Security in the Nineveh Plains: What it Means for Assyrians

By Neil Joseph –  2021-01-23 21:55 GMT –  In August 2020, Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi called for Iraq’s Christians to return to their country, promising that returnees would be assisted, accepted and protected. As a result, many praised Kadhimi’s appeal, viewing it as a hopeful omen for minorities in Iraq. With additional approval, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako voiced that many exiled Christians are eager to return and feel reassured by the state’s approach to the situation. However, many ethnic Assyrians, who make up the majority of Christians from Iraq, voiced their various concerns, mainly regarding the present security situation.

Most Assyrians remain removed from their lands, reluctant to return as a result of unfavourable control of the Nineveh Plains. Providing that it aims to restore the dwindling population’s presence, the Iraqi government must address Assyrian security concerns. Although Da’ish has been defeated in the Nineveh Plains (the Assyrian homeland broadly comprising Nineveh Governorate’s Hamdaniya, Sheikhan, and Tel Keyf districts), Assyrians continue to depart from Iraq. Relocated individuals remaining in the country declare that they have no incentive to return to their former towns in the region because they feel unprotected by several of the armed forces stationed there. Despite these objections, the Iraqi government has not modified the security statuses of the region, as it still authorizes the operation of unpopular paramilitaries in Assyrian towns.

The Nineveh Plains’ security situation remains contested, as both federal government forces and Kurdistan regional forces claim control there. Notably, in the Tel Keyf District, there are four principal Assyrian towns, but three different authorized armed forces: the Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi Army and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Similarly, the Hamdaniya district contains the same number of Assyrian towns and forces operating in them. A sizeable amount of the group’s holdings in the district are under the mandate of the Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU), a government-funded force initially founded by Assyrians to liberate their lands and protect their people. While it has gained the support of locals, the NPU only individually controls two of these towns, Karamlesh and Qaraqosh (Bakhdida). Exacerbating the issue, other armed forces are not as trusted by Assyrians, as return rates remain low and unfavourable accusations have been issued against the Peshmerga and PMF brigades.

Claiming to be a Christian battalion, the PMF’s 50th Brigade, also known as the Babylon Brigades, a Badr Organization-affiliate, has been operating in the Assyrian town of Tel Keyf since its liberation. Notwithstanding these claims, locals affirm otherwise, accusing the paramilitary group of pushing a political agenda, illegally seizing lands and attacking other groups. Although the force’s leader Rayan Al-Kaldani is a Chaldean Catholic, the majority of Brigade 50’s members are non-Assyrian Christians, mainly Shia Arabs and Shabaks. Furthermore, the 30th brigade of the PMF, Liwa Al-Shabak, another Badr Organization-affiliate, actively controls Bartella, a once predominantly Assyrian town prior to its capture by Da’ish. While the NPU also operates there, former residents fret over the dozens of accounts indicting Brigade 30 of unlawful arrests, assaults, kidnappings, extortion, sexual abuse, sectarian discrimination and applied demographic change against Assyrians.

Fraught relations between the community and the Peshmerga are long-standing and have worsened since the seizure of the Nineveh Plains. While government officials claim that minority inclusion is promoted in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, many Assyrians strongly disagree, typically citing voter suppression against them in January 2005 and the Peshmerga’s abandonment of their districts in August 2014. Moreover, the abandonment was preceded by a disarmament order, which left Assyrians, Yezidis and other groups defenseless against Da’ish’s onslaught. In 2016, many of these towns were liberated, but their initial capture led to an avoidable exodus of Assyrians. Over three-quarters of the former inhabitants of Baqoufa and Tel Eskuf, two Assyrian towns controlled by the Peshmerga, remain outside, remembering the ravage they faced as an outcome of the force’s dereliction.

Since the insurgency, politicians have vocalized the importance of ethnic and religious inclusiveness in Iraq. Yet, Assyrian civilians, activists and representatives are infrequently consulted on matters regarding security in their own land. Instead of meeting their demands to expand the operations of the Nineveh Plains Protection Units, the government favors proposals made by KDP and Badr Organization officials, who often have no connection to the region itself. Inevitably, the outcome is damaging. Assyrians face injustice at the hands of forces authorized by the government, furthering their lack of trust in the state and providing them with little incentive to remain in Iraq. This is a counterproductive approach in which authorities liberate lands from an occupier, but then continue to make them inhospitable for their original residents.

While the Iraqi state declared victory over Da’ish three years ago, there is much left to be resolved. Iraq will not triumph until populations subject to regional expatriation are assisted in their homecomings. Failure to do so enables the achievement of a prominent goal of the extremist group, the eradication of other religious communities in the region.