Now that the U.S. Congress and Secretary of State have officially recognized (as of March 2016) that ISIS has perpetrated genocides against multiple ethnic and religious minorities in Northern Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, we believe that the creation of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian province for the peoples of the Nineveh Plain in Northern Iraq—one that could eventually become a semi-autonomous region within a federated Iraq—is consistent with American values and interests.
The Middle East today is locked in a web of complex conflict between and among hostile factions. Many of those factions are proxies of regional powers that are fighting for control over a region whose current international and internal boundaries will most likely be redrawn. And while Arabs, both Sunnis and Shi‘a, and Kurds have also suffered greatly, Christians and other vulnerable minorities are the most forgotten and most vulnerable in the region: They are caught in the crossfire, targeted because of their religious beliefs and ethnicity, and are being killed or forced from their homes in record numbers. These minorities are not strangers to the Middle East; they are in fact the indigenous peoples, the “first nations,” of the region—Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, Turkmen, and others—who have lived in Mesopotamia for centuries and in some cases millennia.
Many of these minorities have lost everything in recent years: homes, businesses, livelihoods, physical safety, dignity, and hope for a secure future in the land of their birth. Today they often live in tents and trailers. Every day hundreds flee the region to seek refuge abroad. Ancient communities, cultures, and languages are disappearing forever. It is now possible, for the first time in nearly 2,000 years, to imagine that this besieged region, the historic Cradle of Christianity, will be without any Christians in our lifetime.
ISIS is no longer a mere non-state actor, whose limited organizational scope is to inflict violence and terror; it now governs significant swathes of territory, from the Levant to North Africa, in addition to maintaining a global reach for terrorist operations. While the West must focus its efforts on the destruction of ISIS, its funding, and ideological wellsprings, it, and the U.S. government in particular, must offer concrete post-conflict solutions, including decentralized governance and regional autonomy, reflecting the complex cultural and ethnic realities on the ground. One region that could serve as a model for local governance (and pluralism) is the Nineveh Plain.
Response to Genocide
The March 2016 recognition by Congress and the State Department of ISIS-perpetrated genocide against vulnerable minority communities accomplished two goals. First, it established the enormity of ISIS’s crimes against humanity. Second, it called the world to action: to rescue the survivors among the indigenous communities of the Nineveh Plain; to restore these traumatized peoples to individual wholeness as citizens (and not victims); and to return them to their homes, revitalizing their communities.
The military defeat of ISIS is necessary, of course. But it is merely the first step toward guaranteeing that the indigenous communities of this region are never again subjected to genocide, displacement, persecution, or discrimination. Upon return to their liberated cities and villages, the communities of the Nineveh Plain ought to be afforded the right to determine the nature of their own political community within the framework of Iraq. In so doing they might provide a model, for both Iraq and the whole region, that promotes local governance and thereby stability, security, and prosperity.
Many well-intentioned Westerners have looked on the plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria and offered a simple and immediate solution: exodus. This would not only be a disaster for these communities, whose ancient identities and rich cultural heritages would invariably be subsumed by the dominant cultures of the regions to which they emigrate; it would also be a disaster for the Middle East, further radicalizing the region and giving ISIS and other violent extremists precisely the end they seek: the end of pluralism in the region.
The exodus option is also born from a stunning degree of historical ignorance. Ethnic and religious pluralism has characterized every enlightened epoch in Middle Eastern history, and its erosion in recent times is altogether tragic. As Chris Seiple wrote in 2014, the Christians “are a bridge between and among different faiths, and traditions within those faiths. Such action, if allowed to flourish, strengthens society by preventing stereotypes that might be manipulated by terrorists; indeed, loving all neighbors enhances the stability of the state.” To do nothing as Christians and other communities are driven out will not only “accelerate instability;” it will also sever a natural link with those outside the region and, with it, insights into promoting peace for all its inhabitants.
Oppression and Terrorism
Cycles of oppression, social and cultural revolt, and political instability and conflict has left the Middle East in a state of upheaval. This has provided fertile ground for recruiting young people to radical causes. Western powers have contributed much over the years to the current violent dysfunction in the region but the situation will not sort itself out through a new policy of benign neglect. Instead, the United States and its kindred allies outside and within the region must advance solutions designed to promote peace, pluralism, and stability. A key premise of such an effort is the honest recognition that current formal state boundaries, notably as they appear on the maps of Iraq and Syria, do not reflect reality on the ground.
The violent instability in these countries undermines the security of the United States and serves neither its interests nor its values. U.S. policy in recent years has been extremely wary of the idea of remapping the region, and for good reason. But policies that countenance the binding together of peoples divided along lines of religion, ethnicity, history, language, and culture under highly-centralized government authority violates the most fundamental precepts of pluralistic democracy: ordered liberty and the protection of minority rights, which sum to a formula for advancing the common good. While democracies evolve differently in different contexts, these fundamental commonalities are the basis of political stability and ought to be reflected in some form of self-determination.
States with populations that are characterized by a diversity of nations—that is, of groups of people self-defined according to ethnicity, religion, language, heritage, and culture—but that lack a developed concept of the common good can maintain their unity only through coercion. When fear of that coercion is removed, sectarian interests often prevail; more often than not, the majority “nation” works to advance itself, scapegoating minorities, as the state weakens and eventually breaks apart.
Thus the goal of pluralistic democracy, which America sought to realize in Iraq, proved unsustainable because federated governance was passed over in favor of an overly empowered central government in Baghdad, run for the first time in Iraq’s modern history by the majority faith group. This government did not authentically represent the interests of the various minority nations/communities who still understood themselves as Iraqi.
Yet the formal dissolution of Iraq in favor of the creation of smaller, fragile states does not offer a pristine solution. There is no quick or obvious fix to Iraq’s problem any more than there is to Syria’s. Decentralization and local governance are the proper places to begin the long process of reflection and reform, building the common good from the ground-up.
The relevance of the concept of the common good to political stability in pluralistic states such as the United States and other Western countries is rarely referenced in public discourse, mainly because it is taken for granted. It is not, however, mere academic abstraction.
Indeed, a process of reflection and reform with respect to Iraq cannot begin with America, the West, or its common values; it must instead start with the Middle East itself. It is imperative, and practical, to note that much of what we suggest here is rooted in indigenous Middle Eastern values. King Cyrus, for example, gave us the “Cyrene Cylinder,” which accommodated religious freedom as the most practical precept for social harmony and governance in a multi-ethnic and multi-faith empire. It was Cyrus, after all, who allowed the Jews to return to their land under Nehemiah’s leadership, and it is the Jews who in turn shaped the values (including the rule of law) of the other descendants of Abraham, both Christian and Muslim.
For example, God told the Jews through His prophet Jeremiah—whom all three faiths revere—that they should seek the good of the city (Jeremiah 29:7). God did not differentiate which part of the city, or which nation of people, or that only those who believed in Him should benefit. God commanded those who believed in Him to seek the good of the whole city, just as he earlier sent Jonah to preach repentance to the non-Jews of Nineveh!
A shared concept of and commitment to the common good is the glue that binds complex, pluralistic societies together—without need for coercion, the preferred means of achieving unity for many regimes. But sadly and ironically, a shared concept of the common good simply does not exist across much of the Middle East at present.
Thus, the best and most practical short-term step is to encourage and enable local self-governance in those communities that already share a vision of the common good, and to foster governance buffers between sectarian groups—rather than to condemn one sect to the oppressive rule of an opposing sect. The combination of distant, overly centralized government and insufficient local self-governance has led to alienation and violence, contributing significantly to the growth and appeal of terrorism. As Iraq’s Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi observed in April 2015, “If we don’t decentralize, the country will disintegrate. To me, there are no limitations to decentralization.”
This is precisely what led to the debacle in Mosul in 2014. The success of ISIS in Iraq may be attributed in large part to the withdrawal of a credible U.S. reaction force, to American acquiescence to a Shi‘a-majority, centralized government in Baghdad—too often influenced by Iran—and the resulting grievances and alienation of the Sunni Muslim population, particularly in Anbar and Nineveh provinces. The sense of exasperation among Sunni Muslims at the indifference of Baghdad played no small part in the implosion of Mosul as just 1,500 ISIS fighters captured a city of two million, ostensibly defended by an Iraqi Army of 30,000 mostly Muslim soldiers. Although some of these soldiers were like-minded in their understanding of ISIS, many simply saw it as a “better deal”—rooted in legitimate grievances—than Baghdad and its sponsorship of Iranian-backed Shi‘a militias that killed Sunnis with impunity. And with the fall of Mosul came the subsequent conquest of the Nineveh Plain, the historic heartland of Christianity in Iraq.
Such a province could become a buffer zone of stability and peace building, better enabling: the care of those impacted by psychological trauma and moral injury; gender integration and education; the growth of civil society and economic revitalization; and, ultimately, personal and communal security. These are the kinds of efforts too often ignored by U.S. policy in the aftermath of conflict.
Nineveh Plain Province
We propose that the U.S. government, together with its key global partners outside and within the region, mobilize its political, economic, and military assets to complete the liberation of northern Iraq—from Mosul to the Nineveh Plain—from ISIS. The U.S. government should thereafter support the creation of a province in the Nineveh Plain that would serve as a haven to protect those ethnic and religious minorities who want to return and rebuild their communities.
Iraq’s recognition of this province would provide the distinct, indigenous nations/communities with some measure of self-governance and self-defense. Local self-governance and self-defense is necessary for a citizenry that has lost confidence in public institutions regarded as distant, sectarian, corrupt, or under the sway of regional powers. Just as it will take time for the mostly Sunni-Arab people of Mosul to have confidence in the Shi‘a-Arab government in Baghdad, so it will take time for the non-Muslim peoples of the Nineveh Plain to trust that Mosul is not a threat.
Local interests— survival foremost among them—must be addressed before traumatized communities, perhaps now more than ever inclined toward sectarianism, can be integrated into the whole with a view of the common good as Iraqis. This is not to say that there is not a role for national and regional governments as the process of restoration, revitalization, and reconciliation occurs after ISIS is driven out of Nineveh. On the contrary, local governance and self-defense will deny ISIS and other terrorist organizations opportunities, while anticipating and building toward a day when regional and national governments are better equipped to enable a strong, locally-governed and protected society. Such an end is consistent with American values and national security interests.
This province would not be an externally created construct. It would be a political recognition of the province’s underlying ethnic and cultural makeup, building on what has already been taking place. Indeed, on January 21, 2014, Iraq’s Council of Ministers “agreed, in principle, to turn the districts of Tuz Khurmato, Fallujah, and the Nineveh Plains into provinces,” pursuant to Articles 61 and 80 of the Iraqi Constitution. What remains is for the United States, its allies in the coalition against ISIS, and regional partners to support the Iraqis as they begin a transition toward greater federalism and greater protection for the country’s most vulnerable communities.
In the face and aftermath of genocide, such a province for the ethnic and religious minorities of the Nineveh Plain region is even more urgently needed. These communities, which have lived together in peace for centuries, ought not to exist at the sufferance of national or regional governments. Too often, Iraq’s governance has been characterized by narrow sectarian interests rather than the common good, as Iraqis in Nineveh Province—Sunni, Shi‘a, Yazidi, and Christian—learned firsthand in 2014, if not earlier. Rather, these people of the Nineveh Plain should exist in cooperation and harmony with the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government within the framework of a genuinely federal Republic of Iraq.
The recognition of a Nineveh Plain Province would accomplish many goals simultaneously: 1) it would provide a practical response to the declaration of genocide by preserving ethno-religious minorities in the Middle East; 2) it would blunt further ISIS military momentum and delegitimize ISIS, whose theology is focused on a territorial caliphate; 3) it would dampen the desire of global recruits who might travel to Iraq to join ISIS; 4) it would stem refugee flows out of Iraq to the broader region, Europe, and the United States; and 5) it would prove cost effective over the long-term; while, 6) waiting on a broader peace process in Syria to take root. With good governance and protection of minorities, the Nineveh Plain Province will provide a practical model of transition for other parts of Iraq, Syria, the broader region, and other parts of the world that ISIS threatens.
Securing the Nineveh Plain
The peoples of the Nineveh Plain also have a right to self-defense, to prevent humanitarian cataclysms such as that which befell them in the summer of 2014 at the hands of ISIS. These defense forces already exist (numbering upwards of five thousand or more), most with the consent and support of Iraq’s governmental structures. As ISIS is driven out of the Nineveh Plain, these Christian and Yazidi defense forces ought to participate in securing their native lands with the support of a credible international stabilization and reconstruction force, to include representatives from the Coalition against ISIS and other nations and organizations.
The most pressing question is security: How will the Nineveh Plain be protected after ISIS is defeated? The Iraq Security Forces (ISF), Popular Mobilization Units, and Kurdish Peshmerga are divided and not properly constituted for the task. (The Peshmerga, though not equipped or trained for offensive operations, have nevertheless been a reliable partner against ISIS in defensive operations in northern Iraq and against ISIS in Syria.) Meanwhile, the United States and the “international community” may have little appetite for reestablishing a large military presence inside the country.
But success against ISIS will be futile if the United States and its coalition allies leave immediately after its defeat. Such action will only create another vacuum, the next version of ISIS, and exacerbate disputes between Baghdad and Erbil. With or without the Nineveh Plain Province, Iraq’s future hangs on the crafting and execution of a serious national security strategy.
Therefore, we believe that the answer lies in 1) rebuilding the ISF; 2) expanding and integrating local security forces, including minority forces; and, 3) establishing a medium- to long-term international security presence in northern Iraq.
Rebuild the ISF. If it is to last, the state of Iraq must be defended by Iraqis from all of its communities. A strong, integrated, and unified ISF is the foundation for any durable security strategy. Confidence in the ISF was deeply shaken after the fall of Mosul. But the ISF has engaged and defeated ISIS in successive engagements and now is preparing to reclaim Mosul. The Ministry of Defense needs to launch urgent reforms, improve recruitment and training programs, and focus resources on logistics, planning, and support capacity. It also needs to reign in the various Shi‘a militias that are supported and directed by Iran.
Expand local security forces. Iraq is a state of nations, and these nations have reached the point, after 13 years of war, that each demographic bloc feels a need to field a local security force to safeguard its unique communal interests. Rather than posing a threat to Iraqi security, these Popular Mobilization Units and militias have contributed to the fight against extremism for a decade. Expanding, training, and integrating these local forces into Iraq’s military forces is crucial for Iraq’s long-term security. The Sunnis require special attention as the Central Government seeks to reassure them of their future in post-ISIS Iraq. Meanwhile, Christian and Yazidi militias have been begging for support from the “international community” for months; now is the time to respond. They should be primarily and ultimately responsible for policing and protecting the rebuilding communities of the Nineveh Plain. But they will need back-up.
Commit international forces. Data indicate that the minorities will only return if they receive some measure of international protection. They don’t trust the Arabs and Kurds who abandoned them in the face of ISIS. (The Kurdistan Regional Government has taken in two million internally displaced Iraqis and other refugees, which merits much gratitude, but there are also credible allegations that remain a legitimate source of deep concern for many minorities in northern Iraq, particularly at a moment of heightened ethno-nationalism for Kurds in Iraq and Syria.)
For this primary reason, the international coalition must stay put, at least in the medium term, under newly negotiated multi-national security agreements with the Republic of Iraq. The mission must be, first and foremost, to support, train, and equip local forces. But the Coalition should also create a Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) that will provide credible military support for Iraqi forces under threat. The United States should lead the creation of this RDF, but Sunni Arab and European allies will likely have an interest in contributing company- or battalion-sized elements. Basing this RDF inside the Nineveh Plain will increase the confidence of the minorities and allay the fears of the Sunnis, and will also provide a buffer between Kurds and Arabs in a region that has been hotly contested by both.
For those in the U.S. who balk at any kind of return to Iraq, big or small, the prospect of an ISIS comeback or—worse—further expansion of Iranian power are enough to justify a long-term commitment. The above plan requires minimal troops for maximum time, or for as long as it takes Iraq to rebuild its security structure from top to bottom. Anything less will begin the same cycle all over. Iraq will call again.
The U.S. government and its allies should also encourage membership in a coalition of states committed to overseeing the reconstruction of the Nineveh Plain (to include Mosul). New partners could include Armenia and Georgia. Both nations have ancient Christian communities, substantial Middle East Christian refugee populations, and a strategic interest in cooperating with the United States and other Western nations.
Federated, decentralized models of governance will be necessary to restore stability to Iraq and Syria, as well, most likely, to Libya and possibly Yemen. Safe havens, autonomous regions, and buffer zones will also necessarily be formed to protect vulnerable populations and redevelop communities devastated by conflict. This kind of approach offers a third way to communities—particularly Sunni communities—too often forced to choose between hostile, Tehran-inflected militias and governments in Baghdad and Damascus and violent extremist organizations like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Jabhat al-Nusra. If such an approach is not adopted, violent extremists will continue to recruit and influence indirectly with ease—and the escalating violence that has targeted nuns in Yemen, priests in Normandy, and gays in Orlando will only worsen.
By recognizing a new province for Iraq’s most vulnerable communities, the United States and its international partners should work to secure and revitalize the region and ensure that these communities will survive and flourish in their historic homeland. The Nineveh Plain Province, once recognized, will provide a model of freedom, coexistence, and rule of law in Iraq, such that American and coalition forces’ lives were not given in vain. This model might also pave the way for the creation of similar constructs in post-conflict Syria, where many of the same complex, interrelated issues exist. This is not mere humanitarian sentimentality; this approach is a calculated response to the key causes of Middle Eastern instability and global terrorism.
Put differently, our recommendations allow for urgently needed community reconciliation to take place. Generational violence, after all, can only be curbed by generational healing. This healing can only begin with the end of conflict. The next step is reconciliation within, between, and among communities as trauma and moral injury are intentionally and comprehensively addressed. Only whole people can build whole societies.
Sectarian violence, an unwelcome reality in Iraq and Syria, has not been characteristic of the Nineveh Plain. These nations and communities with diverse religious, linguistic, cultural, and ethnic heritages have provided a model for pluralism that stands in contrast to the sectarian violence around them. It is a multi-faith, multi-ethnic region with a sense of the common good. The common good is a notion rooted in the Middle East, especially in the Abrahamic faiths. It has been too much occluded of late in tribal, sectarian violence, often in the name of religion. This rich heritage, which offers a path to peace and reconciliation, has an ancient foundation in Nineveh, where the tomb of Jonah, recently destroyed by ISIS, may one day become a symbol of reconciliation for those communities torn apart by violence.
We therefore encourage support for measures within Iraq, by its people and government, to facilitate the recognition of a province on the Nineveh Plain, within the framework of Iraq’s constitution, for the protection of Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac Christians and other indigenous peoples. If this is indeed deemed to be the will of the people of the indigenous people of the Nineveh Plain, we call upon the U.S. government, its partners in the Counter ISIS Coalition, and the international community to provide support for the recognition of a Nineveh Plain Province. This is the time for principled and pragmatic leadership that addresses root causes through a long-term strategy that builds good governance and good citizenship—and ultimately a sustainable environment that protects the fundamental rights, including religious freedom, of all peoples.
We recognize that this will not be easy. Getting from concept to reality must overcome many obstacles. There will have to be a security presence to protect an infant Nineveh Province, and that presence will need to some extent to be externally provided. Only the U.S. government can provide the convening table for such purposes. But the domestic political obstacles to a renewed U.S. security presence on the ground in Iraq under any circumstances and for any purpose are many. So are the obstacles to persuading other governments to follow the United States back into Iraq.
Clearly, it will take visionary and determined leadership in the next administration to turn concept into reality. But without a concept, and without U.S. leadership in promoting it, there looks to be no good ending to what has already been a tragic story. This is a time for courage and steadfastness. Everyone will suffer if we cannot summon it, as the cradle of Christianity is rendered devoid of Christians.