Tal Tal, Syria — The village of Tal Tal, on the banks of the empty Khabour River in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province, is a ghost town.
On an overcast day in early February, the air in the village is cold and crisp but carries no sounds. Here and there, clothes left out to dry and plumes of thick smoke sputtering out of the dark pipes of fuel stoves betray human presence behind the peeling facades of seemingly abandoned houses. Other than these subtle signs of life, Tal Tal is eerily silent, absent the expected hum of cars, the bleats of sheep and the shouts of children.
Less than a decade ago, Tal Tal was home to dozens of Assyrian families–members of an Aramaic-speaking Christian community widely considered to be among the most ancient peoples of the Levant. In the 1920s, thousands of Assyrians took refuge in northern Syria after fleeing the 1915 genocide perpetrated by Turkish nationalists against Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire.
Others found refuge in northern Iraq, controlled by Britain at the time. But in 1933, they were uprooted again following the Simele massacre, during which the newly established Iraqi army destroyed 60 of 64 Assyrian villages, murdering an estimated 10,000 people. Fleeing persecution, some 15,000 survivors marched west towards northeastern Syria, then under the French Mandate.
These refugees built a cluster of 35 villages and towns on the banks of the Khabour River, a tributary of the Euphrates that flows northwest to southeast through Hasakah province. For several decades, their community thrived and became renowned in the region for its rich pomegranate orchards and neatly kept vineyards.
But in 2015, disaster struck. Fighters from the Islamic State (IS) attacked the villages, destroying churches and kidnapping more than 250 people. Thousands fled: Out of an estimated 15,000 Assyrians who lived along the river before the war, less than 1,000 are left today, several Assyrian leaders told Syria Direct.
A century after the genocide that first displaced them from their homeland in southeastern Turkey, the rise of IS scattered the community once more, driving thousands into exile in Europe, North America and Australia. More than eight years later, despite the territorial defeat of IS in 2019, most have not returned.
Left largely empty, their villages now shelter the survivors of other conflicts: thousands of internally displaced people fleeing Turkish military operations against areas of northeastern Syria controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)–a Kurdish-led military coalition that also encompasses Arab, Syriac and Assyrian units. But the prolonged presence of the displaced has fueled tensions around land use and property rights, stoking many Assyrians’ fears of being permanently dispossessed of their villages.
On February 23, 2015, life came to a standstill in the Assyrian villages along the Khabour. Meriem, a young Assyrian woman, was 15 when IS attacked and abducted hundreds of people, including her and her relatives in the village of Tal Shamiram.
“IS’ attacks turned my entire life upside down,” she told Syria Direct in Tal Tal, where she now lives with her husband and two children. “I lost my happy village, my neighbors. My family was scattered abroad. There was constant fear.”
By the end of May 2015, the Syriac Military Council and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) managed to drive IS out of the Khabour villages. In February 2016, IS released the last abductees, including Meriem, in exchange for ransom. Like other survivors, she hoped life would go back to how it once was. But these hopes quickly vanished, as violence continued.
“People started coming back after the area was liberated from IS, but then Turkey and its affiliated factions started carrying out regular strikes,” Matei Hanna, a spokesperson for the Syriac Military Council, an Assyrian-Syriac military body that is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), told Syria Direct.
Tal Tamar and surrounding villages lie along the western fringe of SDF-controlled parts of Hasakah province, near an active frontline with territories controlled by Turkish-backed opposition factions and pro-regime forces. Turkish-backed groups regularly shell villages along the Khabour, like Meriem’s native Tal Shamiram, while the SDF targets areas located further west.
Active conflict makes the area nearly “unlivable,” residents say. In recent years, shelling has damaged churches and essential infrastructure, such as power lines. Fields near the frontlines are left fallow due to the fear of bombardment. Makeshift settlements
But while few Assyrians have returned to the banks of the Khabour, newcomers have found a refuge in empty villages and homes.
The road leading to Tal Nasri, another Assyrian village, is dotted with makeshift shelters set up by internally displaced people. In the village, nearly every building is inhabited, with two or three families sometimes sharing the same house. Some have patched broken walls and missing roofs with tarps, piled cement blocks to divide courtyards into smaller spaces and crafted single-room shelters along the walls of concrete compounds. In an olive grove standing behind the rubble of the destroyed St. Mary’s Church, children chop trees for firewood.
“We came here four years ago to seek refuge because we heard the Assyrian villages were empty, but we have nothing to live on here,” one displaced mother of five told Syria Direct, standing at the door of her one-room house. In a neighboring house, a white tarp divided the main room to separate two families: 11 people in total.
These families started to arrive in Tal Nasri in 2018 following Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, in which Turkish-backed fighters seized the Kurdish-majority enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria. Fleeing heavy Turkish bombing, thousands of mostly Kurdish families moved towards SDF-controlled Hasakah province. At first, they received a warm welcome.
“When the refugees arrived from Afrin, they were welcomed in the Khabour villages by Assyrian authorities,” Mahmoud Karo, the deputy in charge of IDP affairs at the Board of Social Affairs and Labor of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), the de facto government in SDF-controlled areas, told Syria Direct. “We came to arrange electricity for them and install generators.”
In total, Assyrians opened 1,750 houses in their villages around Tal Tamar, including the entire village of Tal Nasri, which was home to 650 people before the war. The initiative was led by the local bishop (matran) of the Assyrian Church of the East, and the houses were distributed by the Committee for the Protection of Absentee Properties (CPAP), a local body that manages vacant properties.
The following year, new Turkish incursions into SDF-controlled territories brought the frontline closer to Tal Tamar, and many of those from Afrin who settled there fled, Karo said. In their wake came thousands of Kurds and Arabs newly displaced from the countryside of Ras al-Ain, which was seized by Turkey in late 2019 during Operation Peace Spring.
“This second wave of displacement was much more spontaneous,” Karo recalled. Arrivals were more chaotic and were not coordinated by local community members like those from Afrin. By November 2022, more than 16,000 displaced people lived in the whole sub-district of Tal Tamar, making up around one third of the total population. ‘Strangers in our own homes’
As the number of displaced people increased, tensions began to brew with their Assyrian hosts over land and property use. Many of those initially hosted in the Assyrian villages were relatives or acquaintances of local families, like Abu Ahmad, a Kurdish-Assyrian man displaced from Ras al-Ain to Tal Tal in 2019 with his family.
“Two weeks before the bombing started in Ras al Ain, people in Tal Tamar called us to warn us that an attack was imminent,” Abu Ahmad, who was part of an Assyrian military organization and was well-connected with local leaders in Tal Tamar, recalled. “They told me: Bring your wife and your children, come here, there is a house ready and waiting for you.”
For local leaders in the CPAP, tasked with managing the property of Assyrians living abroad, lending houses to people they already knew filled a dual purpose: On one hand, it was a humanitarian gesture. On the other, it allowed them to have people they trusted on the ground to keep the villages alive.
But as displacement intensified in 2019, it grew increasingly difficult to regulate who lived in the villages. Localized clashes cropped up as Assyrians protested against newcomers grazing their cattle in their fields, chopping trees and vines for firewood or modifying the layout of houses to host multiple families.
Several Assyrians openly accused some of the families of being “fakes,”not displaced, but squatting in the villages to get aid–a perception that is likely exaggerated. “These IDPs may receive some form of assistance, but it’s most likely symbolic–a few blankets, some food, some fuel for heating once in a while,” Karo of the AANES Board of Social Affairs said. “There’s no coordinated international assistance to the area, and no long-term support.”
Still, local leaders perceive the lingering presence of displaced outsiders as a threat. “We feel like strangers in our own homes,” Boulos Odisho, the head of Tal Tamar’s CPAP, summarized. “We agreed to host people for humanitarian reasons, but it’s becoming permanent.”
Some, like Gabriel Moushe, the head of the Assyrian Democratic Organization Party, expressed “serious fears that this situation will lead to permanent demographic change.”
These concerns intensified in August 2022 when the village of Tal Nasri was targeted by what several Assyrian leaders called “an attempt to settle by force.”Abu Ahmad, who was there, recalled that “around 300 people arrived all of a sudden with 50 pickups, furniture, generators. With all they were bringing, it was clear they were here to resettle in the village. They broke locks and doors, and moved into the houses.”
As families scrambled into the vacant houses, residents of the village called the Sutoro, an Assyrian-Syriac police force, which eventually expelled the squatters in coordination with the SDF. But the incident, which lasted days, left a lasting impression.
PART II — Protecting properties
As tensions between displaced people and host communities intensify in the Khabour villages, members of the Assyrian community are increasingly worried about the fate of land and property they left behind in 2015.
This worry is familiar to many Syrians. Across all parts of the country, people face increasing difficulties protecting their property rights since the onset of the war. This is partly due to the legal chaos created by war and the collapse of institutions, but also because parties to the conflict have illegally seized homes, land and property left behind by displaced people and refugees.
“During the war against IS, we could see there were multiple threats against the properties of emigrants, against houses, against agricultural lands,” Sanharib Borsom, the chairman of the Syriac Union Party, a Syriac-Assyrian party in northeastern Syria, told Syria Direct. “We needed a way to defend the rights of absentee owners.”
In response, Assyrian political leaders and clergymen established a mechanism to control absentees’ property within the courts of the AANES. But over the past eight years, the initiative has faced multiple challenges, including criticism from within the community itself.
The Committee for the Protection of Absentees’ Properties
In 2014 and 2015, the local authorities in northeastern Syria that preceded the AANES–which was formally established in 2018 by a Kurdish-led coalition of Kurdish, Arab, Syriac and Assyrian parties–issued several decisions to restrict the sale of property whose owners were absent.
One law, Decree 20 of 2015, granted special protections to Syria’s Yezidi and Christian minorities, who were allowed to form committees to manage properties whose owners were missing or left the area. At the time, Syrian Yezidis and Christians were fleeing their villages en masse to escape the threat of IS, and their land was being sold with little oversight.
Assyrian political leaders welcomed the measure. They were generally concerned that their community along the Khabour would disappear altogether in the wake of the massacres committed by IS, and the resulting depopulation of the area. Many of them saw preserving the historically Assyrian character of these settlements as an essential condition for the community to return in the future.
“Most of the original inhabitants of the Khabour emigrated outside of Syria, but there’s a portion that remains in Hasakah and Qamishli, some in regime areas, or in neighboring countries,” Borsom said. “These communities will return to their villages if they are safe and there are livelihood opportunities.”
Based on Decree 20, in 2015, members of three Syriac and Assyrian parties (the Syriac Union Party, the Assyrian Organization and the Assyrian Democratic Party), alongside clergy from various Assyrian, Syria and Chaldean churches, jointly established the Committee for the Protection of Absentee Properties (CPAP) to manage Christian absentees’ properties and represent them in court. This regional CPAP was then split into various local branches, made up of local community leaders. In Tal Tamar, the committee is made up of 10 members selected by the local bishop.
“The CPAP is the legal representative of absentee owners in AANES courts and institutions,” Borsom, of the Syriac Union Party, explained. “If absentees cannot come in person, because they are unable to travel, or their life is in danger in Syria, the committee watches over their interest here.” Legal and military threats
Since it came into being in 2015, the committee’s Tal Tamar branch has had to confront a multitude of threats to property rights. One of the most salient ones is linked to the conflict of jurisdiction between the AANES and the Syrian government: the AANES and the regime each have their own system of courts in northeastern Syria. Although the AANES controls most of the region, decisions issued by regime courts remain legally valid. What’s more, the AANES does not have a land registry, so property transactions can only be fully certified by regime courts.
The overlapping systems have led to a host of legal problems, including the proliferation of fake property documents certified in Syrian government courts amid rampant corruption.
“There’s been dozens of cases across all Christian communities of people trying to claim absentee properties as theirs, using forged documents that are certified by Syrian regime courts,” Borsom said. “There are judges, notaries and lawyers who are all working hand in hand to certify forged documents in exchange for bribes.”
In Tal Tamar, farmland is particularly coveted and lands belonging to absent owners have sometimes been sold despite the opposition of the local CPAP. Yet as an organization created following a decision by the AANES, the CPAP is not recognized by the Syrian regime and is usually powerless in regime courts.
But the regime is not the only issue. Several CPAP members told Syria Direct that ongoing military activities are a major threat to property rights–including operations carried out by the SDF.
According to Odisho, who sits on the Tal Tamar CPAP, the SDF and affiliated groups have taken over nine villages located on or near the frontline with Turkish-backed groups in recent years.
“Some of our villages near the frontline have been taken over for military needs and to protect us,” Odisho said. “Part of my land is now on or around a military airbase, but I don’t receive any compensation for the area I can’t farm or the lost harvest,” he said.
Other members of Tal Tamar’s CPAP said members of the SDF have forcibly seized houses without any military justification. In Tal Feyda, which is not directly on the frontline, CPAP member Edmond Kariakos witnessed the seizure of a house belonging to an absentee family by members of the SDF.
“They asked me for the key to the house, but I refused. So they simply broke the door and moved in,” Kariakos told Syria Direct. “There are now a dozen SDF soldiers staying inside.” According to Odisho, attempts to recover the house failed because AANES courts do not look into military matters.
Syria Direct could not independently verify these allegations, but the same accusations were echoed by several Assyrian political leaders, who said the SDF military presence in the Khabour villages, while justified by the ongoing threat of a Turkish attack, made the area unlivable for civilians.
“Even properties that weren’t destroyed by IS are now in danger due to military operations and the presence of dozens of tunnels dug by the SDF near the frontline,” Moushe of the Assyrian Democratic Organization, which is not part of the AANES coalition, said. “I don’t see the military purpose of these tunnels. Of course, in border areas and in the countryside the situation is very different. But inside cities and villages they are a risk factor that can damage buildings.”
The SDF acknowledges the existence of these tunnels and military points, but claims they are justified by military needs. “Of course in areas located on the frontline there is a military presence and there are military operations, ” Hanna of the Syriac Military Council said. “But you can visit the rest of the area and see for yourself. Our goal is to keep civilians out of harm and keep them away from the front. We do not use people as human shields, like IS did.” A contested system
Despite their efforts to protect the rights of absentees, the CPAP also faces critiques, including from within the Assyrian community.
Shortly after Decree 20 of 2015 was announced, providing for the formation of the committees, de facto authorities in Hasakah had to retract it due to popular backlash. The law’s opponents believed it gave authorities too much control over absentees’ properties. In 2020, the AANES tried to adopt the same measures once more through Law 7 of 2020, but had to cancel these just a week later due to popular opposition. Despite this, the CPAP and its local branches remained in place once established–though not uncontested.
Although set up to protect the rights of absent property owners, the Tal Tamar CPAP, for example, does not include any Assyrians living abroad, who have limited control over the fate of their property. The committee also does not include any women, which raises questions about whether it represents the whole community, and its eagerness to protect the specific rights of female property owners–in inheritance and divorce cases, for example.
The CPAP system may also entrench preexisting power dynamics within the villages. Tal Tamar’s 10 committee members, who were not elected but rather selected as already recognized local figures, wield enormous power. They represent owners in court, allocate houses and approve rental contracts between absentee landlords and local farmers in line with their stated goal of keeping properties within the community. Usually, the CPAP rejects attempts by absentee owners to sell to non-Assyrian or non-Christian buyers.
The committee also decides who gets to farm and graze their flocks on agricultural lands left behind by absentees, which can be a source of contention. “We distribute farming rights over their lands to the people who are still here. We don’t let absentees put someone on the land on their behalf to get revenues,” Odisho said. “Those who stayed behind have priority.”
As a result, absentee owners have limited control over their properties, while displaced people have no legal documents securing their presence inside Assyrians’ houses. After five displacements and four years in Tal Tal, Abu Ahmad is still in a precarious situation. He has no rental contract or direct relationship with the owner of the house he now lives in. Everything is mediated by the CPAP, which means he could be evicted any day with little recourse.
PART III — The future of the Khabour
Many Assyrians still living along the Khabour watch the transformation of their villages and the disintegration of their community with great pain. Most of those who stayed behind are elders who refuse to emigrate and abandon their lifelong homes.
“We are the last ones left, four families,” an elder from the village of Tal Tal told Syria Direct, standing in the rubble of the Mar Odisho church bombed by IS in 2015. “Life is miserable: There’s no water, no electricity, everyone is gone. If things continue like this, in 10 years there won’t be a single Assyrian in Tal Tamar.”
Despite Assyrians’ attempts to keep their properties within the community, and thus prevent the long-term settlement of other groups in their villages, it is unclear whether those who sought refuge abroad will return permanently to the area. Stuck between the demands of this dwindling minority and the growing needs to host people displaced by war, how does the AANES plan to manage these villages? And how do Assyrians themselves see the future of their community? A dying Eden
The IS attacks in 2015 were the tipping point that sparked the mass exodus of the last Assyrians from the Khabour. But large-scale emigration out of the region actually began years before the war, prompted by a mix of environmental, economic and political factors.
“Even before 2011, Assyrians and Syriacs were steadily emigrating due to the bad economic situation and the lack of rights they had here as a minority group,” Moushe told Syria Direct. The Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights, a human rights monitor based in Sweden, estimates that only 15,000 Assyrians lived in the area in 2010, down from what Moushe estimated to be around 22,000 in the early 2000s.
Environmental factors also played a large role. In the 1990s, the underground springs that feed the Khabour River, which are located around the city of Ras al-Ain at the border between Turkey and Syria, started to dry up due to overpumping on both sides of the border. This was in turn connected to transformations in land use: once a rain-fed area primarily used by nomads to graze their cattle, from the 1950s on the Khabour Basin became an agricultural powerhouse practicing increasingly intensive irrigated farming.
This ecological crisis took a major toll on the Khabour villages. By the early 2000s, the river stopped flowing year round, and farmers had to drill wells to water their summer crops. The decrease in water flow also impacted downstream reservoirs that fed an extensive network of irrigation canals, and irrigated surfaces in the Khabour Basin dwindled.
Many Assyrian farmers moved out of their villages to the nearby city of Hasakah, where amenities were better. “Many families in the village didn’t depend only on agriculture, some had an office job and a house in Hasakah,” Meriem recalled. “When the river dried, many people moved there permanently. Those who could afford to drill a well continued to farm, and others left the land as it was, unirrigated.”
Economic decline, coupled with the repressive environment that prevailed in Syria under the Assad regime, turned the Khabour villages into a land of emigration well before the war. “Assyrians have been thinking about emigration for a very long time, and after the war, a lot of people regretted not having done it before,” Meriem said. This in turn enabled the 2015 exodus, since there were already multiple Assyrian communities in European and Western countries prepared to host them. Will Assyrians return to their historic homes?
The ecological crisis that pushed many farmers out of the Khabour villages in the early 2000s has only grown worse since the start of the war. In 2021, the construction of several makeshift dams in areas controlled by Turkish-backed groups upstream reduced the river’s flow to a historic low. And even if the water returns, irrigation canals are no longer operational because pumps and iron gates have been looted and water stations damaged during the war.
Combined with military instability, the lack of water makes life in the Khabour villages increasingly difficult. Some observers wonder whether emigration, the “biggest threat faced by Assyrians in northeastern Syria” according to Moushe, can truly be reversed. So why are Assyrian leaders in northeastern Syria so adamant on keeping properties within the community, if more than 90 percent of the Khabour’s pre-war population of 15,000-22,000 has left?
“It’s true that most Assyrians emigrated,” Borsom acknowledged. “But thousands of them come back every year, staying in their houses for a few months to visit relatives, to take care of their land. If there’s a displaced person in their house, they can no longer keep that connection.” At the same time, displaced newcomers play an essential role in sustaining the rural economy of Tal Tamar. Even before the war, many Assyrian landowners hired Kurdish and Arab day laborers to farm their land, a role now largely filled by the displaced residents of the villages, for whom agricultural work is often the only option available.
Many Assyrians perceive the protection of the Khabour villages as essential to preservation of their community in Syria as a whole. “Our people suffered attempted genocide at the hand of IS,” Borsom said. “Today, we face the very real prospect of this community disappearing in Syria. We have a duty to prevent this, and to give hope to the people who are still living in the area who haven’t left. That includes preserving absentees’ properties, so that one day they can return.”
This return is hoped for by many, but seems increasingly unlikely as years pass and Assyrian refugees build new lives abroad. “Of course, there will be returns through the regular visits of emigrants to Syria,” Fadi Antoine, a member of the CPAP for Hasakah’s Christian community, told Syria Direct. “But permanent returns will not take place unless there’s a political solution to the war, because people have nothing to come back to,” he added. Between a rock and a hard place
The most pressing concern for Assyrian political leaders and the members of Tal Tamar’s CPAP, they told Syria Direct, is the prolonged presence of displaced people, which they worry could lead to permanent demographic change.
“Our demand to the AANES is to relocate these people, either by expanding existing IDP camps or by creating new ones,” Kariakos of Tal Tamar’s CPAP said.
But the de facto authorities are stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the AANES, which was established by a coalition of Kurdish, Arab and Syriac and Assyrian parties, is particularly sensitive to the concerns of minorities who form an important part of its support base beyond the Kurdish population.
The fate of the Khabour villages is a test of its commitment to protect these groups, and the AANES has adopted a “very clear” stance on the issue, according to Karo, of the AANES’ Board of Social Affairs. “We categorically reject any attempt to change the demography of the region, and the AANES will not bring anyone–internally displaced people or others–to live in these villages. We will not do anything to aggravate the original residents’ fear of demographic change.”
But on the other hand, there is no alternative solution in sight for the thousands of displaced people currently living in the Khabour villages. An estimated 413,000 IDPs live in AANES-controlled areas. Many do not live in formal camps, but in informal settlements with limited access to water and electricity. They are less easily reached by humanitarian actors, either because it is easier to funnel the humanitarian response through official camps, or because they live too close to active frontlines.
In 2021, Tal Tamar’s CPAP formally requested that the AANES gradually relocate displaced people living in the Khabour villages. In response, the AANES relocated families living in Qaber Shamiyah, Tal Baloua and Tal Makhada to the Serekaniye camp, Karo said.
But other relocations are unlikely to take place in the near future. “Moving people to camps is not a solution,” Karo said, “They are supposed to get smaller over time, not expand,” and humanitarian funding for northeastern Syria is steadily decreasing.
And newcomers who settled in the Khabour villages, now facing additional displacement, have nowhere to go. “At first we thought our presence in Tal Tamar was temporary, but years passed and we couldn’t go back. So in 2021, we tried to move to Washokani camp to at least get some humanitarian support, but it was too late,” an elderly woman from Ras al-Ain living in Tal Nasri, told Syria Direct. “The camp administration didn’t accept us.”
Like their absent Assyrian hosts, the displaced people now living in Tal Tamar were uprooted by war. They, too, have been chased out of homes and lands they one day hope to return to. But as years pass with no political solution in sight, they are stranded in dire living conditions while relations with their host community sour.
“The only long-term solution is for all Syrians to return to their areas of origin,” Karo said. But as Turkey continues to destroy essential services and choke the Khabour River –once the lifeline of Assyrian villages–the future of the area and its potential rebirth is more uncertain than ever.
By Lyse Mauvais, Solin Muhammed Amin