The following article was originally published in The Hill.
The U.S. government’s track record of distinguishing allies from enemies in the Middle East leaves much to be desired. Today’s ally is often tomorrow’s enemy.
The mujahedeen of Afghanistan, the Free Syrian Army, Saudi Arabia, the Iranian-dominated Iraqi government in Baghdad — time and again, America is short-sighted about its interests, blind to its enemies, and compromises its values for short-term gain. America’s natural allies in the region, those who share America’s interests and values, observe this with frustration. Few in the Middle East have felt America’s miscalculations more acutely than the minorities of Iraq, particularly Iraq’s Christians.
Waheda Yacoub is an Iraqi Christian woman and member of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Parliament. She’s also the chief advisor to President Masoud Barzani on Christian and minority issues as they relate to the referendum on Kurdish independence, slated for September 25, though some believe it will be delayed. On July 13, we met in Ainkhawa, a city north of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where there are perhaps 70,000 Christians.
Waheda believes that the KRG will respect the rights of indigenous peoples to determine their own future. “President Barzani said he will support a referendum by the Christians of the Nineveh Plain,” she says. “He will honor whatever they decide.” She notes that the central government hasn’t given the same assurances. Even for Christians, the matter is complicated.
Iraq’s Christian secular and religious leaders are divided. Some believe that the Christians should be aligned with the central government; others prefer closer ties to the KRG. The notion of a Nineveh Plain Province was first proposed by Iraqis in 2014 before the ISIS conquest of Nineveh. This idea was introduced in a resolution last year by Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.).
“We’re asking the Iraqi government to create a province, a governate,” Waheda says. “We only ask for the conditions to take care of ourselves. The KRG has said that they will honor the Christians of the Nineveh Plain in any vote on their own self-determination.”
If there is a vote for independence, the process would be protracted, controversial, and perhaps even bloody. But Waheda insists that Kurdish independence is feasible. “There is the capacity locally to oversee self-government, which we already have, but also utilities, elections, oil resources, allows us to be free of foreign domination,” she adds, referring to Iran and its affiliated militias, which have a presence on the Nineveh Plain, recently freed from ISIS. There is also a sense that Iraq’s government is a pawn. “In Baghdad, one group (Shia) are making decisions for all of Iraq’s people, including minorities.”
The sense of frustration with Baghdad isn’t shared by all Iraqi Christians. Many Assyrian Christians (most now living in the West) claim that the Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga, didn’t protect them as ISIS overran the Nineveh Plain in 2014, and didn’t permit the Christians or other minorities to defend themselves. Many other Christians, including those returning to their homes, point out that it was predominantly Kurdish Peshmerga who fought to liberate the Nineveh Plain.
“Our villages and our lands are among the Kurds,” she says. “This doesn’t mean that we don’t have challenges with the Kurdish region. There are always challenges, but the Kurdish people have accepted us (Christians),” more readily than others. “Even today we have many homes in Baghdad and Basra where property was stolen without compensation. Christians can also hold posts in the KRG in a way that they cannot with the central government.”
“Few people living in the areas overrun by Daesh have confidence in the central government,” she says. The only area where Christians seem to agree is the creation of a province in the Nineveh Plain, though there isn’t consensus on the means to bring it about.
The Nineveh Plain region has vast natural resources and could theoretically be self-sufficient. “Christians should of course benefit from the natural resources on the Nineveh Plain. They can and should use these resources to rebuild.” Waheda says the Christians don’t currently benefit from Iraq’s petrol wealth.
Corruption in Iraq, like the rest of the Middle East, is really beyond the comprehension of most Americans. It’s both a symptom and cause of Iraq’s sectarian troubles. Decentralized governance, which has generally worked for Iraq’s Kurds, is a model many continue to believe is the only solution for Iraq. “We believe that we can secure the Nineveh Plain with local defense forces,” she says. “We also ask for international observers during any transition period — not soldiers but simply to create a haven, as the West did for Christians in the 1990s.”
She notes that the KRG’s ruling Barzani family has historically had strong ties with the Christian community. “How many other Muslim political leaders meet with the Pope?” she asks. “His family attends mass with the people of Ainkhawa at Christmas. This is more than a political gesture. There is a genuine affinity.”
The presence of women in public life in the Middle East is far less common than it is in the West, though there are of course exceptions. Those exceptions speak volumes — both about the cultures that produce them and the women themselves. There is no blustering or outrage or grandstanding in Waheda. Like other Middle Eastern women in public life, she has a quiet strength and perseverance — qualities that Christians and other minorities in the region share.
Christianity in Iraq has been devastated by war for a generation, culminating with the ISIS genocide. There is an urgent need to secure and revitalize the Nineveh Plain region. Much blood — American and Iraqi, Christian and Muslim — has been shed for freedom in Iraq. The Christians who remain, like Waheda, are committed to rebuilding.
It should come as no surprise that America’s natural allies in the Middle East — those who share its values and interests — have turned to the democratic process without outside prompting. The looming question is whether America, for all its talk of democracy in the region, will honor the democratic will of those in the region, even if it threatens existing borders.
This article was originally published in The Hill.