In the Middle East, a claim to the past is a claim on the future. In the case of the Assyrian people of Iraq, however, no matter how profound their claims of belonging to the history – both ancient and modern – of their homeland, their future is in grave peril.
Contrary to the racialist mythologies espoused by many of the proponents of Arabism in the 20th century, the Assyrians are a discrete people, with a heritage that pre-dated and then ran simultaneous to Arab history. In fact, a 2007 University of California study – concludes, as several similar studies have, that “Assyrians… have a distinct genetic profile that distinguishes their population from any another population.” Assyrians speak modern dialects of Syriac, heir to the Aramaic of Jesus, and lingua franca of much of Mesopotamia prior to Arabic.
The Assyrian Church of the East, one of the most ancient communions in the world, spread as far as India (in 300 AD) and Mongolia. Assyrian Christianity bespeaks not merely a Christian identity, but is a testament to a cultural continuity which can claim among its achievements the translation of seminal texts of ancient Greek philosophy, mathematics, and science into Syriac and then Arabic in the sixth through ninth centuries AD, bequeathing a legacy to the Arabs which would form an intellectual basis for their burgeoning civilization.
The near-miraculous continued existence of Assyrian Christianity is also testament to the resilience of its adherents in the face of a staggering range of vigorous persecutions at the hands of maniacs as varied as the Zoroastrian supremacist Yazdgerd II (438 – 457) to the Turkish led, often Kurdish- implemented genocidal cleansing of Assyrians from Anatolia in the early 20th century under the guidance of Enver Pasha and the ‘Young Turks’, a cabal of Turkish fascists who dreamt of a ‘purely’ Turkish Turkey.
In the aftermath of that particular convulsion, the Assyrians who moved south to the inchoate state of Iraq faced further turmoil. In the guise of ‘The Assyrian Levies’, the Assyrians had formed an integral element of the British mandate’s military force in Mesopotamia. The pledge of nationhood given to the Assyrians by the British in exchange for their services to the British Empire – which included suppressing revolts of the Kurds and Arabs – was revoked by the departing British, and the Assyrians were subsequently abandoned by all foreign powers and bodies, including the League of Nations, who in 1933 definitively rejected any conception of ‘the Assyrian people’, and with it, any claim they might have to political autonomy or nationhood. Fierce divisions emerged within the Assyrian leadership. Patriarch Mar Shimun, a defiant Assyrian nationalist, was deported from Iraq in August 1933. The Simele massacre, in which 3000 Assyrians were slaughtered, occurred in the same year, and was an empathic statement of revanchist Arab nationalism. Thus routed and divested of their political leadership, Assyrian nationalism suffered a potentially terminal blow.
Affiliation with western powers continues to form an ostensible reason for mistrust and persecution of Assyrians. This is a blend of anti-Christian prejudice – a sense that as Christians, Assyrians will invariably side with the ‘Crusaer’ West against Muslim interests – and historically rooted dogma. In the past few decades, however, it is the Kurds, rightful beneficiaries of political protections since the campaign of extermination waged against them by the psychopathic Hussein family in the 1980s, who have primarily benefitted from Western intervention. As I will argue later, however, this protection has created unjust and problematic iniquities in the distribution of power within the new Iraqi state.
As with so many other Middle Eastern peoples, the contemporary nation-state, with its markers defined crudely by the capricious outcomes of blood-feud, or precisely but hazardously by the imaginations of Western state-crafters, is a poor guide to an understanding of the geographical history of Assyrians. They have historical presences in Iran and Syria, for example, as well as Iraq. The rest of this article will, however, concern the contemporary plight of Assyrians in Iraq, which many Assyrians regard as their ancestral homeland and which continues to house the largest quantity of Assyrians of any nation – if we include the recent spate of refugees who have fled to Syria – as well as being the home of their most torturous present suffering.
The toppling of Saddam Hussein has led to recognition of the Assyrians as a distinct entity for the first time in Iraq’s modern history. The Iraqi constitution guarantees (article 125) “the administrative, political, cultural, and educational rights of the various nationalities, such as Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and all other constituents, and this shall be regulated by law.” The cruel historical irony, however, is that while the de jure rights of Assyrians have been thus enshrined, the de facto reality of the community’s status is so treacherous as to render this recognition meaningless.
Before the Iraq War, the Christian population of Iraq numbered around 1.4 million. They now number 400,000. What happened to them? And where did they go?
Christians have been cleaved between the horrors of jihadist Sunni gangsters in Iraq proper and Kurdish expansionism in the North. The former has seen dozens of churches bombed, religious leaders like the Chaldean Archbishop Paulus Rahoo (d.2009) killed, and tens of thousands of Assyrians expelled from their homes and slaughtered by a range of murder hordes that some commentators, desperate to provide a sheen of legitimacy to anyone killing Americans, continue to odiously describe as ‘insurgents’, most prominently ‘al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia’. The latter has seen territories populated by non-Kurdish peoples prominently including Assyrians, most notably the ethnically heterogeneous and oil-rich Kirkuk, absorbed into the increasingly elastic IKR (Iraqi Kurdistan Region). The Sunni-Shia conflagration, which reached its grim apotheosis in 2005 and 2006, has allowed Kurds an opportunity to further consolidate their political project, which had already been accelerating under the auspices of the no-fly zone since the end of the first Gulf War.
The expansion of Kurdish security forces into areas outside the IKR renders them ‘disputed’ rather than ‘Iraqi’ – a status the KRG Kurdistan Regional Government is ever seeking to convert to ‘Kurdish’. The HHRO Hammurabi Human Rights Organisation 2009 report estimates that while an average of 300 Christian families leave the country every month, out of the approximately 2500 Christian families that fled Mosul in the wake of a particularly ferocious campaign of terror in autumn 2008, at least 500 remain internally displaced in the Nineveh Plains and the IKR. This figures are representative of the pattern that has unfolded since 2003: Assyrians flee chaos and murder in the metropolises and villages of Iraq in the tens of thousands; the most skilled to Western countries, many others to Syria, where one in five Iraqi refugees are Assyrians Christians do not just leave disproportionately in Iraq, they die disproportionately); and the rest to the IKR or the neighbouring Nineveh Plains.
In these Northern territories, Assyrians are forced to sign pledges of support, as seen in the report by the Assyrian Council, 'Iraq: The Struggle to Exist', to the KRG in exchange for basic provisions like food and housing. The needs of these wretched men and women are so urgent that they are utterly blameless in their affiliation with Kurdish power. The consequences of this affiliation are, however, disastrous. They are assigned to shoddy housing in disparate areas, occluding the possibility of a contiguous Assyrian community being established. The ACE report describes “housing units often built close together with cheap materials, poor infrastructures, located far from the main Assyrian settlements, with no pastoral care, no privacy, little access to services or basic supplies – sometimes near garbage dumps or in areas where non-Assyrians predominate making them unhealthy slums and turning them into virtual prisons.”
In areas that are outside of the official borders of the IKR, Kurdish flags now fly over Syriac schools and encase Assyrian coffins at burials alike. In order to receive education or healthcare, Assyrians are forced to identity as Arabs or Kurds. According to Congressional inquiries, Assyrians are denied educational and professional opportunities; those who do not speak Kurdish are particularly hard done-by. They have no control over their own security, which is provided by the Kurdish government. These security services – the specialised Asaiyah forces within the Peshmerga militias – “rely largely on intimidation, threats, restriction of access to services, random arrests and extrajudicial detentions, to persuade their political opponents and ordinary members of these communities to support the KRG’s plan to expand into the disputed territories.”
It must be stressed that these are not mere matters of cultural pride and the right to self-designate. In forcing through the abandonment of Assyrian identity, the KRG is attempting to consolidate its control over vast swathes of land and people that have been allocated legally and constitutionally to the Iraqi Central Government. It is not only Syriac civilisation under threat, but the opportunity of individual Assyrians and families to educate themselves, earn a living, establish communities, and live as respectable citizens of a republic. Instead, they are facing existence as second-class citizens.
The question of what is to be done to halt this ethnic cleansing and restore to the Christians some control over their destiny is an immensely difficult one. One of the more cogent ideas for saving the Assyrians from extinction, as well as the other ethnic groups such as the Yazidis and Shabaks with whom they co-habitate, comes in the form of the 'Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project'. The argument extended by the Project is that the key to survival lies in developing the Nineveh Plains region in the service of the numerous minority communities, which, taken in their entirety, constitute a majority of the citizens therein. The project outlines sophisticated and empirically detailed plans to curb the influence of the venal and corrupt ethnic supremacism of the KRG in the region.
For all its careful consideration of the multiplicity of issues and obstacles it faces, however, the Project lays itself open to a number of interrogations. Is not the aim of concentrating Assyrians in one region tantamount to an acknowledgement that the Iraqi Republic has failed? It is, on one level, a federal project in a state that, ‘Kurdistan’ aside, has refused to embrace federalism. What is to stop the process of de-population accelerating in the rest of the country in light of the establishment of a purported safe haven for Assyrians, when the apparent safeguards provided by Kurdish dominion in the north is already an impetus for the expulsion of Assyrians from the rest of the country? And what if the Nineveh Plains is a victim of its own success, attracting Kurds and Arabs to its developing infrastructure – will that not threaten its purpose as a guarantor of Assyrian flourishing?
As historically tragic as the disenfranchisement of the Assyrian people is, there must be an acknowledgement that the ultimate ambition of Assyrian politics is to dissolve the need for such a thing. The only truly sustainable means of ensuring the rights of any peoples is to champion a civic rather than an ethnic or religious conception of identity within a nationhood that insists on treating its citizens equally. This means, for example, no seat allocations in parliament for politically ghettoized peoples, but political capital earned by political integrity and acumen; not ‘minority rights’, but citizens’ rights. This is currently a quixotic proposition. Far from being a functional democracy, contemporary Iraq could best be described as a theocratic kleptocracy, with unaccountable, quasi-tribal leaders plundering the nation’s human and material capital in the service of their own anti-nationalist, anti-pluralist, sectarian agendas.We must not make the mistake of aspiring to outcomes that will compromise the ideal of a civilised Iraq. The Assyrian problem is, by extension, the Iraqi problem. The case for Assyrians must also be the case for Iraq.
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