Keynote Speech: Assyrian Policy Conference 2020

Below is a transcript of my closing keynote for the Assyrian Policy Institute’s Virtual Conference 2020:

I want to provide another, maybe bleaker but definitely clear-eyed perspective on what has been discussed today, first about the KRG, then about Iraq, and finally about Assyrians more broadly.

In the context of providing information to political representatives, journalists and analysts: it’s very easy to sit here and criticise the KRG, an entity that most Assyrians in Iraq are now governed by, because the list of failures is long, and in most cases, known but not publicly acknowledged: this is despite ever-expanding trade, support and funding to the tune of billions of dollars (and Pounds and Dinars and Euros and Roubles and Rupees and Yen) all since 2003, yet the salient point for me is that the KRG still doesn’t really exist. Political representatives, Journalists and analysts keep talking about a single entity, a single structure, and I daresay sometimes as even having a single purpose, when everything inside the KRG is split along extremely partisan lines: there is no “government”; there are two dominant political parties with their own administrative structures, bureaucracies, and armies; there is no “Peshmerga”, there is KDP militias and PUK militias (and an even more granular sense, individual commanders and their own loyal units); there is no “budget”; there are salaries, pensions and benefits split between tribal factions who have bargained amongst each other for political positions; and there is no “law enforcement”, there is wasta, nepotism, dynasty and the arbitrary arrests of ordinary citizens; and finally is no “economy”; there is only cash flow to these dynasty figures and their followers, as well as the local conglomerates which serve as the business arms of these parties and have monopolies on energy, construction and so on, all alongside a burgeoning black market.

In a way, people are still trying to talk it, write it and fund it into being as one coherent entity, but the prospect of a democratic region is becoming increasingly remote as the dominant parties are only consolidating their power with this support, not decentralising it. That is an ongoing failure.

It must be said, these conditions are endured by everyone who lives under KRG authority, but I want to create a distinction here: I don’t think it’s enough to say Assyrians are at the margins of this kind of society, as per the title of a previous panel today. Legislatively, politically, demographically, we are instead invisible because only fragments of us are acknowledged. Our faith, which is viewed monolithically as ‘Christian’, something of a pseudo-unifier in the context of Iraq, perpetuates the Ottoman millet system where deferential religious leaders are positioned as political spokespeople of non-Muslim communities. Our language too, referred to as “Aramaic”, which is a whole family of ancient languages now mostly locked into antiquity, obscures the real, living particular, Assyrian Aramaic (or Syriac Aramaic, as academics like to refer to it). Or our material heritage, which lies rotting across the country, or confined to museums and galleries as glimpses into a bygone era shared by all, not as linkages to any still-existing people. These conditions were created for us in our homeland by the states which formed from the ashes of empires after the First World War, and these conditions have been gradually exported to our adoptive states in diaspora, which interpret us largely through the limited prism of our own persecution, which is to say, a people who are “othered” in their own homeland.

In the context of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, its highest offices will publish English language videos promoting diversity, inclusion and tolerance under their watch, while in reality, the same authorities routinely detain, threaten and sometimes even murder journalists and political dissidents. In the context of Iraq, Kurds, Assyrians and Yazidis are all minorities demographically, but Kurds are a privileged minority, constitutionally and in real terms, while Assyrians and Yazidis are disenfranchised minorities. We see why throughout history.

When thousands of Assyrians were massacred by the Iraqi Army and Kurdish tribesmen in Simele, Northern Iraq, in 1933, it was under the pretence that we were troublemakers and foreign agents. This is despite the fact that Assyrians, unlike local Kurds or Arabs at the time, were the only group in Iraq to not have mounted any kind of armed insurrection against the colonial authorities — both Arab and British.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and ordered all local militias who had helped end Saddam’s regime to disarm, Assyrians, believing in a brighter and more inclusive future for themselves inside Iraq after fighting for one so long, were one of the only groups to follow the directive, while Kurdish and Arab groups only grew their stockpiles.

And most recently, when ISIS swept through Northern Iraq in 2014, resulting in the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army fleeing north and south respectively without a fight, it was only the Assyrians who had been arguing for a full decade prior, both inside Iraq and in diaspora, that local security should have been created and supported, that local administration should be empowered to deal with issues and threats.

So we see, Assyrians have abided by the laws or decrees of the day and promoted inclusive policies, but we were always the ones most punished for it. This isn’t some kind of romantic exceptionalism; I have outlined three pivotal moments throughout Iraq’s history, and after each of them, we emerged far worse off than our neighbours. This set new brutal precedents as to how the state can and should deal with communities outside of their own self-defined political mainstream.

Iraq as a state.

In a society like this, the weak are punished for their weakness, and the strong enrich (and beautify) themselves without needing filters. These injustices are not typified by clandestine, off-radar criminal operations, but representative of a brand of justice inside the country. Iraq is currently a place where crime is institutionalised at the heart of the revolving door of government, where the same names and families play musical chairs with powerful positions. I would argue this began with the inception of the state itself: this colonial collaboration between British and Arab elites which metastasised into the modern picture today: a patchwork of warring militias and their foreign sponsors.

The state has never corrected its tendencies to eat itself, and all of its people, its natural resources and its diverse cultures from the inside out, and as fast as permissible. Whether it’s Ba’athism, Kurdish nationalism, religious extremism and sectarianism — all chapters in the story of Iraq — it is the vulnerable and minoritized who suffer the most, because they not only demand a better ‘deal’, they demand a better system.

Assyrians were already a broken people after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. We argued for a contiguous homeland spanning from Mosul to Hakkari in modern day Turkey where we could administer our own affairs and regain a sense of security and dignity, but this was denied to us. Our demands grow smaller and smaller with each new round of violence and exile and we continue to repeat them to the international community, but we are told our demands grow less compelling, less feasible, and less realistic, with each new generation of Assyrians who make them. There is a strong positive correlation between how great the sympathy Assyrians receive from various government officials, and how little they believe we can achieve making them.

Here, the officials who provide the most positive rhetoric are doing so because they know just how much is being taken from us in return. No elites, whether from the East or West, sat down sympathetically with Assyrian generals a century ago and released statements promoting inclusion and diversity. Because these statements are those of mercy to the defeated, not expressions of understanding, respect or desire for genuine partnership. And mercy should not be our ceiling.

This politics of the gesture, of tokenism, increasingly characterises our modern experience, and represents a large part of the optics we are expected to enjoy and appreciate. But Assyrians demand the most frightening thing of all in Iraq: indigenous rights, and through that quite perversely, equality. It is frightening because larger groups agitate for privilege, convince their proxies to do the same, or want a mere re-ordering of the same oppressive hierarchy in their favour. Calling for equality disrupts the very fabric of Iraq, the essence of it. For the international community, equality presents a new scenario it cannot quite digest. Western governments who agonise over the failure of their policies in Iraq do so because nobody knows what a positive settlement would actually look like, or how it can come about. Instead, the status quo becomes repackaged and remarketed to all while hoping for different results. And what do they say about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

The truth is, as with any arduous political transformation, change is less exciting and more gradual than we want it to be. Unfortunately, for short-term political reps, there is no sustainable get-rich-quick scheme in politics. Our election cycles do not allow for it, despite the rush to boast about “discovering” them: whether it’s the formal partition of Iraq (or “divorce” from Baghdad, as Masrour Barzani wrote in the Washington Post before the Kurdish independence referendum in 2017 — and still insisting on alimony), or a resurrected “Biden Plan” 2.0 which legislates for an doomed federalist structure along ethno-sectarian lines, Sunni Arab, Shia Arab and Kurdish, signalling the full erasure of indigenous communities outside of this imagined triumvirate. Iraq, while incredibly dysfunctional, is also very stubborn to such all-encompassing change, not because of an enduring sense of patriotism across the country as many optimists may believe, but because these changes would profoundly disrupt the thoroughly networked patronage systems of the entrenched elites. Recently however, with the protests that rocked the country last year, we can see a broader consciousness shift, but it remains to be seen where this goes post-Covid-19.

Since Iraq is an oil economy, it is lawmakers who control 94% of Iraq’s revenue through the sale of crude oil. In contrast to this, income tax revenue as a percentage of GDP is just 2%. This is important because this effectively makes elites in Iraq primarily beholden to foreign buyers who are often looking for a good price in exchange for favours and a receding paper trail. In accountancy firm Deloitte’s recent auditing of the KRG (at the invitation of the KRG), it refers to spending from a “budget”, despite no official budget having been passed for years. Reportage like this would not fly anywhere else.

Whereas in Western societies, the contract between government and citizen is maintained through a relatively progressive taxation system — the source of government revenue. So with this dynamic, the Iraqi state has never been truly accountable to the Iraqi public, feeding into a widespread, always growing cynicism, and ‘take what you can get’ attitude. The state generates its own revenue almost independent of public participation, effectively extinguishing any prospect of a transparent and fair economy. This creates patronage systems — or the expectation of a government salary, for whatever labour or none — in return for loyalty. This ultimately creates lords and peasants, not public servants and citizens. Iraqi analyst Harith Hassan described this in April 2019, as “the rentier nature of the Iraqi state, with oil revenues entrenching factional politics that revolve around the distribution of spoils rather than competition among ideologies and political programs.”

Note the word “spoils” — Iraq’s wealth has never belonged to Iraqis; it is rather something that is won through scheming or force, and then divided completely among the winners. And this strikes at the heart of where Assyrians find themselves now in Iraq, amid oppressive patronage systems, bickering warlords, sectarianism, and an information gap papered over by Western governments, NGOs and the bigotry of low expectations.

Efforts to diminish us with those limited definitions mentioned previously, like “Christian” or “Aramaic-speaking”, are often paired with utilising us as props to further the agendas of larger, more dominant factions who deploy them: the KDP has historically co-opted individual Assyrians to temporarily boost their own interests, or praise their record on tolerance, restitution and justice for our people and others as a whole when all evidence points to the contrary.

This can be seen most recently with the rise of Chaldean Archbishop of Arbil, Bashar Warda, a man who is on record calling for his parishioners to not join any “Christian militias”, with the implication that this included the NPU, and join the Peshmerga or Iraqi Army instead. He climbed the political ladder so quickly in doing so, he was invited to the White House to legitimise the flawed framework of “International Religious Freedom” legislated in 2018 by the now outgoing U.S. Administration, when all it has done is strengthen sectarianism within our own community, disempower us by allocating prestige and influence to unaccountable clerical figures and faith-based organisations who are concerned with parts of our community and not the whole, and bypass any serious partnership opportunities with representatives who are actually accountable to our community.

If the API did not exist, there would be almost no evidence-based and codified record of why the NPU is so important, or of how our representation was mostly stolen during the last election in Iraq/KRG or what the security situation in the Nineveh Plain means for the people who actually live there, because, while the conflict with ISIS has wound down, the information gaps are actually widening. Both Assyrians and non-Assyrians would be ignorant about these events, as well as the repeated attempts to undermine our voices, and antagonise our political objectives. And as we have seen throughout Iraq’s history, this ignorance has only thrown the country as a whole deeper into ruin and turmoil.

The International Community.

We can see exactly where given the recent conflict in Artsakh, or Nagorno-Karabakh. First, for any Armenians on the call, I want to extend my sympathies to you. Watching Armenians say goodbye to their ancestral lands and burn their own properties to mark their departure was tragic, but ultimately a political decision that was engineered by members of the international community and forced onto a cornered Armenian executive. Assyrians as well as Yazidis in Armenia fought and died alongside you, and we were all let down again.

For Assyrians, there is a major lesson here. I want to repeat what I had written recently: the sovereign, democratic state of Armenia with its diaspora and global advocacy base, multi-billion dollar economy, trade links, a professional army, celebrity power and the ability to raise millions of dollars overnight couldn’t leverage enough support from any world power near or far to protect a tiny piece of land almost fully populated by Armenians from the advance of forces deployed by two despots and their autocracies. Assyrians should be under no illusion that any US administration, or any other power, will ‘save’ us and help us prosper in our homeland as we, a minority absent all of the above which Armenians have collectively developed over the last century, continue to beg at the feet of our adoptive states for scraps of aid and acknowledgment, and sing and dance about the systems, both in the East and the West, which legitimise and perpetuate our oppression.

I wanted to emphasise this point because it’s an important one. Assyrians who believe we need to develop some kind of unified executive base or central authority in order to properly negotiate a settlement with world powers are living in denial. The evidence is not only in front of you throughout our own history; it is in the here and now.

So what do we do?

We are not only losing our lands and having our identity stripped and auctioned off, we are losing the battle to speak our truth and build our own narrative — alongside others, as equals. Telling our story is an act of resistance against this, and the more we rely on others to tell it, the more we will be once again be forced into relationships defined by dependency and failure. We lost control of writing our own history and regaining this ability must be a priority for all of us, because without an open channel to do this, we cannot even begin to understand what we must do to continue living and contributing as a distinct people, with a distinct culture and language in the modern world.

Make no mistake, this conflict regarding information had begun a long time ago. Whether its Barzani controlled media such as Rudaw or Kurdistan24 referring to us as “component” of a broader Kurdish identity, or Kurdish nationalists vandalising Wikipedia pages about Assyrians, or Iraqi channels which continue Saddam’s Arabisation campaign by denoting us as simply “Christians” (as reflected in the quota system), or Western journalists or analysts who see any of this on the first page of their Google search results and go with it, we are constantly put within conceptual schemes of the world formulated by others and on their terms — and this reflects power, a hierarchy, that has only been created because of genocide, exile, and continued persecution.

We can even go way back to when Western Christians designated our Eastern faith as a heretical interpretation of Christianity, and began missionary activities with the aid of material incentives. They pit newly Catholicised Assyrians, or Chaldeans as they were soon anointed by the Vatican, vs “Nestorian” Assyrians with bread, honey and the promise of protection in the far reaches of the Ottoman Empire. And our people, and other disempowered groups, continue to be incentivised to disassociate from each other up to the present day. Ultimately, all of the promises and guarantees are broken. Every single instance of our humiliation and destitution, every chapter of it, began with a lie, but we will make it end with the truth.

When I said earlier that transformational change within Iraq is more gradual, that applies to the Assyrian community too. A friend once said that before we can liberate of our lands, we must liberate our minds. I want us to incorporate everything we do into a framework of self-help which promotes values like sustainability, accountability and transparency. We don’t even know how many of us there are in the world and what we have in our national toolkit. This toolkit is a hypothesised economy: if we are Assyrians, we should demonstrate that in real terms by building effective organisations, creating real and online spaces for free expression, funding bodies to help brings projects to life, networking spaces and so on.

But we’re still mostly having that same League of Nations conversation over and over again because each new generation in diaspora is taught to believe in the virtues of the systems they have been raised within and the justice it can be trusted to deliver. And this is so deeply ingrained in us psychologically, whether you are on the left or right on the political spectrum. The key is, you can often rely on this justice to be delivered to you as an American Assyrian, or a British Assyrian, or a Swedish Assyrian. But this justice does not get on a plane to Iraq and show up outside Athra’s door in Alqosh; instead, it shows up and smiles in photos with those who are oppressing you.

The desire of Assyrians to restore a sense of rootedness and dignity, to achieve equality and enjoy prosperity in our homelands will continue wherever Assyrians live. This desire, along with the trauma we collectively endure, is inter-generational and will not wane; it will only become more refined, more focused into precise actions.

We have to remind everyone, and ourselves, that we are more than what they say we are, more than what they write we are. We are being written out of history, but we can pick up the pen and write ourselves back in. I want people to remember that before they accept inferiority and indulge in defeatism about the future. There are many people who are working to achieve great things for our community, you’ve heard from some of them already but you will hear from more of them tomorrow. We are always making friends too. Lasting change does not reliably come about from a single monumental moment, but a series of smaller moments which reinforce each other.

Thank you.

Creator.