous. This is our place. 

The main goal was that. We never wanted to create a new nation, anything like a Kurdistan, or for us a Mesopotamia... Just to be recognised as a people in the place where we were, that was our main goal. 

So when do you change from training officer and actually go and fight on the front lines?
Very fast. After starting training in October, I was part of assault groups in December.

And here you were facing ISIS?
No, at that time we were facing Al-Nusra. After that came ISIS.

When you are on the ground fighting, is there a difference between fighting ISIS or al-Nusra?
Of course. Fighting al-Nusra was... I won't say easier, because they are very fanatical, full of drugs and therefore harder to take down, because it was like fighting a non-person, no fear, no hunger, no cold in the winter... Because they were full of drugs. And they attacked in mass, 50, 60 or 70 people. 

ISIS is different. It is an ideological movement, supported by many nations, so more professional. And you saw what they did, so it was more difficult to fight them. Especially because of the equipment they had, it wasn't normal... The technological equipment they had, the tunnel systems, the IED systems, things you can't even imagine, and these are things that came from big nations, and one of them is Turkey. 

If you were captured by Al-Nusra, what would they do to you? 
Cut off my head. 

So in that sense no difference between ISIS and al-Nusra...
No difference, it was the same. 

Obviously you were in dangerous situations all the time. Were you ever in situations where you thought, "that's it for me?"
There was one where we were going to patrol a village, myself and three YPG fighters. It was a recon group, so we were going to the village, see what was going on there and return to the assault groups and prepare the assault. 

The four of us went, and according to the report, the village was empty, no al-Nusra. When we were there of course we were walking next to each other, and unfortunately the village was, in fact, full of al-Nusra.

This was 2013, we didn't have any night vision goggles, radios, operation rooms. We just had one radio for each group to connect to the others. So when we were walking another patrol from al-Nusra was walking towards us, but it was so dark, and so foggy, that we didn't see each other. 

I was the one on the far-right. I touched the shoulder of the one on the right of the other group. Our shoulders touched and I jumped. We understood that we were from opposing groups...

Because of the good training I had I always held my weapon in front of me, not on my shoulder, and when I realised that they were al-Nusra I jumped one step back and one to the left, and I started shooting.

I heard the guy on my left get hit by a bullet. 

Then we tried to escape, but we were in this village, and we were about 500 meters in the desert, with no orientation, in the darkness and in the fog, alone. I lost my other three colleagues. One was martyred, but the problem is that all the village suddenly realised that something had happened there, and they were all al-Nusra, and they started to search for us. I don't know how I escaped. I walked in the desert, I didn't even know what direction I was walking in, because of all the confusion and the fog, but fortunately we managed to go in the right direction, and we all survived, except the one who was killed at the beginning. 

That was one time when I really thought, OK, I'm done...

You were there and fought against ISIS. To see the declaration of their territorial defeat, what did that feel like? 
Territorially it's done, but it's not over. I'm not celebrating. It's a good thing to give hope to the people, territorially, so they can start a new life, a new education, a new future with better prospects, but the war is not over. 

Of course there is a risk of sleeper cells and more terrorist activity, but when you say the war is not over, are you also thinking about Turkey and the regime?
I think so, yes. 

The war is not over because until now it was a war of militias, now the big war will start, between the Sunni and Shia factions. 

You were there for a long time. Do you believe the Federation and this democratic project will be able to survive in the long run?
I think so, yes. I believe it will. Because it is the only way to make sure minorities survive. The policy is based on minorities, not on the idea of one family, one nation. With the one family, one nation policy you can see what happened. Giving hope to the minorities is creating a new life for people, it is making Sunnis and Shia live together, Muslims and Christians live together, Jews and Muslims living together. I think that it is a big example for democracy and a new life in harmony together. It has to survive, if not the Middle East will be a disaster for another thousand years. We won't come out of this war for another thousand years.

When did you decide to return to Switzerland, and why?
My first trip back to Switzerland, after many years in Syria was in 2015. Why? Because I had to face this trial. 

By then you had already been warned that you were in trouble back home...
I had the possibility to come back, because before it was not possible for me to leave. I left illegaly, I had a lot of difficulty to leave the KRG [Iraqi Kurdistan], because I had entered from Turkey. I used fake papers to enter the KRG, then I used my Swiss Passport, then I didn't have a stamp to leave, so it was very difficult.

But when you were in Syria did anyone from Switzerland contact you...
No. I heard from the newspapers.

So obviously they were keeping an eye on you...
Of course, yes. More than one. 

You came back, and what did the Swiss authorities say?
I was stopped in Switzerland, and of course they interrogated me, and they told me they had to open a military case against me, because I broke this and that rule. But nothing bad, so I was not being treated as a criminal. At many of the places I was going around, the police and so on, they were looking at me as a good guy, who did a good thing.

At the trial that we had at the end of February they honoured my action, even though they gave me a punishment. We appealed, and so the trial will continue.

So it was just a fine?
Yes, around 500 dollars. But we appealed on grounds of principle. 

Have there been Swiss who went to fight with ISIS who came back as well?
Yes, but they were tried for small things.

Are they back in Switzerland?

What is it like, thinking that one day you could be walking in Zurich and bump into a guy who had been fighting for ISIS?
It's a big mess for Switzerland. A big mess.

I keep myself protected. I know how to move, when I go anywhere, I know how to watch myself, but the other people... It's a problem.

Your face must have been everywhere now because of this trial. Does it worry you in terms of safety, reprisals?
No. Myself, personally, no. I am not worried, I am not scared, but I take precautions. Like everyone in Europe must, because you don't know when some sleeper cell in ISIS will shoot, cut or bomb... 

You know ISIS better than pretty much anybody else in Switzerland. Have you had any requests for cooperation? To prevent terrorist attacks?
No. I was asked to go to some conferences, but until now I have kept myself far away from these things. I want to finish my trial in a clean way and then we'll see. 

In 2015 you came back, and since then you haven't returned to Syria?
I have been to Iraq.

But were you involved in any fighting in Iraq?
No, no fighting.

So you continue to be very active in the Syriac cause...
All the time. I can't leave what I started. 

You were in Syria for about three years fighting. Did you leave your job here in Switzerland?
No, I was a professional soldier. I went as soon as I finished my contract with the army. 

So now you need to start a new life?
Being involved in the organisation we have now in Iraq is my full-time occupation.

Are you married?
Thank God, no. 

Are you more hopeful for the future of your people now? 
Yes, of course. More hopeful and with brighter prospects for the future. The people we were involved with gained strength from seeing ISIS being defeated territorially. For the Syrian people that is a huge victory. 

You fought side by side with the YPG. And you said they respected the Syriacs. Now that ISIS is defeated, YPG is still the big player in the region. Do you trust them?
I trust them, like they trust me. But it is politics. I trust the people who represent the Kurds, and their idea. I trust their idea, and I respect the idea. I don't follow the people. If they keep to their idea and follow it, to do something for all the peoples there, I will trust them. If they are going to change their idea they will be betraying themselves, more than me. 

Were you ever frustrated or surprised that there were more Syriacs like you from Europe going to fight with your people?
No. I was happier to see the Syriacs inside Syria fight. The main problem was to convince them to change their mentality, not to bring them to war. So I was really happy to see all the influence we had and the young people joining the SMC, because they trusted what we were doing. We were not obsessed with bringing people from outside. If you come by yourself you are welcome, but we were pushing for the local fighters, because those are the people who are going to stay. 

It's a little bit like the volunteers of the YPG. They came in their thousands. How many are still in Syria? They left. If we had a thousand Syriac youths and then leaving, it doesn't make sense. We were looking for a long-term, strategical commitment. 

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