Given the events of the past several years and the current geopolitical rivalries within Iraq, it is easy to imagine Christians, Yazidis, and others being caught once again in the crosshairs of malevolent powers…
Several months after the defeat of ISIS in northern Iraq, the ethnic and religious minorities who were driven from their homes hesitate to return. They fear further outbreaks of violence and they do not have the confidence or the wherewithal to restart their livelihoods. If these groups are to survive—and their survival is a critical buffer to the growth of extremism in the region devastated by ISIS—they need security and jobs. Neither of those needs is being met.
Christians are continuing to leave Iraq in alarming numbers, with some on the ground estimating that as few as 130,000 remain in Iraq (down from 1,600,000 in 2003). One of us, Dr. Hollingshead, just returned from two and a half weeks there. During one particularly poignant dinner table conversation with a Christian family who had fled their home in Bartella, the couple expressed their desire to return home to rebuild their lives. They were clearly worried, however, about the Iranian-backed militias whose presence throughout much of northern Iraq they deem to be threatening. They do not trust Shiite militias. The mother turned to Stephen and asked, “Dr. Stephen, do you think we will we be safe with the Muslims in Bartella?” Her anxiety poses a difficult obstacle to be overcome. Given the events of the past several years and the current geopolitical rivalries within Iraq, it is easy to imagine Christians, Yazidis, and others being caught once again in the crosshairs of malevolent powers. But it is also possible to create conditions in which those minorities have a reasonable expectation of security and the ability to thrive economically.
The Iranian-backed militias and the Iranian presence in general needs to be addressed, and here America’s national interests intersect solidly with our humanitarian concerns. Iran’s strategic vision of creating a land bridge from Iran through northern Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea is not only eliciting pushback from Arabs and Israelis, but is also proving a major concern and complicating factor for Iraq’s embattled Christians and Yazidis. The Hashd Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), while nominally under the control of Baghdad, are nevertheless funded and equipped by Tehran and serve its geopolitical goals. The Trump Administration has been communicating clearly to Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Abadi its determination that Iran’s influence does not remain unchecked, as well as its commitment to the protection of the minorities within Iraq. Given the hold that Tehran has over much of the country’s political and geographical terrain, it will be difficult to dislodge Iran. If northern Iraq is to be stable and secure, however, Tehran’s influence must be curtailed, including its efforts to change the demographics of the North. This means the regional security role played by the PMU must be changed.
Another problem is the fractured nature of the Christian community in Iraq. A recent article in Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, authored by MIT professor Roger Peterson and doctoral student Matthew Cancian, notes how the proliferation of armed Christian groups “has inevitably increased hitherto latent rivalries within the Christian community.” There have already been conflicts between some of these armed Christian groups. Last July, the NPU (Nineveh Plains Protection Units, an Assyrian group linked to the Assyrian Democratic Movement) and the Babylon Brigades (a Christian group that has been fighting under the Iraqi government-sponsored, Shi’a dominated Popular Mobilization Forces) clashed in the town of Qaraqosh (also known as Baghdeda), formerly the largest Christian city on the Nineveh Plain. According to Assyrian media, the NPU forced the Babylon Brigades to withdraw from the town, accusing it of looting a museum and private homes.
The region needs, in our view, a US-led coalition training force as a confidence-building measure to sustain security, unify the various armed groups under a single banner, and thus reduce the risk of clashes between them. We also agree with Peterson and Cancian that the Christians of northern Iraq, as well as the many other minority groups on the Nineveh Plain, need to find a way to work together to a much greater degree if they are to survive. Indigenous security is vital, but it must be cooperative. The most workable model for an indigenous force that can provide security on the Nineveh Plain is to include as many of the minority armed groups as possible under a single umbrella. This will require compromise on all sides, and the putting aside of various historic and recent grievances. We realize that it easier said than done, but it is a necessary step for recovery to succeed. A cooperative security arrangement is the only path forward. Using the current NPGF (Nineveh Plain Guard Force) as the core of that force appears to make the most sense, due to the facts that it alone makes up the majority of Christians under arms, and to the fact that it is already being effectively funded by US taxpayer dollars through the KRG, which gives the US government leverage over it.
The NPGF, which is linked to the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council, is by far the largest and most competent and well-supported force of Christians under arms, with approximately 2,500 men. It accounts for approximately two-thirds of the manpower of armed Christian Iraqis, and receives funding from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The NPGF has received training from the US and the Kurdish Peshmerga. Several other armed Christian groups exist, including Assyrian groups such as the NPU (Nineveh Plains Protection Units), a competent but much smaller force linked to the Assyrian Democratic Movement. There is also “Dwekh Nawsha” (which means “self-sacrifice” in Syriac), which is linked to the Assyrian Patriotic Party, The Nineveh Plains Forces (NPF) associated with the Bet-Nahrain Party, and the Babylon Brigades, which comes under the PMU.
Each of the smaller forces have only a couple of hundred to a few hundred men, at the most. Each have differing levels of cooperation with the Kurds, Baghdad, and with each other. Various grievances, both historical and recent, have resulted in much distrust between the various minority groups. While this makes a bid for unity difficult, that unity is essential for the minority groups to rebuild their communities.
We believe the KRG should be encouraged to pull the Peshmerga from the northern part of the Nineveh Plain it currently controls and allow the NPGF to control the area as the primary protection force there, and also to encourage local Yazidis to join that force. This would add to the force’s prestige and the confidence of Yazidis that it is there to protect them. The Kurds have shown themselves willing to compromise and have suggested to us that they would be open to an agreement to pull their forces back northwards from the forward positions they have occupied south of traditional Kurdish territory, yielding responsibility for security in this region to its traditional primary occupants, Christians and Yazidis. This is a good sign. The Kurdistan Regional Government has also expressed tentative support for our plan to jumpstart the economy of the northern Nineveh Plain through the creation of a Secured Special Economic Zone (SSEZ) provided it has a seat at the table with Baghdad in negotiating the Regulatory Framework Agreement required to attract investors.
The security and economic success of northern Iraq is possible to achieve, but to do so will require international support, the limitation of Iranian influence, and compromise and cooperative behaviors on the part of indigenous groups. We do not want to have history record, as it has regarding the Iraqi Jews whose presence began in Iraq six centuries before Christ and who are now completely gone, that the Christians, Yazidis and other Iraqi minorities were similarly allowed to disappear.
Republished with gracious permission from Iraq Haven (April 2018).
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Dr. Paul Coyer is Security Advisor for Iraq Haven, as well as Associate Professor at l’Ecole Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr (the French equivalent of West Point) and a Research Professor at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C.