by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is an analyst and journalist specializing in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has a comedic email list about the Middle East that you can join here.Whether intentional or not, the Middle East has spent over a millennium Arabizing and Islamizing its peoples. Few know the consequences of this phenomenon better than the Assyrians of Iraq, who have had to contend with Arab nationalists and Islamists since the Rashidun Caliphate overran Mesopotamia, known to Arabs as “the Land of Two Rivers”. In response to the rise of the Islamic State (IS), thousands of Assyrians have thought to arm themselves in self-defense. While they today point their guns at jihadis, enemies whom Iraqis and Westerners too consider terrorists, the Assyrians could tomorrow use their weapons to uphold the sovereignty that generations of Iraqis have denied them.
Militias have thrived across the country since the Iraq War, but Assyrian militias have evolved only in the last few years. One of the first, Dwekh Nawsha, appeared in late 2014 to defend a northern village against IS. Composed of seventy volunteers supported by Iraqi Kurdistan, Dwekh Nawsha helped the Kurds expel the militants from part of the Assyrians’ historical homeland (Associated Press, “Christians Reclaim Iraq Village from ISIS“, CBS News, November 13, 2014). Small in comparison to its Kurdish and Shia counterparts, whose fighters numbered in the tens of thousands, the Assyrian militia nonetheless saw IS’s expansion as an existential threat: whereas the Kurds and Shias kept most of their territory, the Assyrians lost much of theirs. Dwekh Nawsha soon became an international cause célèbre, attracting volunteers from as far as North America (Rebecca Collard, “Meet the Americans Who Have Joined an Iraqi Militia to Fight ISIS“, Time, May 27, 2015). Competitors such as the Nineveh Plains Protection Units benefitted from Dwekh Nawsha’s fame (Steven Nelson, “Iraqi Christians Form Anti-ISIS Militia, and You Can Legally Chip in“, US News and World Report, February 6, 2015). The fortitude and popularity of the Assyrian militiamen, however, belied how much they had lost and suffered over the preceding centuries and decades. The Assyrians, like other Middle Eastern Christians, were fighting not to win but to survive.
Preceding Muslims by millennia, Assyrians feel proud of their history. They take their name from Assyria and trace their heritage as far back as Babylon and the Code of Hammurabi; Iraq itself reflects this history in Babil Governorate, an administrative division just south of Baghdad (Mordechai Nisan, “Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-Expression“, 2nd ed., Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2002, p. 181). The Assyrians share some elements of their religion and terminology with their Muslim neighbors. Middle Eastern Christians, Jews, and Muslims describe God — the same god to them all — with similar superlatives (Bernard Lewis, “The Multiple Identities of the Middle East“, New York: Schocken Books, 1998, p. 25). The caliphates, though, threatened the Assyrians as the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires never had. Unlike Christianity and Zoroastrianism, Islam forced the Assyrians to accept second-class citizenship or convert; Byzantium and Persia, on the other hand, had more less allowed them to keep to themselves. Facing pressure from Shias to the east and Sunnis to the north and south, Assyrians took refuge in the remote mountains between Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and the Tigris (Nisan, p. 183). They settled in Nineveh, a historical region where tens of thousands of Assyrians lived before IS’s Iraqi conquests. The now-minority religion began a long history of learning to avoid or resist the danger presented by the majority, continuing to this day.
After the Sykes–Picot Agreement partitioned the Middle East between several states dominated by Arabs and Muslims, the Assyrians found themselves in Iraq. In some ways, the new country might have helped Assyrians define a national identity that they had lacked under the Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman Caliphates: Middle Eastern countries’ adoption of conscription brought all their citizens, including Christians, closer to the state, allowing Assyrians to acquire nominal equality absent from the Islamic states of the Middle Ages (Lewis, p. 94). Even so, Arab nationalists such as Saddam Hussein saw and targeted Christians as outliers. In keeping with the traditions of a one-party state, Ba’athist Iraq denied the Assyrians rights and tried to Arabize them (Nisan, p. 190). Even the Iran–Iraq War, which might have united all Iraqis against Iran regardless of ethnicity or religion, only helped Hussein reinforce Iraq’s Arab, Islamic identity in the face of his Persian enemies (William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton, “A History of the Modern Middle East“, 6th ed., Boulder: Westview Press, 2016, p. 444). The American invasion, meant to establish democracy and equality in Iraq, fared little better. Iraq’s democratic but impotent postwar government promoted implied sectarianism, favoring Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish politicians at the expense of Christian ones (Cleveland and Bunton, p 527). The Iraqi Security Forces, once effective and powerful under Hussein, came to depend on the Americans to function at the most basic level. The Assyrians, meanwhile, have no one on whom to rely.
The behavior of this minority religion in the Iraqi Civil War contrasts with the experiences of their counterparts in Lebanon and Syria. In the 1990s, the Christian militias of the Lebanese Civil War alternated between cooperating with Israel and Syria, two foes that sought to transform Lebanon into a puppet state; now that Israel and Syria have retreated from Lebanon, Hezbollah still counts many Christian politicians as its allies. During the Syrian Civil War, Christians have aligned themselves with a government itself run by a minority, the Alawis. In Lebanon, minority religions could take advantage of a proxy war. In Syria, they are making common cause with a dominant minority. Iraq offers neither. Instead, the Assyrians have turned to the Kurds and the Shias, who experienced their own massacres at the hands of Hussein. The Peshmerga, Iraqi Kurdistan’s military, oversees several Assyrian militias (Adam Lucente, “Iraqi Christian Militia Draws Foreign Fighters“, Al-Monitor, July 24, 2015). The Imam Ali Brigade, an Iranian-backed Shia militia, sponsors at least one (Samuel Smith, “Sending Weapons to ‘Christian Militias’ in ISIS War in Iraq Is ‘Bad Idea’, Chaldean Patriarch Warns“, The Christian Post, May 25, 2016). Hussein saw the Kurds and Shias, like the Assyrians, as non-Arab, non-Sunni enemies of Ba’athist Iraq. Whether sympathizing with the goals of the Kurds and Shias or not, the Assyrians realize that they need whatever allies they can get. Otherwise, they may find that Arab nationalists and Islamists have succeeded in running them out of Iraq.
Now that the Assyrians have soldiers and weapons at least, they can perhaps exercise more autonomy under the preoccupied politicians of Erbil than they ever enjoyed under the caliphal central governments of Mecca, Damascus, Baghdad, and Constantinople. In fact, self-defense may prove the Assyrians’ best chance of maintaining what little heritage and territory they have left. That strategy worked for the Christians of Lebanon and Syria. The international community will have to watch what it does for the Assyrians of Iraq, among the forgotten minorities of the Middle East.