As the Battle for Mosul rages on, Max J. Joseph examines the various political interests at play and explores the future, within it all, for Iraq’s Assyrians…
As various forces descend upon Mosul, the final and most important ISIS stronghold in Iraq, and with victory against the group seemingly a matter of if not when, questions have emerged on what a post-ISIS Mosul would look like.
The parties with an interest in the answer are far reaching. They include the Iraqi Army and its allied militias; the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), which is largely made up of Shia Arabs with a minority of Sunni Arabs; the Peshmerga, contributed to mostly by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which controls neighbouring Dohuk and Erbil provinces; the Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU), an Assyrian militia tied to the PMU; the Turkish military; and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and affiliated Yezidi YBS and HPE militias.
The areas within which these parties operate are – contrary to some popular assessments of Iraq as a whole – heterogeneous, mostly comprising of minority groups such as Assyrians, Yezidis, Shabaks and other historically marginalised groups and ethnicities.
With such a wide range of competing interests and agendas, coordinating the operation to take back Mosul is hard enough. However, once the dust settles and the common enemy uniting these disparate groups is defeated, potential in-fighting could usher in a new chapter of strife for the beleaguered region.
This strife can be prevented but, in order to do that, the various agendas at play must be parsed and understood with clarity, especially for outsiders who must wade through a barage of sophisticated propaganda on an almost daily basis. What I hope to offer here is an Assyrian perspective, underpinned by Assyrian interests that have long been neglected in both the Old and New Iraq.
Who is Fighting?
Given the list of actors mentioned above, perhaps the least attention in the media has been afforded to newly armed and trained minority groups who have suffered genocide at the hands of ISIS. Correcting this will be my focus here along with expanding upon Turkey’s involvement.
Both the Government of Iraq (GoI) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have been guilty of incompetence, and in some cases, targeted oppression and subversion. These abuses, whilst presenting an existential threat to Assyrians on their ancestral lands, has also given them renewed vigour and determination to fight back. Larger groups may be competing for more territory or regional influence via the Mosul offensive, but for Assyrians, this is believed to be our last stand.
As a response to the decimation wrought by ISIS and the failure of both GoI forces and KRG forces (specifically KDP forces, given their de facto control of large swathes of Nineveh Province pre-ISIS), Assyrians established their own militia in 2014, the NPU, in an effort to meaningfully contribute to if not take control of their own security in their own lands. Yezidis, after having been reassured and abandoned in Sinjar by the KDP, then assisted by the PKK, have done the same by establishing the HPE militia led by Haydar Shesho.
Positive signs are now emerging that the GoI under Prime Minister Abadi are realizing that its interests and those of the NPU are relatively aligned, and thus it has moved to bolster and support them in territory which they have previously had little influence in: Nineveh. The NPU currently number 500 soldiers which have been trained by US forces after the GoI had sanctioned their formation. This week, the GoI approved another 250 to begin training in camps to the north.
The Erdogan regime, which institutionalizes ethnic cleansing in Turkey, wants to normalize the effects of genocide committed in other countries and specifically grow its own influence in Nineveh. This is why Erdogan recently said “only Sunnis belong in Mosul” – omitting Mosul’s diverse ethnic and religious make-up, and thereby punishing those who have suffered targeting and expulsion. Turkey’s presence in Iraq has always been welcomed in KDP controlled territory. The party has orchestrated an almost provincial status in relation to Ankara for areas it rules. This presence is now being rounded upon, however, by the GoI and rival Kurdish parties. Harsh rhetoric has emerged from both sides and the GoI has demanded the Turkish military leave its borders.
Within Turkey, celebrated moves into Iraq and Syria seem in line with broader regional objectives which now appear to be in jeopardy: to ensure a weakened Syria with explicitly pro-Turkish proxy forces supplanting other flagging, unpredictable proxy forces, and have an ostentatious hand in the Mosul Operation. The latter is crucial to both supporting an emerging alliance between the KDP and ex-Mosul governor Atheel Al Nujaifi and his Sunni Arab supporters (more on this later), and undermining the growth of Kurdish PKK influence in the region. The failed coup attempt has emboldened Turkey to play a more active role in these affairs, and it is now flexing its strength out in the open, free from any residual dissent from within its own political establishment.
Yet despite this provocation, the GoI now has a convincing reason to reassert itself in what the KRG audaciously calls “formerly” disputed territories (ie. those territories which are considered “disputed” in terms of control between the GoI and the KRG: namely, Nineveh). The same KDP commanders who have given media interviews declaring newly liberated land taken from ISIS as ”Kurdish” and theirs have now had to part their ranks to allow Iraqi Army and PMU to begin operations in Mosul.
Evidence of Turkish-ISIS support is insurmountable, with many Turks who uncovered these connections, be they security officials or criminal prosecutors, imprisoned way before the recent purge of dissenters after the failed coup had even started. Jihadist forces who had been given free reign within and across Turkey’s borders are now being valiantly chased down whilst Turkey builds military bases along the way, thereby normalizing their presence in their old Ottoman vilayets.
Legislative History and the Reality on the Ground
To put these forces and the situation in context, we must begin with our horizons set further afield than merely the current borders of the Nineveh Province and further into the past, before ISIS had began its assault on it.
Much of the province is considered “disputed territory” because the KRG, under the leadership of perpetual President Masoud Barzani, has made new claims to lands it considers as part of Greater Kurdistan. And these claims are most certainly new. When the KRG published their first draft constitution in 2006 in a newly liberated Iraq, the word “Nineveh” was not even mentioned, let alone any claims to it. However, in the draft constitution published in 2009, the claim is made. That said, it is no great mystery why the 2006 draft constitution is now unavailable online. All traces of it have been eradicated. It is prudent to maintain the illusion that these territories have always been claimed by the Kurdish people as a matter of principle instead of gross opportunism on the part of their leaders.
Whilst these claims were being made by the KRG and broadcast to their international sponsors through relentless lobbying, they were stonewalling any attempts made by Assyrians in the Nineveh Plains to meaningfully contribute to their own security. Persistent attempts made by Assyrians to create their own police force tasked with patrolling their towns in Nineveh was blocked and eventually dismantled even though it was supported by both the GoI and US policy makers. This subversion facilitated the flight of desperate Assyrians who were left feeling exposed and helpless in the power vacuum consuming the country in those years between 2003-2014.
Regular attacks by Islamists and periodic accosting, arrests and beatings by Kurdish Asayish security have meant Assyrian numbers, which reportedly numbered over 1.2m pre-2003, have now dropped to approx. 300,000. Assyrians who fled north in droves from central and southern Iraq found themselves hopelessly in the grip of KRG gangsterism and eventually made their way out of the country altogether.
The KDP have set up and funded proxy parties and militias to counteract attempts made by Assyrians to organize independently and become self-reliant. Similar strategies are employed with other disempowered groups such as the Yezidis, where rivalries between parties and associated militias exists even within families, all compelled by overreaching KDP patronage.
This reach extends further than just the minorities of the region. Sunni Arabs, feeling marginalized by a government newly dominated by the demographically superior Shia Arabs, grew distant from mainstream Iraqi politics. Mosul became an island under ex-governor Nujaifi and deputy governor and senior KDP figure, Khasro Goran. It is this relationship and its ramifications which should be unpacked a little further.
The KDP’s influence and ambitions in Mosul and surrounding areas over the past decade cannot be underplayed. Whilst not controlling these areas in a formal capacity, the KDP were certainly overrepresented in political and security functions. After the Sunni boycott of elections in 2005 which saw a 41 strong provincial council dominated by 31 Kurdish bloc members, Khasro Goran entrenched his position and has often been cited as the “real power in Mosul and Nineveh”. Kurdish staffing levels in Mosul itself reached 63%, in contrast to the city’s 23% Kurdish demographic. This overrepresentation extended into the Plains, where security forces patrolling Assyrian and other minority areas became largely comprised of Kurds loyal to the KDP. When Mosul fell, the ex-governor Nujaifi fled to Erbil and has continued his amicable relations with the KDP and the Turkish regime.
It is this relationship, coupled with the juggernaut of Turkey prowling in the background which has fermented the idea that the fruits of a new alliance between Nujaifi and his supporters, the KDP, and Turkey may ripen in the near future. If this relationship flourishes and asserts itself more confidently, the region can expect another decade of destabilization and a more serious conflict with the GoI. These are the very fires of sectarianism which should be left behind with the dying embers of ISIS’ vision of the future.
In a landmark moment for Nineveh’s minorities in January 2014, the GoI voted for, in principle, the creation of a new Nineveh Plains province. This finally promised a door into the new Iraq for Assyrians and other minorities, but the mood quickly changed that year with ISIS storming these very lands and emptying them with little to no resistance from either GoI forces and Kurdish peshmerga.
In September 2016, a vote on a new province in the same region spearheaded by Sunni Arabs and unrelated to the interests and aspirations on Assyrians and other minorities was rejected by the GoI. This was quickly painted by KDP media as an attack on these minorities in an effort to sow confusion and disillusionment among them. The familiar message was embedded in this spin: freedom and prosperity can only be achieved within an emerging Kurdistan, a claim Assyrians and others who have been displaced and forced to leave their lands reject. Some observers writing for KDP media outlets even punish Assyrians for this very rejection.
Again, Assyrians know this because of the awful situation within the KRG which seldom receives the appropriate airtime in Western media. It is a government defined by disunity and distrust, with Parliament having not met for well over a year, an official budget missing for more than two years, and a President who unlawfully extends his term by decree (a term which ended in 2013), exiling anyone who questions his legitimacy. It is an economy in $25bn deficit and 95% reliant on oil sales, with many wholly dependent on party-affiliated patronage for mere sustenance.
Moreover, in recent talks this year regarding a new, official KRG constitution with independence in mind, the sole representative of minorities invited to the drafting table, Dr Muna Yaku, walked out of talks in protest when guarantees over rights and self-administration for minorities not only failed to be included, but existing language to that effect from previous drafts was removed. Its drafting has since been suspended given the chaos engulfing the whole region.
Many Kurds are angry and disillusioned with the situation in the KRG, so what hope must that give Assyrians and others who are asked to buy into it when we could instead seek a direct relationship with the GoI, rather than another degree of separation from it via the still dependent and regressing, KRG?
The KDP Agenda
In perverse ways, the practice engendered in matters of governance and trade by the KRG mirrors aspects of Ba’athism. Similar conditional freedoms are imposed on people living under the KRG, where liberty and prosperity are only offered in exchange for unshakable loyalty.
Assyrians and others who have become receptive to this dark bargain are regularly interviewed by KDP media to furnish propaganda efforts made by KRG representatives who relentlessly tour the world with a message of tolerance and plurality. Behind this smokescreen however lies a far darker reality, where arrests and assassinations take place, and authoritarianism is on the rise.
Assyrians have been relentlessly driven away from their lands in Dohuk province (which Assyrians historically call Nohadra) via institutional bias favouring powerful Kurdish tribes and courts that settle disputes via nepotism rather than any codified law. Assyrians have been blocked from protesting land confiscations on several occasions by Kurdish security keen to limit participation.
Not only are Assyrians who live within KRG controlled areas subjected to this barbarity and intimidation, Assyrian IDPs as well as other minority IDPs have reportedly received “loyalty pledges” to sign in KRG-run camps, asking them to swear allegiance to President Barzani as well as support the annexation of their lands in Nineveh to the KRG.
This is why vague calls to “arm the Kurds” emanating from policy makers, analysts and even the US President-in-waiting are received with resentment and disdain from Assyrians and others who suffer under their monopoly on security and power. Kurdish officials and commentators are always keen to talk favourable demographics too, and why shouldn’t they? It certainly does demonstrate one thing given Assyrian population trends: that Assyrians do not benefit from a strengthened KRG or their much lauded security situation, and in many ways, suffer under it. So they leave.
Why is all of this dirt on the KRG important to air in a piece about the liberation of Mosul? For one reason: all of the lands surrounding Mosul, home to Assyrians and other minorities who have suffered yet another genocide, are claimed by KRG leadership. There is the very real danger that these minorities will once again be squeezed out of securing a meaningful place in the fabric of the country when perhaps their last opportunity to do so lies before them.
A Nineveh Plains Province
Admittedly, momentum is everything in Iraq. A military success in Mosul followed up by a gentle partitioning of new provincial borders might be perceived by Abadi and his advisors as needlessly weakening his position ahead of Iraqi General Elections. However, these are short term fancies: in order to build on a military success, the GoI must balance calls for reconciliation and reform, as well displays of strength. It is easy to get carried away with all of the snippets of artillery fire and joyous liberation announcements currently circulating on social media, but securing a future for the people should be central to the fighting. That is what victory should mean.
One of the key strengths Iraq possesses is the flexibility of its federalist system. Provinces are afforded with considerable powers and regions even more so (albeit to disastrous effect given KRG governance failures, so it goes two ways). This strength has yet to be properly utilized. The KRG should obviously not be rewarded for failure (both to the Kurdish people themselves, and to the minorities they had sworn to protect yet disarmed and abandoned) by Western policy makers, who fortunately are beginning to wake up to these abuses. That said, it’s clear that the current format of the Nineveh province is fundamentally flawed given betrayals and distrust among minorities and their neighbours, so change is needed.
This leaves only one reasonable option: work on a new province, as agreed in principle by the GoI in 2014, should begin as soon as possible. Many Assyrian IDPs simply want to return home. Newly bolstered groups such as the NPU can serve as the foundation of security in the area and be strengthened accordingly. After all, these are people who will deal with threats with their families behind them, not hundreds of miles away. Assyrians in diaspora together with Assyrians in the homeland have already set up the Nineveh Plains Defence Fund in an effort to mobilize support for the NPU.
Relations between the various minority groups are generally good, and there has been no historic animosity between them. In fact, what the recent crisis has done is unite many of these groups together in solidarity given their respective experiences. Issues of governance can be resolved democratically within the new province and the threat of domination and patronage by internal and external parties should be prevented by regularly US and coalition engagement – something these actors have failed to offer so far despite their urgent need.
Short of securing internationally protected safe zones as recently mentioned by German Chancellor Merkel and supported by Yezidi survivor and activist Nadia Murad, a new province for all Nineveh’s minorities secured by local people already on the frontline and those looking to return will be an immensely positive step forward for not only these minorities, but the country as a whole.
What the minorities of Nineveh truly want is to be free from the shackles of being called “minorities”. They don’t want protection, they want empowerment. They don’t want rhetoric, they want demonstrable equality. Iraq must be given a new start after the false one in 2003. A country can usually be judged by how it treats its worse-off citizens, and so far, Iraq has done little to merit praise in this respect. To prevent the state sinking once more into a sectarian mess, Assyrians and other groups who have had so much taken from them should have their dignity restored by being allowed to live and prosper in their own lands free from destabilizing external influences.
Long term interests are aligned here, and these must not be sacrificed by the GoI under Abadi for short-term political gains. The NPU was not established as a temporary force; it is here to stay. Assyrians within it who have taken up arms, along with the thousands who wait patiently to be accepted into its ranks (ranks only limited by support and funding, not desire) are doing so because they want to establish themselves in a country that has forgotten its identity.
It is now time to build faster than the rate at which those preoccupied with destruction destroy.
This article was originally published in 1001 Iraqi Thoughts.
By Max J. Joseph
Max J. Joseph is an Assyrian artist and writer. He has a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and a master’s degree in International Public Policy.
Max can be found on Twitter at @deadmanmax.