Some things have changed since I last visited the Syriac Christian militia known as the Sutoro in the northeastern Syrian town of al-Qahtaniyah in September 2013.
First of all, the group is growing. The deputy head of the Sutoro’s central leadership, Louay Shamun, tells me there are plans to open new Sutoro branches in three other places, in addition to the existing groups in al-Qahtaniyah, al-Malikiyah, and Qamishli. The new branches will open officially within the next few weeks, but Shamun will not say where. However, several other sources confirm that one of these places is the city of Hassake. There has been Sutoro activity there for quite a long time already, although not officially. Ras al-Ayn and Tel Tamer might be the two other locations, but that is only speculation.
A second noticeable change is that Sutoro members now wear the same uniform as the Asayish, a Kurdish police force set up by their allies in the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a guerrilla group fighting the Turkish government. At this stage, only the badges serve to distinguish the Kurdish and the Syriac police units from each other.
Third, there are fewer teenagers and more middle-aged or older members now. The same shift has occurred within the Asayish, which recently raised the age limit for new recruits to twenty-five years for men and twenty years for women. In both organizations, the objective now is to recruit more mature people who are well-known and respected in the local community.
The teenagers from the Sutoro have instead mostly joined the Syriac Military Council (MFS), another PYD-backed group in the Syriac Christian political network. The MFS operates armed units more geared to front warfare than internal police work. The formal age limit for both the Sutoro and the MFS is eighteen, but several Sutoro members told me they were younger than that on my last visit. Both the Sutoro and the MFS deny that they have any underage members, but it seems highly unlikely that these groups would have forced their existing underage members to leave.
Policing the Autonomous Region
“We recognized that this organization was needed for the protection of our people, like the Asayish is needed for the Kurdish people,” says Shamun when I ask him why they decided to create the Sutoro. “After the first period, we met the Asayish and said that we needed their support. Both sides agreed to cooperate.”
It’s a good match: the neo-Aramaic word sutoro and the Kurdish word asayish both mean “security,” and the organizations bearing these names both operate in the Hassake Governorate. The members themselves now refer to the Hassake Governorate as the Jazeera Canton, by which they mean the autonomous local government announced with support from the PYD in January 2014. They now jointly serve as its police force. The larger Asayish corps works mainly in Kurdish areas, while Sutoro units patrol the Syriac Christian neighborhoods.
The ethnic division is clear in practice, although both groups are formally open to all applicants. There are some Syriacs as well as Arabs in the Asayish, and the Sutoro also claims to be open to everyone, although no non-Syriacs appear to have joined yet.
Merging the Sutoro and the Asayish?
It is still unclear how far-reaching the integration of the Sutoro and the Asayish will be. Mihemed Xelo, the central media spokesperson for the Asayish, speaks of merging the two organizations: “Of course we help the Sutoro in different ways with what it needs. We have very close and good relations. One should not be surprised if we unite as one organization in the future. Something like this will happen, but I cannot say when.”
At the moment it seems like the development is going toward a unified command structure for police forces in the Jazeera Canton but with separate units that are dominated by one ethnic group or another. This raises the question of whether there will be separate Arab units in the future as well. Currently, most Arabs in the Jazeera Canton seem divided between supporters of the Baath Party government and the mostly Islamist rebel groups fighting it. However, some have already aligned with the autonomous government, and as the PYD and its Syriac allies deepen and restructure their control over the area, others may be tempted to join them.
Carl Drott is a Swedish freelance journalist who recently returned from a visit to Syria. Read his previous reports on the Syriac Christian and Kurdish politics of northeast Syria, “Christians Under Pressure in Qamishli,” “Christian Militia Politics in Qamishli,” and “A Christian Militia Splits in Qamishli.”