Assyria: A Beleaguered People
Photo Courtesy of: The Nation 2015
The non-Muslim Assyrian community of Northern Iraq and Northeast Syria is disproportionately affected by ISIL’s mass slaughter and systematic persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of Assyrians have been displaced by the conflict and just 350,000 are believed to have remained in the country. At least, their plight gradually gets more international attention – opening the door to possibilities of garnering support for the Assyrian aspiration of autonomy for their province in Iraq as part of a federated, decentralized country.
Below is an article by the National Post:
They are the original people of Mesopotamia’s cradle of civilization, the indigenous people of ancient Sumer and Babylon, and they’ve been around for at least 5,000 years. From their heartland on the Nineveh Plains and the Upper Tigris in what is now the transboundary region of Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, their empires waxed and waned down through the centuries from the Caucasus Mountains to Cyprus and Egypt and deep into the Arabian Peninsula.
The Assyrians were among the world’s first peoples to adopt Christianity, and they still speak varieties of Aramaic, the language of Christ and his apostles. They survived a series of genocidal anti-Christian frenzies during the Ottoman Empire’s final convulsions a century ago, and again in the 1930s. They survived the persecutions and ethnic cleansings waged against them by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the Iranian Khomeinists. But their survival now, as a distinct people, looks bleak.
There were perhaps 1.5 million Assyrians holding out in the region at the close of the 20th century. Two years ago, Minority Rights Group International reckoned their numbers in Iraq had dwindled to maybe 350,000 There are probably fewer — estimates are wildly conflicting — in Syria.
With Syria’s continuing destruction, mainly at the hands of President Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies, and with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) carrying out its bloody jihad in Iraq from Mosul to Fallujah and the outskirts of Baghdad, the Assyrians are again wandering the roads of the Middle East. They’re huddled in makeshift displaced-persons camps or fleeing as United Nations’ refugees to the four corners of the earth.
But they are not without hope. The cause of an Assyrian homeland has gained a great deal of traction lately: not an independent country, but a separate province, in a federated and decentralized Iraq. “An autonomous region. A safe haven. That’s what the people want — a homeland. We want to be able to protect ourselves,” Juliana Taimoorazy, founding president of the Chicago-based Iraqi Christian Relief Council, told me the other day.
The idea is not as implausible as it sounds.
The Assyrian predicament has been overshadowed by the suffering of the Yazidis, a similarly ancient non-Muslim minority in the region. Targeted for genocide and enslavement by ISIL in the autumn months of 2014, hundreds of thousands of Yazidis were forced to flee an ISIL advance in the Yazidis’ homeland in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The encirclement of hundreds of unarmed Yazidis on Mount Sinjar captured the world’s attention and finally shamed the NATO countries into mounting an air-power campaign to curb ISIL’s depredations — a coalition effort that first involved a half-dozen Canadian CF-18s and now includes the Canadian Special Operations Regiment in a “train, advise and assist” mission, mostly with the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga.
The Western support won by the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, and the KRG’s tentative allies among the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) guerrillas of Rojava in northern Syria, has been a mixed blessing for the Assyrians. The secularist KRG goes out of its way to insist that it embraces the Assyrian minority, but Assyrians are wary and mistrustful. Iraqi Kurds have turned on them before, and as recently as 2011 anti-Assyrian riots broke out in the predominantly Kurdish city of Duhok, incited by a Kurdish political party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“At any moment, some mullah can declare a fatwa against us,” Taimooorazy said.
With Syria and Iraq having degenerated into hellholes of jihadism, mass murder and unceasing sectarian war, the Assyrians’ allegiances of convenience have sometimes left outsiders perplexed about whose “side” they’re on.
The Assyrians sided with the Kurds against Saddam Hussein from the 1980s to the 2003 Anglo-American invasion. “We hoped the Americans would help us regain our land, the way the Zionists did,” Taimoorazy said, “but that didn’t happen.” As a result, a lot of Assyrians cooled to the Americans. At the same time, while Israel is seen as a pariah in much of the Arab world, many Assyrians see Israel as a “model,” Taimoorazy said.
In Syria, meanwhile, Assyrian church leaders and their flocks tended to oppose the uprising against Assad for fear of what might follow and doubts about the NATO countries’ willingness to intervene to protect them against jihadists. But other Assyrians have formed militias in alliance with Kurdish and Arab guerillas to fight both ISIL and Assad’s regular troops. Still, the crux of the Assyrian dilemma in the region’s turmoils is fairly straightforward, Taimoorazy said: “We don’t trust the Arabs, and we don’t trust the Kurds.”
He insisted that Assyrians are not demanding an independent state. “We don’t want Iraq to fall apart. We want Iraq to stay together.”
An Assyrian province in a more decentralized Iraq would be an uphill battle because it would have to come at least partly at the expense of the KRG, in areas it now controls. But it would also offer a refuge to Yazidis and minority Turkomans and Shabaks. But then again, there are now-powerful Sunni Arabs in Iraq who are also contemplating a constitutional breakout from Baghdad’s control.
Owing to the Shiite-dominated government giving every appearance of being hopelessly mired in brutal sectarianism and runaway corruption — and not least because of the growing influence of Iran’s Khomeinists in semi-official militias as vicious as ISIL, as well as in Iraq’s official security apparatus — a move is underway to establish a semi-autonomous Sunni region in Iraq. About a third of Iraqis are Sunni.
“But the Assyrians are not just a religious group,” Taimoorazy said. “We are an ethnic minority, and we are losing our language and our culture. The world has to begin to see the Assyrian people not just as Christians, but as a distinct people. And we are being wiped out.”