(March 31, 2016 / JNS) It is widely presumed that the Islamic State terror group is responsible for the near-eradication of the Assyrian Christian population. But understanding the complexities of how world powers interact with the Middle East reveals surprising reasons for the plight of one of the region’s oldest Christian communities, according to retired lieutenant colonel Sargis Sangari, an expert on the Assyrians and founder of the Near East Center for Strategic Engagement think tank.
Sangari is an Assyrian Christian who was born and raised in Urmia, Iran, and immigrated to the United States at age 10. He is a decorated Iraq War veteran who served in the U.S. Army for 20 years, and he currently serves as one of the American advisers to Dwekh Nawsha, the Assyrian Christian militia force in the Middle East.
“The Christians come last, and economic benefits to nations and global powers come first,” Sangari told JNS.org.
Assyrian Christians trace their roots back 7,000 years and are indigenous to ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). (The ancient Assyrian empire stretched across modern northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and the northwest fringe of Iran.) Today, Sangari and other scholars estimate that at least 250,000 Assyrians are displaced from their homeland. While the persecution of Assyrians has a long history, Islamic State began a systematic campaign of mass slaughter in 2003 following the liberation of Iraq and the deposing of Saddam Hussein. In June 2014, Islamic State captured the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, which had the highest population of Assyrian Christians in the country.
By July 2014, thousands of Assyrian Christians fled Mosul when Islamic State told them to convert to Islam, pay the “jizya” tax on non-Muslims, flee, or die. By August of that year, the Assyrian towns of Qaraqosh, Tel Keppe, Bartella, and Karamlish were all captured by Islamic State.
In February 2015, Islamic State conquered more than 30 Assyrian villages along the Khabur River Valley in Syria. Dozens of Christians were kidnapped and thousands fled. In addition to murders, kidnappings, rapes, forced conversions, and displacement, a vast number of artifacts and sites belonging to the ancient Assyrian empire were desecrated and destroyed.
Sangari explained that “behind the scenes,” world powers’ agendas are intertwined with the fate of Assyrian Christians in the Middle East. He noted, for example, that Russia is “fueling the flames” as it tries to establish a foothold in Syria. Sangari points out that Russia will benefit from its consistent partnership with the Kurds, who have been fighting against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria but who also want to use the Syrian conflict as an opportunity to achieve statehood—which, as a byproduct, would displace the Assyrians from their homeland.
“Russian President Vladimir Putin is merely the latest in a long line of Russian leaders who made breaking out of the Black Sea a primary strategic and foreign policy objective,” said Sangari. “Putin has achieved this goal in Syria with his support of the [Bashar] Assad regime, which has provided him with a seaport [in Latakia] on the Mediterranean and bases for Russian combat troops and aircraft. Putin cannot let the Assad regime fall because of its economic and political importance to Russia. The Russians cannot afford not to meddle in the region. For that same reason, they have long supported the Kurds in their ongoing struggle for statehood.”
Sangari argues that world powers’ nuclear deal with Iran, which he called “purely economic,” has also affected the Assyrian population. Western governments acting on behalf of their economic interests need a footprint in the region in order to make the transition easier when sanctions on Iran are lifted, giving the Western nations the leverage they need to make it into the Iranian market ahead of other countries, said Sangari. Iranian businessmen were crossing over into the Iraqi Kurdistan region daily in order to negotiate possible future deals with the same companies that are now established in the area, he said, explaining that world leaders were willing to make the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) their ally in order to gain access to resources in Iran. But when the KRG became a Western ally, Assyrian Christians were told to seek aid from the KRG if they wanted support, rather than relying on world powers to provide them with the training and weapons they need to defend their own lands.
Sangari said that two weeks before the Islamic State attack on Mosul in June 2014, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces collected weapons from Assyrian Christians.
“[The Peshmerga forces] went home to home and collected every single weapon, under the concept that ‘we are collecting weapons to make you safer because we worry about people that have loyalties to ISIS,’” he said. “This is illogical,” continued Sangari, “because you won’t find a Christian who is loyal to the Islamic State.”
The Kurds fled Mosul in the middle of the night, without informing the city’s other inhabitants, including the Assyrians.
That August, two days before the Assyrian city of Qaraqosh was cleared out, the Kurds again went house to house to collect weapons, just as they had in Mosul. When the Assyrians realized the Kurds were fleeing again, they broke into the local armory only to find that all of their weapons had been stolen, Sangari said.
Sangari believes that the Kurds are strategically vying for the region to become unified as a Kurdish state that includes formerly Assyrian lands—without giving the Assyrians the right of return.
While the Assyrians are displaced and possess no weapons, the Kurds have gained enough trust from the U.S. to acquire the weapons to fight Islamic State, with the goal of ultimately taking control of an area that was formerly settled by Christians, according to Sangari.
So what does this all mean? In Sangari’s estimation, global and regional powers use the Islamic State threat as a strategic and operational tool to redraw and redefine the Middle East’s borders.
“ISIS is everywhere. Everybody has an opportunity to use ISIS,” he said.
Sangari’s views on Islamic State and the Kurds are shared as far back as 2002 by Edward Odisho, a linguistics scholar at Chicago’s Northeastern Illinois University and an Assyrian Christian who fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Odisho told ABC News that year, “We (Assyrians) are in a critical stage today. We have the Arabs on one side and the Kurds on the other. And although we have good relations with our Kurdish brothers in northern Iraq, unfortunately, now the Kurds are behaving in the role of a big brother.”
Sangari further noted that if one looks back at “every single Christian and Yazidi woman that was taken captive and raped, and created a new generation of ISIS babies…they were all taken out of the KRG-controlled areas or Kurdish-controlled areas. At the same time, not one Kurdish woman was taken and raped.”
Another card the Kurds are playing, Sangari suggested, has to do with genocide. In March, the U.S. State Department gave the much-anticipated official “genocide” designation to Islamic State actions against Yazidis, Christians, and Shi’a Muslims in Iraq and Syria. Many human rights organizations had been advocating for that designation for more than a year. But the U.S. made no specific mention of the Assyrian Christians as an ethnicity when it announced the designation. Sangari said the U.S. stopped short of acknowledging the Assyrians’ plight because that would defeat “the narrative to create a larger Kurdistan.” In the absence of an official “genocide” designation, independent relief groups like The United Assyrian Appeal try to frame the Assyrians’ plight as such.
The Kurdish Democratic Union Party and its allied groups, meanwhile, last year established an “auto-administration” governing structure in northern Syria that they describe as respectful to the considerations of groups like the Assyrians. The auto-administration’s co-chair, Hadiya Yousef, told ARA News that the governing structure is “based on mutual agreement between the different components of the region, and includes Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Syriacs, and other groups in northern Syria.”
“As our semi-autonomous experience is fresh,” said Yousef, “we are trying to further open channels of communication with different forces on a regional and international basis, trying to convey our aspirations to the world and demonstrate that we’re able to manage the local affairs in a pluralistic manner.”
Additionally, Kurdish political parties last month formed the Kurdish National Alliance in Syria, which supports the Kurdish-led auto-administration and also calls for establishing a “federal state” in Syria in order to end the country’s five-year-old civil war.
“We believe by establishing a federal state in Syria, we could avoid any future clashes between the different social components, as every group would be fairly represented in a federal system,” Mustafa Mashayikh, the spokesman for the Kurdish National Alliance in Syria, told ARA News.
In Iraq, about 10,000 Assyrian Christians are fighting against Islamic State for the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Sangari noted. Many Assyrians fight under the Kurdish flag in order to feed their families, but they ultimately wish to protect and defend their own homeland, he said.
“We just want our nation to survive and live in peace,” Sangari said.