Aiding the Assyrians Fight Against ISIS

04/15/2015 03:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015

The Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS has engendered many tragedies -- some widely known and bemoaned, others not. One of the lesser known dangers is that the very existence of the Assyrian people in their historic homelands in the Middle East is under threat.

On Monday, February 23rd, the Islamic State attacked Assyrian villages along the Khabur River in Syria, leading to the flight of thousands and the abduction of hundreds of Assyrians. Fighting is ongoing along the Khabur: a combined front of Assyrian forces, the Syriac Military Council, and the Kurdish YPG are defending the villages on either side of the river and striving to keep the Islamic State at bay from the cities of Hassakah and Qamishli.

In Iraq, the destruction of ancient Assyrian heritage over the past weeks, including the cities of Nimrud and Dur-Sharrukin, and the destruction of the cemetery of Tel Keppe and the Mar Behnam Monastery near Mosul are gestures aimed at alienating those hoping to return to their towns and remain in Iraq. The Islamic State is succeeding in its attempt to ethnically cleanse the non-Sunni communities of the Middle East, along with all traces of the history and heritage that roots them in their homeland.

However, the battle for Tikrit has shown that Iraqi forces are now in a position to dislodge the Islamic State from at least one of its urban strongholds. Further liberation of the cities held by ISIS will be a gruelling endeavour, and if it is not accompanied by the implementation of the requisite political and security policies, no real progress will have been made towards creating a stable Iraq that is capable of protecting citizens belonging to all of its ethnic communities.

The persecution of Assyrians in Iraq that began in earnest after the 2003 US invasion reached its apogee as the Islamic State tore through the Nineveh Province following the fall of Mosul in June of last year. After both Kurdish and Iraqi forces withdrew, the jihadists were able to blaze a trail of pillage through one of the ancestral heartlands of the Assyrian people, emptying Nineveh of some 200,000 Christians, many of whom were ethnic Assyrians, along with hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis of various (mostly non-Sunni) backgrounds. These events capped a decade of persecution that has led to the displacement or flight from Iraq of hundreds of thousands of Assyrians.

While the convulsions of the past decade have afflicted all of Iraq's communities, smaller ethnic groups like the Assyrians and Yazidis - many of whose populations have been living in the precarious space of 'disputed territories' between Iraq proper and the KRG - have been decimated to the point of moribundity by extremist gangsterism and violence, against which they have been bereft of any effective security and administrative recourse.

The Nineveh Plains remain emptied, its former inhabitants living in a state of disarray in Erbil and Dohuk. But in response to the Islamic State incursion, Assyrians have organised security forces tasked with defending their ancestral homelands in northern Iraq and securing the repopulation of the Nineveh Plains and other territories in coordination with other moderate Kurdish and Iraqi forces who have already secured western backing.

Supporting Assyrian led security forces will contribute to Iraq's demographic continuity, reconciling the peoples of Nineveh to their land and helping to fortify the area against future incursion by extremists. Their will should be transformed into efficacy, and European powers and the USA can and should play a leading role in that process.

Basic army equipment - such as uniforms, vests, torch lights, binoculars, vehicles, handheld transceivers and light arms - would boost morale, formalise the regiments, and solidify their presence in town patrols. Sniper rifles and machine guns (and training in how to use them) would assist in keeping extremist militants at bay, but heavy and rocket propelled weaponry is essential to stave off the Humvees and armoured vehicles so instrumental in facilitating the Islamic State's emergence as a powerful marauding army capable of seizing and holding territory.

The flight of the Iraqi army from Mosul and the Kurdish peshmerga from Sinjar last year affirmed the importance of locally derived security, which has long been a demand of Assyrians living in Nineveh. The formation of units with a stake in the protection of their own communities is a legitimate and necessary response to those decampments.

The balance between the need for national institutions as well as local democracy is an ongoing challenge for Iraq. Ghassan al-Husseini, an adviser to Prime Minister Abadi, told the Wall Street Journal: "We believe that all minorities have the right to defend themselves, especially in their own areas. But we also believe it should not be away from the government."

Assyrian led forces are not limited in membership to one ethnicity: the province in the Nineveh Plains for which these forces are seeking to provide security is conceived as a multi-ethnic one. By acquiring sanction from the central government in Baghdad, Assyrian led security units would further demonstrate their keenness to avoid contributing to partisanship and fragmentation in Iraq.

Local security and administrative capacities are likely to form an important basis of any future national security arrangement in Iraq. This understanding has been recognised in the form of American legislation. This year's National Defense Authorisation Act, which recently passed both Congress and Senate, contains language in its Explanatory Statement sanctioning "local forces that are committed to protecting highly vulnerable ethnic and religious minority communities in the Nineveh Plain and elsewhere from the ISIL threat." The policy of European states should echo these commitments.

A recent excursion outside the town of Ras Baalbeck in Lebanon in which British soldiers and engineers erected watchtowers and delivered military provisions that helped Lebanese forces fend off an imminent ISIS attack demonstrates the enduring capacity of western forces to provide specialised security assistance to its allies. Buttressing Assyrian strongholds such as Alqosh would provide invaluable security for its residents - as well as a fillip to the men guarding it - preventing the sort of large scale population flights and seemingly permanent demographic disfigurations that have been plaguing Iraq.

In January of last year, the Iraqi council of ministers approved the creation of a province in the Nineveh Plains. A letter signed by 17 US Senators and sent to Secretary of State John Kerry in January of this year encourages State Department support for the creation of this Nineveh Plains province as well as local security for it. In helping to facilitate the contribution of Assyrians and other threatened peoples to their own self-defence in a semi-autonomous province in Nineveh, western leaders would exhibit a capacity to do small, good things in a region confronting overarching crises.

Jason Pack is a researcher of Middle Eastern history at Cambridge University, president of Libya-Analysis.com, and a frequent visitor to the Christian communities of Northern Iraq and Syria.

Mardean Isaac is an Oxford educated Assyrian writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as The Guardian and the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies.