Who are the Assyrians and what are the Nineveh Plains?

A map of the proposed Nineveh region. Credit: Courtesy of Ramy Jajo.

By Ramy Jajo

The current Iraq conflict has been covered by much of the world’s media, and frequently the Assyrians are mentioned alongside the Kurd and Arab populations. Yet while the Assyrians are a crucial part of Iraq’s history, they are neither Kurd nor Arab, but a distinct ethnic group.

A largely Christian people with their own language, culture, and flag, this ancient Semitic group traces its roots to the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians of antiquity. This makes these people indigenous to “ancient Mesopotamia,” the land we now know as Iraq.

During the 20th century, Assyrians began to consider the concept of nationalism, a notion introduced by the British and were promised a state of their own. This, however, was never implemented leaving the Assyrians defenseless and stateless. Over time, the Assyrians were subject to unjust treatment in which successive and repressive governments attempted to deprive them of their Assyrian identity.

Much has been reported about the Assyrians and their desire for a province within a federal Iraq. Iraq’s constitution guarantees the country’s minorities the right to administer their own province where they make up a majority. Today’s Assyrian Chaldean people make up a majority in the Assyrian heartland, the “Nineveh Plains.” Undisputedly, this region is historically, biblically, and geographically Assyrian. Earlier in the year, the Iraqi Council of Ministers under the incumbent Nouri Al-Maliki approved a plan to establish and formally recognize the Nineveh Plains as a self-governing province. In addition, this would ensure the Nineveh Plains and its governing body would benefit from the Iraqi federal budget. But this was halted due to the current conflict. 

Overall, Arabs represent 78 percent of Iraq’s population, Kurds and Yazidis comprise 16 percent, and the Assyrian Chaldean people have dwindled to a staggering 6 percent. The majority of the Assyrian population has migrated abroad due to centuries of persecution and inaction from the Iraqi federal government. Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, oppression became the Christian way of life. The Assyrian population inhabiting its ancestral homeland was subject to unjust treatment—rape, murder, and illegal land seizure became a norm.

In July 2014, the terrorist group now known as the Islamic State marched its way through the borders of Iraq and into Mosul and the Nineveh Plains, unleashing a “holy war” targeting the Assyrian Chaldean community and other inhabitants such as the Yazidis. The world watched in agony as innocent civilians—men, women, and children—were systematically murdered in large numbers, their homes illegally seized, their woman sold as slaves in the Mosul market, their places of worship burnt to the ground, and others told to either convert to Islam, pay a tax, leave the city, or die. It’s a modern-day Holocaust that the international community recognizes as a “modern-day genocide.”

As the Iraqi and Kurdish forces launch an offensive against Islamic State terrorists, Assyrian leaders have started forging a union among their political parties in the diaspora to lobby the international community in support of an autonomous Nineveh Plains region. Meanwhile, two of the most prominent Assyrian political parties in Iraq—the Assyrian Democratic Movement and the Assyrian Patriotic Party—have established a fully armed Assyrian army that has been deployed to work alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. This move is supported by Iraqi Kurdistan’s president, Masoud Barzani.

“Let me say this very, very clearly: the Islamic State is seeking to commit genocide. And I ask the House to send the strongest possible message that we will not stand for it. Even more importantly, it is important that the House says that once the scourge of ISIS has been dealt with, once the scourge of the Islamic State has been expelled from Iraq, let us not miss that opportunity to ensure ongoing protection for the Christians of Iraq--real protections for the Christians of Iraq—and let us move to ensure that the Christians of Iraq have a safe haven where they can live in peace and prosperity and they can live with reassurance. This has been agreed to by the former Iraqi government in principle, but we must keep moving forward,” said Australian MP Chris Bowen.

Ramy Jajo

The Nineveh Plains, rich in natural resources, sits northwest of Baghdad, with its largest city being Mosul. Nevertheless, the Nineveh Plains has long been caught in a conflict between the Central Government of Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. The Assyrians have long awaited to administer their own affairs, reporting directly to Baghdad, but the Kurdistan Regional Government has claims on historic Assyrian territory and is looking to absorb it into its zone.

Just this month, Iraq’s parliament had approved a new government setting the stage for expanded U.S. military support to battle Islamic State. The new cabinet was sworn in along with new Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi. In a statement, the new prime minister vowed to “work with all communities in Iraq.” But Assyrian leaders were left dissatisfied, claiming they are under-represented with only one ministerial seat allocated to a communist party. Yonadam Kanna, head of the Al-Rafidain Christian bloc within Iraq’s parliament, has demanded Prime Minister Al-Abadi to “not make the same mistakes as the previous government.” Kanna added, “We are very resentful of the way the Christian component has been marginalized in Al-Abadi's government.”

Throughout history, the Assyrians have navigated through darkness, oppression, and sacrifice, all while keeping an unwavering eye on a beacon of hope. Now is the time for Iraq and the international community to stand tall, voice their support, and provide full assistance to the Assyrians as they seek to emerge from the darkness and find comfort in the land they have called home for more than 4,500 years—the autonomous region of Nineveh.

The author is a Chaldean/Assyrian journalist and student from Australia and a member of the Assyrian Chaldean Syriac Youth Alliance (ACSYA). Independent and non-denominational, ACSYA undertakes a range of activities carefully designed to build connections, celebrate the rich Assyrian-Babylonian culture, and promote discussion on domestic and international issues relating to the Assyrian Chaldean Syriac community. The organization’s vision is to sustain an inclusive and non-partisan youth group that will sustain community harmony and unity.

Posted on September 19, 2014 .