ISIS’s campaign of genocide against minorities of the Nineveh
province spurred urgent dialogue among political leaders across all
dominations on a question vital to Iraq’s future: What can be done to
protect Iraq’s vulnerable minorities? The systematic destruction of
their homes forced Iraqi Christian, Yezidis and Turkmen off their
ancestral lands, leaving them to face an uncertain future.
The solution for Christians, Yezidis, and other minorities facing
persecution in Iraq need not be to choose between emigrating to the West
nor suffering in their country.
Rather, creating a province in the Nineveh Plains for Christians, a
Yezidi province in Sinjar and a Tel Afar province for Turkmen could
preserve a lasting minority presence in Iraq and help empower local
communities. The creation of these protected provinces would better help
facilitate compensation for the loss of land, wealth, and belongings.
Part of Kurdistan?
With the Peshmerga announcing it will not withdraw from the Nineveh
Plains, it is likely that a prospective Nineveh Plains province would
fall under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government as a
semi-autonomous entity. With the KRG standing as the primary example of
how decentralization can create prosperity and relative stability, the
generally pro-decentralization Kurds could back a Christian-Yezidi
province as long as it fell under KRG control. The KRG would also
benefit from harvesting any oil found in the Nineveh Plains.
Some Christians of Nineveh have longstanding complaints with the KRG
regarding land seizures and harassment by regional authorities.
Similarly, some Yezidis have voiced concern with the KRG’s categorizing
them as Kurds—some Yezidis consider themselves ethnically distinct from
Kurds. Both groups are also wary of Peshmerga soldiers who abandoned
positions in their villages as ISIS swept through their lands in 2014.
Nonetheless, Christians and Yezidis easily chose prejudice in the KRG
over persecution in Iraq. KRG attitude toward and treatment of
minorities has also evolved--Christians and Yezidis cherish the
stability and the freedom to worship they enjoy in KRG.
Security and Reconstruction
If properly trained and equipped, there are local forces that could
serve as the framework for police and security forces in a Nineveh
Plains province. There are four main Christian security forces in the
Plains: the Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPUs), Nineveh Plains
Forces (NPFs), Dwekh Nawsha, and the Babylon Brigades, who fight under
the Hash’d al-Shaabi. Each militia has a different political leaning,
but unity amongst Christians has been high since the ISIS attacks began.
For the first time in generations, patriarchs and representatives of
various churches have gathered to pray and discuss their community’s
situation, such as when the non-profit 'In Defense of Christians'
facilitated a meeting for the patriarchs with President Obama. Even more
recently, an assorted group Christians met at the Chaldean Patriarchal
headquarters in Erbil to discuss unity and the daunting task of
returning to their destroyed homes after the liberation of Mosul.
However, many Iraqi Christians believe they should work towards the
well-being of their country as a whole and not section themselves off.
The lack of proper numbers or polling among Christians adds to the
difficulty of trying to gauge the level of support for self-rule.
However, it is clear that many Iraqi Christians, regardless of
background, understand the need to take action to preserve their people.
Yezidis mostly fight under the Sinjar Alliance, composed primarily of
the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), who have proven to be controversial
amongst Yezidis because their relationship with the PKK puts Yezidis in a
precarious situation in intra-Kurdish and Kurdish-Iraqi politics.
However, with their entire existence as a religious-ethnic group under
threat, Yezidis could be unified under a Sinjar province and have a fair
say in their own future.
Establishing a province could expedite the process of sending foreign
aid so churches, religious organizations or Yezidi NGOs could direct it
to those most in need. With over 70% of towns in the Nineveh Plains
destroyed, direct aid is indispensable. Diasporas would likely return to
establish businesses or would invest in the province, if they were
guaranteed security. This sort of economic stimulus is necessary for
people to return to their villages.
One fear is that creating a province will place a target on the backs of
minorities and that the same populations who turned on their neighbors
will do so again someday. But the reality is that a target already does
and will continue to exist no matter what.
Whatever the future of the Nineveh Plains, it should be decided by the
people who have lived there for thousands of years. Until Iraq is
politically and economically stable, decentralization may be the only
way to save its embattled communities. When stability returns, the
diverse mosaic of Iraq’s minorities and ideas will surely return as
well. In the meantime, Christians’ and Yezidis’ only chance of survival
may be self-determination and self-governance. It is time for their
neighbors to help.
*Yousif Kalian is a research assistant in the Arab Politics Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.