As the world beats its war-drums for Mosul’s fall, it is clear that President Obama hopes his legacy will be defined by the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS) in Iraq. Now, his sights are on Mosul, the de facto IS capital and the most populous and symbolic city controlled by the world’s worst terrorist organization. But true victory in Iraq over IS will be defined not by the fall of cities and battles, but how the communities of its most persecuted are defended and rebuilt during Iraq’s eventual reconstruction.
For Assyrians, Iraq’s indigenous Christians also known as Chaldeans and Syriacs, liberation of Mosul holds a different significance beyond just the defeat of IS. It is the possibility of a self-governed Christian ancestral homeland in the Nineveh Plains where beleaguered Christians can rebuild in security and maintain their faiths 2,000-year-history in Iraq. The central Iraq government has already promised a self-governing province for Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in January 2014, but US support and recognition is critical to achieving this state in post-Mosul reconstruction. This endorsement can be a way for the Obama administration to absolve itself of past-errors in protecting Iraq’s minorities. It is also the last chance for a cohesive, self-governed Christian land within historic Assyria after years of forced depopulation as a result of the sectarian conflicts plaguing Iraq.
As a multiethnic Iraq fades, it’s clear that a self-governing region attached to the central government of Iraq is crucial for the cultural survival of Assyrians and the preservation of one united Iraq. Amid Kurdish land seizures and tension from the fault lines of Arab-Kurd rivalries, the future of the Assyrian identity and Christianity is threatened as Mosul liberation nears. Assyrians are not a spoil of war, or a people to be forcibly assimilated into Kurdish nationalism or Arab identity. We are not and never will be “Kurdish Christians” or “Arab Christians,” but instead the proud children of Nineveh, the Assyrians.
Self-government is really self-defense. The only strategy for Assyrians to remain in Iraq is keeping Assyrian-run security forces in their own land which they can rely on if attacked. We know this from the betrayal of our “friends”. After the Iraqi Army had abandoned Mosul in June 2014, the Kurdish fighters abruptly withdrew hours before IS attacked the Assyrian towns and villages.
Christians and other religious minorities were left defenseless in one of Iraq’s darkest moments for its minorities: mass graves, sexual slavery, a starvation siege on Mt. Sinjar, forced conversions, abandonment of land, and the abduction of children to serve as child soldiers. This was a true genocide now recognized by the US. Imagine the feeling of helplessness we Assyrians felt as terrorists bulldozed the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, and the despair we felt as we watched on television screens men smashing half-human, half-animal statues called Lamassu on Nineveh’s ancient Nirgal Gate in our homeland knowing there is nothing that could be done to stop them.
Recently Iraq’s last remaining Assyrians promised to stay and help rebuild their land after IS, according to a new report called “Hope for the Middle East.” This determination to self-governed land is testament to Assyrians’ love for one united Iraq and their own beloved homeland despite 13 years of religious and ethnic cleansing in a country once known for its rich mosaic of tribes and faiths. This commitment is a fulfillment of slain Archbishop Mar Paulos Faraj Rahho’s will where he called upon the Assyrian Christian community to work with Muslim and Yazidi Iraqis to develop ties across religious divisions within “our Beloved Country, Iraq,” despite his murder at the hands of Al-Qaeda. It is also a recognition that Christians will never again be victim to another genocide as part of their right of return and reassurance of peace, prosperity but most importantly a future and a hand in rebuilding Iraq.
Once Mosul falls, the US-led coalition must have clear policies in place that ensure the repatriation of Assyrians displaced by IS to their cities and villages in the ancient Nineveh Plains. As history shows poorly defined US policy on the protection of religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq has been a disaster post-2003. The failure of the US to consider the effect of its foreign policy on Christians contributed to the estimated two thirds of the Assyrian population that left their homeland during the US-led Iraq War. Iraq’s Assyrians were once a thriving middle-class community of 1.6 million before the U.S. invasion, and now less than 400,000 remain.
Even under President Obama post-genocide missteps have been made. Despite Congress signing into law the creation of a Special Envoy to Promote Religious Freedom of Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia in August 2014, more than one year passed before an appointment was made. Critical time was lost to rebuild and advocate for communities who have been through the unthinkable.
Now the US must act fast on supporting an Assyrian homeland. Iraqi military efforts have already liberated about 50 percent of IS territory and more than 700,000 Iraqis have returned to their homes in areas that IS used to control, claimed Brett McGurk, Obama’s anti-IS coalition ambassador, last month. The race for Mosul follows major military victories this year, including the fall of Fallujah, Ramadi and Beiji, and the re-capture of Qayyara airbase, Iraq’s third largest in July, which will be a vital staging ground for Iraqi and US troops eying the city.
Mosul is now truly center stage in the US-led coalition effort to collapse the self-styled IS caliphate with some experts speculating Iraq’s second largest city may find its western borders cut off as early as the Islamic New Year in October. It’s reported that the Iraqi Army’s eight brigades north of the Mosul front inch toward the city at a steady rate of around 15 kilometers a day. Mosul is a prize too many of Iraq’s internal warring powers desire, and power sharing after the city’s liberation may feed into future conflicts over land.
Today truly may hold an even darker future for Iraq’s Assyrian Christians unless a protected self-governing territory is established before Mosul’s liberation. Please don’t let history repeat itself, Mr. President. Make policy, stay true to your word, and ensure that Iraq’s Christians have a safe homeland. Keep in mind there are not enough Christians left this time to survive another genocide in Iraq.