Turkish airstrikes an existential threat to Iraq’s Assyrians: report

Yasmine Mosimann  12 Jan 2021 – ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — Turkey’s sustained aerial pursuit of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq is posing an existential threat to the country’s already dwindling Assyrian community, according to a new report.

Published on Monday by the Assyrian Policy Institute (API), the report titled ‘Caught in the Crossfire’ examines how decades of cross-border conflict between Turkey and armed Kurdish group the PKK has impacted Assyrians, an ethnic minority group in Iraq.

“The airborne attacks often occur in close proximity to areas mainly inhabited by Assyrian, Yazidi, and/or Kurdish civilians, posing significant risks including: endangerment of civilian life, displacement, traumatization, destruction of property and agricultural lands, and threats to livelihoods,” reads the API report.

While the unrest indiscriminately affects civilians living in the Kurdistan Region’s border regions, ethnic minority groups including Assyrians are especially vulnerable to the violence because of their unique experiences of systematic discrimination and violence both past and present, states the report, which is based on interviews with impacted families.

“Ultimately, those set to suffer most in the ongoing hostilities are vulnerable peoples like Assyrians and Yazidis — many of whom have been displaced multiple times, with smaller numbers who now live in temporary accommodation as a result of recent strikes,” the report adds.

Making up a large part of Iraq’s remaining Christian community, those commonly described as Assyrians often choose to self-identify as Chaldeans, Syriacs, or other terms depending on church denomination, sometimes rejecting the term Assyrian altogether. They live in large numbers in Duhok province, the centre of Turkey’s military operations in Iraq, either in their historic villages or as displaced persons.

Turkey routinely launches land and air operations against the PKK, which fights for greater political and cultural rights for Kurds in Turkey. Operations take place within Turkey itself, in the Kurdistan Region, and in Iraq’s disputed territories of Shingal and Makhmour. Both the PKK and Turkish forces have had military bases in the province on Kurdistan Region’s border with Turkey for decades.

Fighting intensified in June of last year, when Turkey launched renewed air and ground operations against perceived PKK targets within the Kurdistan Region and disputed territories. At least eight civilians have been killed during the air operation – none of them Assyrian, according to the report.

Should the conflict’s impacts on civilians not cease, it may “lead to the irreversible and tragic exodus of Iraq’s indigenous and vibrant Assyrian community,” the API said.