If It's Liberated, Mosul Won't Be Safe for Minorities Unless It Adopts Grassroots Democracy

Otherwise, ethnic and religious strife could threaten the diverse region.

10/19/2016 09:50 am ET | Updated Oct 19, 2016
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Iraqi Yezidi refugees, who fled from ISIS in the Sinjar district of Mosul, at the Newroz refugee camp in Derik town of Al Hasakah, Syria in Nov. 2014.

MAKHMUR, Iraq ― Diversity is what defined the land that is now Nineveh Province and its capital city, Mosul, for thousands of years. Like other parts of the Middle East, it is historically multi-ethnic and multi-religious. While many of those who now fight hard to kick the so-called Islamic State out of Mosul pay lip service to the beauty of this cultural richness, their proposals for governance of the region after ISIS are merely scenarios for more ethnic and religious strife. A more logical solution, put into practice already in northern Syria, is hardly ever discussed.

The potentially problematic future of Mosul and Nineveh province is mentioned in practically every background article that is now being published about the battle for Mosul, which finally began on Oct. 17. The issue at hand is how to make sure that the fragile coalition of irregular fighters and official and semi-official armies, both domestic and foreign, doesn’t unravel as soon as the enemy is defeated and lead to yet more strife and retribution.

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Peshmerga forces attack ISIS targets on Oct. 17 near Mosul.

For many, this issue boils down to the question of how to divide Iraq or how to divide the Nineveh lands. Two possible solutions are often discussed. One is to transform Nineveh Province into an autonomous region, like Kurdistan in northern Iraq. The second is to divide Nineveh into smaller regions that would be governed autonomously by designated groups, such as Yazidis, Christians, Turkmen, Sunni Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs.

These two proposed solutions are problematic because they divide people along ethnic and religious lines. One group would be in charge of the others.

The former governor of Nineveh Province, Atheel al-Nujaifi, is an advocate of an autonomous Nineveh. A nationalist Sunni Arab, he leads one of the armed forces participating in the liberation of Mosul. But if Nineveh was autonomous, how many rights would, for example, the Turkmen have? How would the rights of non-Sunnis be guaranteed?

Kurdistan does fairly well when it comes to minority rights. Christians, for example, have always been safe under Iraqi Kurdish rule, and many refugees, including small ethnic and religious groups, have found refuge in Kurdistan since ISIS barged into neighboring provinces. But this safety is not inherent to Iraq’s pseudo-state system; it is rooted in the Kurdish experience of brutal suppression at the hands of former President Saddam Hussein. It is not certain that Nineveh, under Sunni Arab rule, would be hospitable to minorities.

What about the idea of smaller autonomous cantons, or territorial divisions, for different groups? Assyrians, Turkmen, Yazidis ― all sorting out their own affairs. But problems immediately arise in this scenario. Turkmen are predominately Sunni. Do they need their own region, or should they move to the Sunni area? What about Shiite Turkmen? The Yazidis are ethnically Kurdish. Should they join a Kurdish region, or would they feel safe among Sunnis? Do the Kurds need a region at all, since perhaps they could just move to Kurdistan?

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Yazidi refugees celebrate news of the liberation of their homeland, Sinjar, at a refugee camp in the Rojava region of Syria on Nov. 13, 2015.

Such a system leads to seemingly unsolvable issues. It is impossible to decide for whole communities that often have mixed identities which group they should feel the most loyal to. Moreover, even in “exclusive” territorial divisions, there will always be minorities – unless you ethnically or religiously cleanse them, which is what nobody in his right mind wants.

This system would also do no justice to groups that have nearly disappeared from Nineveh since ISIS’s arrival, such as the Chaldeans and the Shabaks. A community that is barely clinging on would probably not be entitled to its own region – which would not only institutionalize the result of ISIS’s brutal reign, but would also make it forever impossible for members of these groups to return to their ancestral lands if they wished to.

So then what?

There is no one group in the Rojava system -- no one language, no one nation, no one flag, no one religion. Diversity is key.

The key for a peaceful future is bringing people together to sort out a governance model that represents all groups. Such a system has been put into practice for some years now in a region of northern Syria called Rojava. There, the Kurds, who hold a majority in almost the whole of northern Syria along the Turkish border, introduced a system of direct democracy, or grassroots democracy. This system is not Kurdish. It is designed for regions that include many ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural groups ― for regions like Rojava, which has Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, Armenians, Sunni Muslims, atheists, Christians and many more. For regions like Nineveh.

There is no one group in the Rojava system ― no one language, no one nation, no one flag, no one religion. Diversity is key. Every group has the right to teach its children in its own language. There are several official languages, there is full religious freedom, and every group has representation in all governing bodies. All this is laid out in a social contract ― a sort of a constitution.

The governing bodies work from the bottom up: neighborhood councils have real power. They come together with representatives of other councils to make sure decisions are made not only in the interests of one group but in the interest of the wider region as well.

The governing bodies work from the bottom up: neighborhood councils have real power.

This bottom-up approach also tackles another problem that would not be solved by an autonomous Nineveh region or by cantons for exclusive groups: the risk of a proxy war. The Rojava system makes it harder for foreign powers to exercise control over the region. After all, proxy wars can only be fought if there are divided groups that can be controlled and manipulated.

The question we are really addressing here is this: When the future of Mosul and the whole of Nineveh is decided, do we want to institutionalize ISIS’s inhumane mindset, a mindset opposed to even the slightest divergence from a brutal norm? If yes, then go ahead, establish another pseudo-state or give every group their own little territory. But perhaps choosing the opposite would be better ― a humane answer to ISIS’s monstrosity.


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