The title of this piece has a question mark for a reason — I want you to come to your own conclusions. I hope to bring to light as many of the moving pieces in our national future as I can and add as little speculation as possible, though some will be nigh on impossible to withhold especially towards the end. Its important to learn about what has already been set in motion and the relationship between rhetoric and action in order to survive the furnace of Iraq.
I want to express in the most sincere terms exactly how worried I am about our future away from any attachment to a Church or political party. Make no mistake: we are on the cusp of annihilation forever in Iraq. Do not be reassured by anything contrary to this. Unlike some, Assyrians and non-Assyrians alike, I have nothing to gain from our destruction but everything to gain from our success. Similarly, I have everything to gain from people meaningfully responding to our impending destruction, and everything to lose if people believe we have been even mildly successful. We need to understand and accept the urgency with which we need to address these existential matters on our terms. We need permanent solutions.
In order to talk about a last betrayal, I will discuss some of the recent ones. We cannot take another betrayal whatever its source as the next one will be our last one. In the following sections, I will discuss the current dynamics in the Nineveh Plains, Baghdad’s role in our affairs and its relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), proposals for our future, and the Assyrian Democratic Party (ADM). I hope to bring to light the severity of our situation, and how the only course of action left for us is to explore, to the fullest extent possible, is self-sufficiency.
Smoke and Mirrors in Nineveh
Maps are consistently used as weapons against Assyrians, which is why I am going to share some important ones with you in this section and avoid using ones that spuriously attempt to plot actual demographics. Because, more generally, maps are great tools for our oppressors to illustrate their current demographic superiority, to themselves and outsiders, outside of the context of systemic land theft and genocide we have suffered at their hands. They present a snapshot of our suffering imprisoned within a moment of time. They are literally an illustration of what has been taken from us, and the rewards given to those who have done the taking. They are punishments doled out to the punished. Please think carefully before you indulge or entertain any such maps; you will be purchasing a ticket to your own mutilation.
In the map directly above more than the others, you can see a neat line emerging all the way from Sinjar in the west which cuts east through the Nineveh Plains, separating Alqosh, Tel Keppe and Bashiqa in the north from Bartela and Baghdede and Karamlesh in the south. Given that Kurdish forces have now dug in and halted their advance through Nineveh, the Iraqi Army and Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) will be tasked with liberating the remaining ISIS held districts. Once this occurs, the province will be split almost evenly: 15 districts including Mosul would be under Iraqi Army control, and 16 would be under KRG control — a suspiciously even split. It is no secret that since the advent of ISIS, Kurds have increased the size of the region they control in Iraq by around 40% since 2014.
Moving to the present, there is no doubt there has been careful planning between the KRG and Baghdad, with US mediation, before the commencement of the Mosul operations. What we do not know however is what has been decided post-Mosul. The KRG remain bullish about not withdrawing to pre-ISIS boundaries. They claim there is a deal in place with PM Abadi confirming this which has not been revealed yet because it may well make the Iraqi PM appear weak, whilst Baghdad confirm that an agreement is in place but claim it is one that includes the Peshmerga withdrawing to pre-ISIS boundaries. Something, somewhere must give, but in the meantime, we are treated to this macho rhetoric.
What the deal actually entails will not be shared until the last possible moment via facts that emerge on the ground. This is in keeping with the interests of both the KRG and the Baghdad, and obviously not ours or any other minority group. KRG Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa said that if the KRG reaches an agreement with Baghdad, there may not even be a need for a referendum. Has a deal already been done? Has the Nineveh Plain already been divided into northern Kurdish-ruled enclave and the a southern Baghdad-tied enclave as the maps and rhetoric suggest?
For Sale: Assyria
Like many countries in the Middle East, our lands have been cursed with beauty and laden with resources. What remains mostly off the radar for many Assyrians is the nature of what has been decided behind closed doors; in the realms of business and oil Production Sharing Contracts (PSCs) — things we neglect and don’t understand or appreciate. Instead, we prefer reside in the dirty drama of political intrigues and rhetoric where things everyone understands like loyalty, treachery, deception, insult, weakness, strength are all on display to provoke our rage or support.
Whilst we scrutinize this endless and rhetoric as some kind of pastime, the KRG busied itself securing oil contracts with some of the biggest oil companies in the world via Massoud Barzani’s designated oil broker, the thoroughly corrupt Ashti Hawrami. I am not kidding: there is literally a whole catalogue of articles on his activities as well as the corruption surrounding the KRG oil trade between local and Western actors.
If you look at the situation with Gulf Keystone Petroleum, a company which bought PSCs in the disputed territories of Sheikhan in Nineveh, you will see the same gutting of natural resources by opportunistic Western actors and their contacts in the KRG. GKP was embroiled in a huge scandal in 2011-2012, which saw the CEO pocket vast sums of money, despite it being a loss making company. Other execs at the company were treated to similar contentious payouts regardless of performance, even Kurdish-British MP Nadhim Zahawi, who defended his involvement as a well-remunerated strategic adviser in facilitating these deals.
A very important piece of investigative journalism recently revealed Ashti Hawrami courting US officials in Houston in 2006 with the purpose of selling resources in the north in exchange for political and financial support specifically for the KRG:
In 2006, a newly appointed minister for natural resources in Iraqi Kurdistan named Ashti Hawrami quietly spent several weeks in Houston meeting with American officials.
He met Cheney, White House Chief of Staff James Baker, Gen. David Petraeus, US Congressmen Ed Royce, and executives at Halliburton, the company where Cheney previously served as CEO. According to a former regulatory enforcement officer with an American agency that oversees and investigates financial dealings, the meetings were fruitful. The investigator — who spoke to GlobalPost on the condition of anonymity because he is bound by a nondisclosure agreement — said the Americans gave Hawrami their blessing to try to expand the territorial boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan into areas traditionally controlled by the central government in Iraq, and which held promise for oil reserves.
Western powers played an active role in the expansion of Kurdish territory in the north at the expense of Assyrians and other minorities. They encouraged this expansion so the KRG could formally control the resources Western powers were looking to exploit. As authoritarian and tribal as the KRG is, Western actors had nurtured them since ’91 and found it easier to work with them over the less secure, volatile Arabs in the south who were struggling with their new found freedom.
What resulted was 6 PSCs being signed between Exxon and the KRG in 2011 with Exxon recently relinquishing stakes in 3 in 2016 given lack of confidence and the tumultuous political situation in the KRG). Exxon dropped the eastern most three here, but retained their 80% share in Pirmam, Alqosh and Bashiqa — with the latter two lying outside the KRG zone. We now find ourselves in 2017 and it is no coincidence that the line of Peshmerga has moved beyond Alqosh and Bashiqa. Will these areas now be naturalized into the KRG a similar fashion as other districts in Nineveh have been? If so, we will not even be given the opportunity to fight against the KRG policy of conducting a referendum in our so-called disputed territories.
This scandal never really saw the light of day in the media given the focus on military matters. Many of the actors involved have successfully buried it in legal terms. Some individuals, like former Exxon Chief and Donald Trump’s new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, directly contravened both the Baghdad Constitution and stated US policy objectives at the time by dealing directly with the KRG in securing these PSCs for Exxon. He now finds himself in the position to encourage these kind of deals and make them consistent with US policy objectives.
So you see, the Nineveh Plain was lost before it was taken. It was sold before we had a chance to build something sustainable for ourselves there by those who expanded their political argument to include financial incentives for anyone supportive of their territorial growth. This arrangement was mutually beneficial and was configured a long time ago under the watch of a succession of US presidents and their functionaries. What we cannot take away from Western policy concerning us here is its consistency.
Baghdad as Jekyll and Hyde (mostly Hyde)
Despite Assyrians in Iraq numbering over a million strong in 2003, we disempowered ourselves by normalizing the narratives of our neighbours which actively worked to diminish our stake in our lands. Lands we considered unquestionably our own were rendered administratively “disputed”. Islam was accepted as the highest source of authority in Iraq via its enshrining in the newly ratified Constitution (signed off by Yonadam Kanna, the only Assyrian and one of the 35 people on the Governing Council). We disbanded our militia numbering in the thousands due to pressure from the US and funding concerns — the only ones to do so.
Since “Free Iraq”, Baghdad has done almost nothing to strengthen and empower Assyrians. In fact, it has done quite the opposite at every opportunity.
As Iraq began collapsing after 2003, Assyrians found themselves driven out of the urban centers they called home and contributed to for generations. Assyrians were killed and chased out of Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk with extreme violence and intimidation. By 2015, influential groups had taken control of 70% of the houses of Assyrians displaced from Baghdad. There were massacres inside Churches. Yet, there was unshakable faith in the Federal Government. The hope was that they would one day come good for us if we persisted and worked with them in the correct way — this approach stemmed from and radiated out by our most prominent political party, the ADM.
This hope was invested in the political process in Baghdad despite Iraqi lawmakers consistently picking the wrong battles. Whilst the war against ISIS rages on, the Iraq Parliament has busied itself with passing, or attempting to pass scandalous bills which Islamizes children of families with one Muslim parent, an alcohol ban, and even an emerging discussion on polygamy. There is a profound and deeply depressing irony in trying to combat extremism throughout the country militarily whilst simultaneously legitimizing and expressing extremism through official government legislation.
Our heritage is also not safe: there was a recent decree by a Sunni religious leader to rebuild the Nabi Yunus mosque after ISIS desecrated it. However, an ancient Assyrian palace was recently found underneath this mosque via the network of ISIS-created tunnels. The mosque’s reconstruction would result in the destruction of this palace as the mound it lies under would have to be bulldozed completely. There is no reason why the mosque can’t be rebuilt a short distance from its original site to protect this heritage — something which will break the pattern of mosques being built on top of Churches in Iraq.
This carelessness is not limited to societal matters (such as strange posters around government buildings encouraging the wearing of hijab, or the condemnation of Valentine’s Day), but extends to political rhetoric affecting our very future in the country. In a recent to the US to meet President Trump, Abadi attended the usual conferences and events which attempt to enhance understanding of Iraq among your typical D.C. crowd. Curiously, at the end of his appearance at the United States Institute of Peace on March 20th, he had this to say about a potential semi-autonomous area including Christians in Nineveh:
“Its a tough one” he begins after a long pause, “we should be inclusive. We have included minorities in their own security […] but I don’t think you protect yourself by having partition.” This is an attempt to project strength and a unified and undivided Iraq. What is curious however is that during the same visit, he was asked about co-operation with the KRG and that claimed “decentralization strengthens Iraq”. Are we to surmise that decentralization here is positive for the KRG but negative when considering any new political provinces or regions? Because the rhetoric is certainly confusing, if not insulting, when you have peshmerga digging trenches and fortifying themselves across the line they have drawn in Nineveh.
Some may argue, as Abadi has here, that Baghdad did sanction the formation of the Assyrian Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU) and welcomed them into the Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) militia fold, legitimizing their role in the protection of Assyrian lands. This is true. But what he seems to want credit for is not a privilege but a demonstrable right of people to defend themselves against genocide and ethnic cleansing. This should have been our right years previous, yet Baghdad proved impotent and incapable of combating KRG encroachment and domination in Nineveh. After all, Nineveh is an area of Iraq that Baghdad neglected and abandoned due to sectarian tension between Sunni and Shia Arabs within the country.
Its clear that the Shia dominated parliament in Baghdad viewed Nineveh as a Sunni backwater and retreat for Ba’athists, and treated it as such. It was inconsequential that Assyrians who have lived there for millennia would suffer in the process. And suffer we did. This weakness and disinterest in the north prompted two things:
- The enhancing of ties between aggrieved (or corrupt and opportunistic, like former Mosul Governor Atheel Al-Nujaifi) Sunni Arabs and the KRG — sponsored by Turkey. This relationship has the goal of establishing a Sunni Arab dominated region tied to the KRG (who are tied to Ankara), something Iraq lawmakers rejected in Baghdad. It remains to be seen where this project will go, but there is certainly appetite for re-calibrating efforts post-Mosul, both in legislative centers in Iraq and in D.C.
- The movement of Turkish military into Iraq as soon as the Mosul operation began— at the invitation of the KDP. Now, there are 18 Turkish bases across the Kurdistan Region. All of the signs are there that Turkish interference in Iraqi affairs is set to grow still with the recent attack on Yezidi YBS (another group absorbed into the PMU structure by Baghdad despite its PKK affiliation). When the KDP deployed its Rojava Peshmerga, a motley crew of poor Kurdish refugees from Syria, against the YBS and laid siege to its positions in Khanasor exchanging casualties in the process, Baghdad had no response and no protection for the YBS. What would happen if a similar operation was conducted against the NPU?
Baghdad’s neglect of Nineveh was in stark contrast to its obsession over Kirkuk and its oil. Whilst Iraqi forces are locked in combat with ISIS in Mosul, Kirkuk has been riven with political unrest. Even though ISIS still maintain a territorial presence in a third of the province, the Kurdish Governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim, has supported the recent vote authorizing the hoisting of the Kurdish flag on state buildings, claiming:
“Kurdistan’s flag is not only the flag of the Kurds, it is the flag of all the social elements of Kirkuk. We tell those who want to instigate chaos: this flag is that of the Arabs and Turkmen, as well as the Kurds. It is the flag of Kurdistan, which is a place for everyone.”
The vote was boycotted by more than half of the Arab and Turkmen members of the council in protest after the governor rejected calls to postpone it. As you can see, KRG ambitions flourish whenever these actions occur. And these actions occur due to weak central government presence. Take the situation in Mosul in 2005 when Sunni Arabs boycotted elections, entailing that the 31 of the 41 seats became occupied by Kurdish bloc members — a vast over-representation which I have written about previously. This was something which contributed to the further destabilization of Mosul. The scenario repeated itself in 2009 when Kurds staged a boycott after Sunni Arabs re-emerged as a voting bloc and dominated the provincial council.
The nonchalance with which Baghdad has treated the KRG’s interference with territories outside of its demarcated borders emboldened the KRG to keep extending its influence. Baghdad has struggled with containing the insurgency which manifested as a response to Western occupation and the shift in power within the country. The federal government has also been mired in corruption which paralyses and weakens its capacity for effective governance.
As a result, the KRG has been permitted to conduct its affairs outside of its allotted territory with impunity: dominating provincial councils and security apparatus, criminalizing dissent, blocking and dismantling Assyrian security forces independent of the KDP all populate a long list of abuses which fall outside of its territory, nevermind inside. Baghdad has not fought our corner, and there remains the most dreadful question: what happens after the Iraqi Army completes its mission in Mosul and retires back to the south?
Qubad Talabani described Kurdish independence as a “potential eventuality” in a BBC Hardtalk interview in late 2016. This is the kind of confused, contradictory nonsense we are dealing with when it comes to the issue of KRG independence.
Ordinary people must banish the idea that the KRG is this slumbering giant bursting at the seams, being kept in check and away from independence by a desperate Baghdad government and a cautious international community. If you believe that, you have to thank the KRG propaganda machine. If you look past the suits, the KRG are a patched up coalition of tribal warlords and oil crooks who have rendered themselves useful and subservient to their more powerful neighbours and various international actors. They have been heavily subsidized by both Basra’s oil for the last decade and international community handouts. Declaring independence would confirm that they have nowhere near the material capability to provide for their citizens without the assortment of life support machines they are currently hooked up to.
No. One thing is clear about the KRG’s ambitions for the region and that is the manner in which it goes about fulfilling them. Far from being a thundering and assertive political and economic powerhouse people naturally gravitate towards, the KRG perpetuates a war of attrition against only those neighbours which it considers weak and ripe for exploitation. It is a policy characterized by subtle, incremental growth of territory which compliments their unwillingness to be depicted as the aggressive party and face the consequences of such a representation. It is a flag here, a checkpoint there — not a roaring army displacing thousands in an afternoon.
With ISIS, the KRG saw an opportunity to destabilize these lands it has prized faster than it could ever dream of doing itself. And the KRG likes get-rich-quick schemes. Once ISIS had butchered and/or expelled local populations, the peshmerga could then claim to march through these lands as liberators, and not invaders. This is not the behaviour of a nation-state in waiting, but a cowardly group of opportunists.
The KRG’s addresses its lopsided economy and endemic corruption through expansion of territory to feed these behaviours instead of rectifying them. It is not interested in solving its more existential problems of tribalism, authoritarianism, and rampant theft. This entails the relentless encroachment on Assyrian land through phony irredentism outside the KRG and ensures our continued flight from the country and their continued expansion into these resource rich areas they have already sold to the highest bidders. Recent news of Genel Energy’s revision down of oil reserves from 172 million barrels to 59 million at Taq Taq, the KRG’s most prized oilfield, delivers another huge blow to dreams of potential independence and contributes to the KRG’s quest for more territory (and more resources).
The KRG desperately want to portray their situation as the capable and reliable underdog with bags of potential, but this unravels every so often when they expose themselves to even moderate scrutiny. The constant production of propaganda surrounding their imminent secession from Iraq, has only one element of note: its high frequency. It doesn’t mean anything. Under the surface, it simply serves to strengthen the KRG’s position in negotiations. It wants to sell as much oil as it can to as many people as it can — many intelligent investors will not be prepared to enter into direct negotiations with sub-state actors.
What Assyrians here are resisting is land theft, not KRG independence. Many of us seem pre-occupied with preventing the latter as a means to prevent the former, which is perverse and doesn’t maximize our own potential. Personally, it makes no difference to me whether or not the KRG becomes a sovereign state. If it does in its current configuration of autocracy, party political militias, theft on industrial scale and a huge black market, another civil war between the different Kurdish factions will likely commence.
Now, who is prepared to resist the first in practical terms? Baghdad certainly hasn’t expressed a desire to, nor has the international community — the latter positively encourage it. One of the main avenues of resistance is through the formation of new provinces or regions which shore up the administrative and security capabilities of minorities there. This contributes to preventing KRG interference, but the potential to get this wrong is endless.
Hi, Future? We Want our History Back
Inevitably, there are a lot of voices which outline a vision of our continuity in Iraq. There always have been, but they are increasing in volume now. In the past, we called for a “safe haven” which did not materialize (though some still use this ancient language now). Now, the two words you will inevitably hear are “region” and “province”.
First, we have the plan endorsed by the Assyrian Mesopotamian Organisation (AMO): an “Al Rafidain Region” comprising of the three areas: Yezidi Sinjar, Turkmen Tel Afar and Assyrian Nineveh Plains. This plan is based on Article 119 of the Iraqi Constitution which permits the formation of new regions provided a defined number of provincial council members or citizens vote in approval in a referendum.
Second, there is an ADM fronted “Nineveh Plains Province”, which [superficially] unites all of the Assyrian parties operating at the Federal Government and KRG level (despite seemingly irreconcilable differences in policy between them) in requesting the formation of a province specifically in the Nineveh Plain.
The key here are the political definitions of “region” and “province”, with the former being greater in administrative power (much like the KRG) than the latter. According to the Iraqi constitution, lands defined as a province can be annexed into regions, whereas regions are standalone political entities which demand more autonomy from the Federal Government — i.e. there is no Constitutional mechanism to annex a region. This means that a province, old or newly made, can be annexed by the KRG via referendum; a key component of current KRG policy. With our best interests in mind, let’s assume that it is something we want to desperately avoid for reasons too numerous to list in this section.
The primary (and historic) argument for preference of a “region” is its protection from annexation. Whilst no doubt securing “region” status for Assyrians in Nineveh is desirable, its formulation as presented here is weak. The conjoining of the three minority dominated provinces in Nineveh assumes good inter-communal relations and neglects the fact that Tal Afar is still an ISIS stronghold. Some Sunni Turkmen, kin to their Shia counterparts who mostly populate Kirkuk, had even been operating within a Al Qaida affiliate before ISIS emerged as a militant group. These Sunni Turkmen joined ISIS in good numbers, just as some local Kurds did, when they surged eastward towards Mosul. To suggest the inclusion of Tal Afar as the area geographically separating Sinjar and the Nineveh Plain within this proposed region underestimates the complexities involved in normalizing relations between these communities once liberation has been completed. Different areas are at different stages of recovery and rehabilitation, matching them together to render a political project as demographically viable is a potentially disastrous and certainly irresponsible simplification.
Another dimension: the KRG has also been heavily invested in subverting the strength of minorities independent of KRG patronage. Many of these communities, including our own as we know, have been destabilized and infiltrated by the KDP as part of their project of expansion. Voices within each community have been marshalled towards the goal of formal KRG annexation. Obviously, the great many do not want this, but when money and livelihoods are involved, people are often swayed by thoughts of security and salaries. After all, heavily conditional security is better than no security, and this is precisely what the KDP offers, much like their Ba’ath tutors.
The leap to “region” at this stage is ambitious but premature. Perhaps the most robust criticism of it is that it would be unfeasible without miraculous foreign intervention which displaces KDP influence across a great swathe of territory and installs a low level but almost permanent Western troop presence. In this, the AMO continues the long walk into the night represented as the Assyrian question as foreign determination — there is simply no other way to practically incorporate a region into the legislative structure of Iraq without first building the workable foundations for it — meaning ourselves. There are simply too many moving pieces to begin with the premise that these areas can be transformed into a functional polity through a few strokes of Trump’s pen. It simply does not work like that on the ground.
Looking at recent history, the United States were responsible for creating and nurturing the Kurdish Region owing to US strategic interests, not the goodness of their hearts. Crucially, people must remember that this was an exchange, not a gift. The international community went to great lengths to incubate the KRG with all manner of financial, military and technical support in return for peshmerga support on the ground. Without this intervention and collaboration, Kurds would have continued to die in their thousands, just as they are doing in Turkey.
If you remove the italic text, all of the above sounds like a good argument to throw everything at lobbying efforts. One must accept that an Assyrian homeland does not represent a strategic interest within US or European policy — and it never has done — because we never bargain from a position of strength, only weakness. We may have a seat at the table, but what cards do we have to play with?
In what fantasy do we think that now is the time, after having been severely diminished demographically, to construct a convincing case which petitions for an altruistic, salvation-scale event? Wake up. Even without extensive historical knowledge of our betrayals from both inside and outside actors, don’t betray your own instincts on this matter.
Never have we demanded so much from others at a time when we have so little — and this alarming formulation grows more exaggerated with time. Certain people are still obsessed with professionalizing our lobbying or advocacy whilst neglecting the fact that the foreign policy we seek to influence has never been rooted in justice, but fulfilling shared, strategic interests.
We are left now with a more locally constituted province solution which scarily refocuses our efforts back onto ourselves (ourselves, the people we have neglected for so long). For me, this is the most workable (if coupled with a non-negotiable refusal to partake in any KRG-imposed referendum on annexation). It had already been approved in principle by Baghdad in January 2014 — something immediately cited in the recent letter to Abadi from Assyrian parties in Iraq. What I do find peculiar is the cast of characters proposing it this time around. For some background, Mardean Isaac summarized this cast of characters best in writing about the NPU and the relevant actors tied to it and other groups:
Given that this is what the NPU represents, it is alarming that the political representatives of tiny, overtly KDP-controlled PR projects like Dwekh Nawsha (Emanuel Khoshaba Youkhana) and the Nineveh Plain Forces (Romyo Nhakari) have succeeded in impeding support for the NPU among Assyrians. Even leading members of Abnaa Alnahrain, one of three Assyrian political parties with seats in the KRG, have publicly depicted our security situation as one divided neatly along lines of party political patronage, wrongly pointing to that that status as our primary impediment currently.
It is in fact the gestures and positions of these actors that are delimited by party political concerns, not the existence of the NPU. These parties depict a situation as an impasse when it is self-evidently fluid. Abnaa, Assyrian Patriotic Party “ATRANAYA” or BNDP could easily put an end to the one party-one militia formula by publicly supporting the NPU. Abnaa’s case is certainly different — the fact that the party was born of a split from the Assyrian Democratic Movement and has since then partly defined itself negatively against the ADM means that exclusive support for the NPU would be politically embarrassing, even if the NPU in fact represents the national principles (and the security policy) for which many individuals now in Abnaa have been fighting for years.
The very existence of APP and BNDP as political actors is entirely dependent on support from the KDP, the same party that has facilitated, organised and overseen the expropriation of entire swathes of Assyria, and the same party that betrayed our nation to the Islamic State in the summer of 2014. These parties have no decisional autonomy — the only way they could ever assert themselves is by fighting between each other for the crumbs falling from Barzani’s table — so pledging support for the NPU is impossible for them, again for party political reasons.
The KDP benefits hugely from men like Khoshaba and Hakkari, and what they receive in exchange for burnishing the image of our oppressors is quite straightforward: a career, money, favours, and a seat on a gilded throne actually made of dust. Remember the last time you had a conversation with a westerner who reacted with confusion when you revealed that the endless stream of propaganda they’ve passively absorbed about the KRG and the peshmerga has no connection to reality? Romeo and Emmanuel are among those who should be thanked for that.
While our politicians throw smoke in the eyes of the Assyrian public by pretending that ‘disunity’ is ‘holding us back’ in order to serve their political interests, the Assyrians of Nineveh, both those fighting for and being protected by the NPU, recognise it as our legitimate military force by the principles and actions of the NPU alone — not its party affiliation.
This is why find it interesting that, in the letter to Abadi, this curious union of Assyrian political parties were noticeably coy about including anything regarding the NPU. With reference to Article 2 to keep the security of the Nineveh Plain “in the hands of its own people”: the tiny, NPF and Dwekh Nawsha proxy militias are also our “own people”, but as stated above, contrast heavily with the stated purpose of the NPU. This kind of language betrays a sense of compromise where none should have been made. In an effort to render the demands multilateral and feed into and capitalize on the anguished but misguided cries of unity from many Assyrians, the ADM has positioned the brand of the NPU as an extension of a political party. This may be the case in a sense, but it is ultimately an unhelpful perception to create when matters of substance could have been emphasized.
If it indeed had to be made, it should have been made with firmer language which clarifies and preserves the essence and objectives of the NPU. Moreover, explicit language should have also been used in rejecting any KRG imposed referendum in the Nineveh Plain in reference to province creation. This was absent. You can find the letter in full below:
Bless me Father, for I Have Sinned
In tandem with our political maneuvers runs our religious figureheads and how receptive they have become to overtures from the Kurdish leadership. We are not alone here; the KRG have consistently made advances into the religious establishment of each minority community in Nineveh to acquire support for their policies leading ultimately to the annexation of lands.
Religious leaders have historically been targeted by all despotic regimes in order to ordain their nefarious policies, and in the case of the KRG, promote a pluralistic, multi-faith Kurdistan. The relationship is mutually beneficial too, since religious establishments forge a close proximity to power necessary for their survival and influence, and the tyrants who bring them into the fold can ventriloquize and popularize their objectives among otherwise indifferent or hard-to-win-over people.
Saddam had even abandoned a rigid form of secular Arab nationalist tyranny and began courting Islamic leaders in Iraq as the country withered away into poverty and dysfunction during the oil-for-food sanctions in the 1990’s. When people have nothing, they often look to the heavens for something and priests and other religious leaders are the perfect people to act as the intermediaries in such an exchange.
Our recent history here is unenviable. In keeping with the rhetoric of Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako who first warned of the dangers of arming Assyrians, and then condemned the US for supporting the endeavor, Archbishop of Erbil Bashar Warda committed to the same line in a recent interview with NCRegister regarding the formation and recruitment of all “Christian militias”.
Interestingly, Bashar Warda (a man once identified as ministering “Kurdish Christians” in an unamended article) claims that he is not a politician in the latter half of the clip, yet first says he “encourages [our] people to join either the Iraqi Army or the Peshmerga and not the militias”.
If Warda condemns violence, the hegemony of “tribes” or “people who solve their problems with guns”, how can he encourage Assyrians to enlist into the peshmerga and justify it under the pretense it is one of the two legitimate forces in Iraq? The peshmerga is not one force, but several. It is entirely divided on Kurdish party political and tribal lines, and everyone knows this. Just because it is a recognized institutionally within the Iraqi state does not mean it is a “unified” modern force capable of fulfilling the ambitions of Assyrians in the Nineveh Plain — an area, I love repeating, that is outside the KRG.
I’m sure many of us cannot even name one Kurdish religious leader based in the KRG, yet ours occupy the media both here and there with alarming regularity. Not only do we have KRG-created political proxies, we have to contend with this slew of religious leaders-turned-politicians who envision Kurdistan as our future. In a way (and putting aside Church politics for my own sanity), this has been allowed to happen because of the lack of a inclusive, unified nationalist movement. And it is here I appropriately turn to the party which is colloquially known as such.
The Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM)
Last weekend, Yonadam Kanna was re-elected as Secretary General of the ADM in bizarre circumstances. I say bizarre because it isn’t really an election if there is the only one candidate— something rightly frowned upon in each and every democratic election, whatever the scale. Yet, Kanna was the only candidate and was celebrated for winning all 340 votes.
I want to take this opportunity to highlight how disappointing this is. Admittedly, it was inevitable; Kanna was never going to be seriously challenged in the present circumstances. I had the faint hope that maybe there would be some desperate manifestations of dissent spontaneously take shape after his ascendance became increasingly likely. There wasn’t. His grip on Assyrian politics not only remains intact, but his mandate has been rendered absolute. We all suffer for this in my humble opinion, even his supporters.
Let me be clear with an anecdote: I have been a staunch supporter of the ADM for a long time. As recently as the 2009 Iraqi elections, I queued alone for six hours surrounded by boisterous Arabs and Kurds waiting to enter a makeshift voting center in London set up for those legally allowed to vote provided they met certain requirements. I stood there wearing an ADM lapel pin in hope it would attract a curious stranger or fellow Assyrian and waited patiently. None such interest came.
I was however approached by a man who spoke to me in a language I did not know. I proceeded to casually brush him off: “Sorry, I don’t speak Arabic.” He replied and said “that isn’t Arabic, its Kurdish”, to which I replied “Sorry, I don’t speak Kurdish.” Puzzled, he asked “so what are you?” I replied “Assyrian”. His expression immediately transformed into one of confusion and mockery. He said no more and walked away.
Eventually, after being hassled by the Arab volunteers at length about my documents (they didn’t hassle anyone else), I entered and voted for the ADM. Through all of the nonsense I had endured that day (and far from it being a fun day out, like it was for many Arabs and Kurds I saw smiling and laughing among each other, waving their flags), I walked away feeling that I had done something of mild importance. I have not voted since.
Coming back to Kanna: so much of our pressure and resistance against this one man show (and there is precious little that is meaningful and constructive) is handled by external actors invariably considered to be on the fringes of reality. We are subjected to the usual slurs of knowing nothing, being in diaspora and not appreciating the situation — sadly, all things Kurdish agitators accuse me of when publicly criticizing the KRG.
Our response to KRG abuses is relatively muted from party political sources. We had seen the split between a group of members from the ADM with the formation of political protest group, Abnaa Nahrain. These individuals should have stayed and fought, but, and I say this with the utmost respect for some of their principles: they took the easy way out and reduced our struggle to one across parties. What has now happened to the ADM is a complete gutting of divergent opinion and a lack of criticism — this is unity in the very worst sense.
Kanna is a political genius. Nobody stays in power for over 20 years does so reluctantly, much less make a section of our people believe that — such a term is always engineered and orchestrated as such, sometimes delicately and emotionally, and sometimes through force. He has mastered the manipulation of narrative from 2003 until now: everything good that could have happened did not happen, and everything bad that could have happened did so. We realize this when we look around us, yet we are supposed to be uncritical and thank him for his contributions.
I understand all of the words Kanna uses individually, but I understand none of them when he puts them together. He is a man who could take off one hundred suits and still be wearing one more underneath. Under his watch, the movement died and became a political party with the signing of an Islamic Constitution, normalizing of relations with the KRG and the surrendering of Nohadra. It has now died as a party in 2017 with the full ownership of it handed over to this allegedly reluctant hero.
This is what is crucial: for Kanna, what is more important than anything else, is the aforementioned seat at the table. The world could burn all around him and we could all leave Iraq, but the important thing is that our ashes are represented in the Iraqi parliament.
Again, for Kanna, “marginalization” is primarily defined as political remoteness to power. Nevermind the long list of abuses suffered in Iraq and in lands administered by the KRG (both of which have included even the softening of terms from ethnic cleansing to “demographic change”); the first thing that came to mind for Kanna was how many seats do we have at the table. This kind of thinking has hollowed out any impetus we could have had to forge a sustainable future for ourselves in “Free Iraq”. This rhetoric kills popular movements and the energy behind them — people don’t resist and mobilize for a seat at the table, they do so for their lands and rights.
In some ways, Kanna is one of the strongest believers in Iraq, more than any Arab or Kurd I have ever known. The reason for this, as I can only presume, is that his position in the allotted quota for minorities has been rendered unassailable since his only opponents are other Assyrians. Whereas ordinary politicians must fight for their seat with huge advertising campaigns and relentless canvassing, Kanna essentially has political tenure. Iraq is the fountain from which he sustains himself and from which we are repeatedly poisoned. I am not claiming that we should cease our participation, all am I asking is what has it achieved so far to warrant us continuing with the same formula?
Jeopardizing relationships with Arabs and Kurds for the sake of our nation is a dangerous, and often fatal course of action but these relationships must be analyzed and assessed for what they are and what effect they have had on us, not what we hope they could be or what they could yield for us. Kanna wears his golden lapel pin of a map of Iraq and tries to convince us of the latter.
The Assyrian Democratic Movement was Assyrian, but it now readily uses the “Chaldean Assyrian Syriac (Christian)” booshala name; it used to be Democratic until a room full of hundreds of people could not see another option other than a man who has led them for 20 years with precious little to show for it; and it used to be a movement until it became a club which resents criticism and interference from both Assyrian non-members and members alike. Its transformation is all encompassing.
The ADM needs to reverse this. It needs to become a healthy political party again — one that can inspire a movement. Failure to do so will threaten its survival post-Kanna. Its many dissenters need to gather the confidence to struggle internally for a better party and liberate it from what it has become. I write all of these things about the ADM not because I am compelled to by another ideology, faction or group, but because I, like many people disillusioned with the course the ADM has taken since 2003, simply want it to be better.
Maybe I am wrong to express any optimism about a resurgent ADM, but one thing that it has produced and sponsored that is of priceless value to us as a nation is the NPU. However, this one glimmer of hope can easily be extinguished via compromise or a lofty decree, as has been the case in the past with the ADM under Kanna.
All of those things considered, its difficult to chart its path back to becoming, once again, a powerful political unit fit for our modern plight but I truly believe it needs to in order to take its place as the most effective voice for the Assyrian nation in Iraq. One of the first things it needed to do in order to recapture its purpose was to grow out of Kanna. The time was ripe for his apprentices and proteges to gracefully surpass him and submit their own vision of the future for scrutiny and discussion, but none of them even attempted to. We are left with the same gatekeeper, who holds a key that is out of sight and succumbing to rust.
Criticizing this sadly produces one of two effects: it either consolidates Kanna’s supporters around him even tighter, or feeds the flames sparked by those who criticize out of hatred or vested interests. This makes the situation unbearable for those like me who do wish that the ADM and its members were strong enough to respond to internal and external pressures with thoughtfulness rather than paranoia or obfuscation.
All of the signs are there for catastrophe. From the situation regarding oil reserves in the region, to an unpredictable and dysfunctional Federal Government and the actions of our cultish political and religious leaders — there does not seem to be enough space left on our back for another knife. Our nation cannot take much more before it becomes something which retreats into the shadows of Iraqi society, surrendering itself to history and becoming a fading remnant of Iraq’s 21st C shame.
In what is now Iraq, Assyrians have gone from demanding a sovereign state to protesting a ban on alcohol.
Iraq and all of the suffering it has entailed for us has shaped and shrunken our national consciousness. The identity of a victim is often determined or shaped by the oppressor, and we have internalized all of the bad things and punishments we have endured in Iraq for being Assyrians and haven’t converted them into anything positive. We have internalized this suffering within the borders of Iraq, and that has led us to believe that our liberation from it lies entirely within the same borders and state apparatus.
Through this lens, Assyrians simply don’t understand the urgency and care with which we need to approach our plight. We need to expand our national horizons to encompass all Assyrian national ambitions. Assyrians don’t necessarily need to become superstar activists, they just need to become activated in some way. They need to make a contribution. We need to organize on a global level with a view to building our own power and capacities in diaspora and in our homelands.
The only way to expand our national consciousness and our sense of purpose to meet this ambition is to think Assyrian: that is to say, not Iraqi, or anything else for that matter. We have to understand and accept the fact that we are alone. Once this thought penetrates our consciousness, we can truly begin the work necessary that will transform all of our lives.
Unless we manufacture something this drastic which reconstitutes power in our own hands and not the hands of others, we will lie broken on the field along with our ancestral guardians who have watched over us since our birth as a people. Here is my twist: the final betrayal will come from all of us individually. Let us not recline in our chairs in our twilight years and reflect on this impending regret.