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A few months, I wrote a controversial piece advocating for an independent Kurdistan and the direct arming of the Peshmerga and the Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG). I argued that the Peshmerga in Iraq and the the YPG in northern Syria represented the only competent, secular fighting forces engaged in the war against the Islamic State. If the US continues to fight the Caliphate by proxy, the Kurds are the best hope in keeping the heat on ISIS’ northern front.
Events the past week have cast even more doubt on the Administration’s hope that the Iraqi government is capable of defending its largest cities against a numerically inferior foe, let alone defeating the Islamic State in its territory. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has made the strongest rebuke yet stating the obvious that the incredibly well armed Iraqi Army showed no will to fight. In contrast, the poorly-equipped but fanatical YPG broke the siege of Kobane in January and surrounded and annihilated an ISIS mountain stronghold in Syria at the same time that ISIS held victory parades in Ramadi.
Left out in recent discussions on Ricochet over who to support in the war against ISIS has been the Assyrian Christians. Unlike the Kurds — with their semi-autonomous region and army — the Iraqi Christians had little with which to defend themselves during the onslaught of last summer. Christians not fortunate enough to escape Mosul had their homes marked with the “nasara” (an Arabic pejorative for Christian). And given the Islamic State’s horrific penchant for sexually enslaving Yezidi teenagers and young women and slaughtering the menfolk, the jihadists are an existential threat to what remains of Iraq’s Christians.
The Assyrians are one of the oldest cultures remaining in the Middle East and were among the earliest peoples to accept Christianity in the first century. But since much of northern Iraq fell to ISIS, over 200,000 Christians have fled to Kurdistan for safety. The ones that remain in the Christian majority region of Nineveh it seems have finally reached the conclusion that — if their culture is to escape extinction — they will need to take on the responsibility for it themselves.
Since last year, Christians in Nineveh have taken to forming their own militias like the Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU) and the Dwekh-Nawsha (“Self-Sacrificers). In Syria, likewise, the Syriac Christian population has formed an armed wing while working in conjunction with the YPG to fight both Assad and the Islamic State. It is little wonder then that given the tepid response of the US, some American Christians — many with a military background — have flocked to the Peshmerga or to the Assyrian militias to fight ISIS themselves. In the bizarro age of Facebook and Twitter, social media groups or the various anti-ISIS militias seek out westerners with military experience to fight against a 7th century death cult. While some deride them as mercenaries, or war tourists, or unhinged, there’s no denying that they are endangering their lives to fight savages.
I am fortunate to know many Assyrian-Americans, most of whom fled from Saddam after the first Gulf War. A few have gone on to become American citizens and either they or their children have joined the armed forces here. They express their dismay at the near total ignorance of the plight of Christians in Iraq and they wonder how a so-called “Christian country” would pay so little attention to them. In spite of the neglect, they are fiercely patriotic citizens and kiss the ground they now call home.
The question remains; what if anything should be done, policy-wise, to assist Iraq’s Christians? Would it be prudent to provide them with arms independent of Baghdad in the hopes that they might liberate or at least defend their communities against ISIS? In a fantasy world, might we seek to carve out an independent Assyria in Nineveh; a Christian homeland in the heart of the Middle East akin to Israel? Or something else entirely?