When ISIS invaded Iraq and its Nineveh Plain in 2014, one of the most victimized peoples were Assyrians, a Christian community indigenous to the region.
After the defeat of ISIS, some of the displaced Assyrians from the Nineveh Plain finally returned to their homeland, but today, they are fleeing their homes as their towns once again become a battleground -- this time between Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
The Assyrian-Syriac-Chaldean people have inhabited the Middle East since the beginning of recorded history. We might now, however, be witnessing the disappearance of this community. The end of the Assyrians in Iraq means the eventual end of the Assyrians altogether.
The Threat of Iran
Christians are also increasingly facing threats from Shiite Iran as, after its gains against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, it attempts to expand its influence in the region.
"Iran is aggressively establishing schools and mosques and libraries and other structures within the main Christian towns," said human rights lawyer Nina Shea, who once served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
A UN- and US-protected region is needed in northern Iraq to help restrict the empowerment and Iranification of Iraq, according to experts in the region Andrew Doran, Robert Nicholson, Mark Tooley, and Stephen Hollingshead. They argue that U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley should call on the UN and US coalition allies to establish a protected zone for genocide victims in northern Iraq:
"The UN has a duty to protect Northern Iraq's indigenous peoples. It can also promote stability and security in the Middle East by preventing Iranian expansion to the Mediterranean Sea. Such a zone would also be a bulwark against Iranian-backed militias in Northern Iraq.
"What is required for administrative, juridical, and economic functions to take hold in these communities is to be liberated from the immediate threat — Iran. The presence of a multinational coalition force would likely be sufficient to deter Iranian aggression.... There are already U.S. and other coalition forces on the ground in northern Iraq. The force required to deter external aggression would be small. It is also worth noting that these communities in Northern Iraq were rarely covered in the news from 2003 until 2014, when ISIS conquered them. This is because they were peaceful, productive, and proven allies of the United States. They have suffered much for that alliance. This is no time to abandon them to Iran."
Centuries of Persecution
"The Assyrian homeland is in northern Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq, where the ancient cities of Assur and Nineveh were built," writes the scholar Hannibal Travis.
"For 300 years, Assyrian kings ruled the largest empire the world had yet known. The Assyrian Church of the East records that the Apostle Thomas himself converted the Assyrians to Christianity within a generation after the death of Christ. Christianity was 'well established and organized' in Mesopotamia by the third century CE."
Today a stateless and persecuted people, Assyrians have been continuously brutalized by Muslims in the region -- Turks, Kurds, Arabs, and Persians.
Every fifty years, there has been a massacre of Assyrians, according to the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA).
According to a report by the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights of Rutgers University:
"The Assyrian people have been repeatedly victimized by genocidal assaults over the past century... Massacres, rapes, plundering, cultural desecrations, and forced deportations were all endemic. Around 750,000 Assyrians died during the genocide, amounting to nearly three quarters of its prewar population. The rest were dispersed elsewhere, mostly in the Middle East.
"Unfortunately, the persecution of Assyrians did not end with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. From August 8-11, 1933, in the newly established state of Iraq, Assyrian villagers in the northern Iraqi town of Simele were brutally murdered. Some 3,000 men, women, and children were killed by Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish irregulars."
As a result of continued persecution and discrimination, the Assyrians in Turkey, Syria and Iran, once sizable communities, have almost completely been exterminated, apart from those who have fled to the U.S., Australia, Europe, Canada and Lebanon.
Why an Assyrian Regional Government (ARG) is an Urgent Need
The situation of Assyrians in Iraq is beginning to resemble the previous situation of those in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Given all of the persecution to which Assyrians have been exposed and the lack of any support or protection from the West, the only way for Assyrian-Syriac-Chaldean people to survive is to have a protected "enclave" in the Nineveh Plain. As can be seen in the region every day, it is not realistic to expect the Assyrians to be quiet and accept their "fate" under the tender mercies of Shiite or Sunni rule.
Muslims make up a majority of the population in 49 countries around the world today. Regrettably, the proven hatred of many Muslim fanatics in that part of the world will not magically disappear. It is also delusional to argue that an Assyrian autonomy would somehow "destabilize" a region of chronic, bloody instability.
The future Assyrian Regional Government could be an independent state or autonomous region like the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. Even if it is city-state like Vatican City, it would be monumental in stopping the annihilation of Assyrian people and could also serve as a safe haven for other persecuted minorities.
A fighter from the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU) walks through a destroyed church on November 8, 2016 in Qaraqosh, Iraq. The NPU is a militia made up of Assyrian Christians that was formed in late 2014 to defend against ISIS. Qaraqosh is a mostly Assyrian city near of Mosul that was captured by ISIS in August 2014, and liberated in November 2016. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
All the Assyrian activists, politicians and scholars with whom Gatestone spoke asserted that the Assyrians should have a right to self-rule and security in the Nineveh Plain.
Yacoob Yaco, for instance, an Assyrian MP and political chair of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), said that Assyrians are willing to defend their homeland. "For us to be able to do that effectively, the leading countries of the world must help us determine our fate, and to have our own political and military entity."
Joseph Baba, the Western Regional Director for the Assyrian American National Federation, told Gatestone:
"We would like to help establish a political structure in Nineveh Plain -- a secular republic -- that is pluralistic and respects the ethnic and religious diversity of the Nineveh Plain. The Assyrian government would also cooperate with its neighbors and others to bring peace to the region and open the door to endless business opportunities for many Western countries to invest."
"Forced displacement, persecution and genocide have caused the drastic decrease in our population," said Anahit Khosroeva, an Assyrian historian specializing on genocide studies, who is based in Armenia.
"The international community just closes eyes on all these...The West should not continue ignoring Assyrians and Yazidis. Every inch of this land and every line of history tells who this territory belongs to. We deserve a state."
David William Lazar, the Chairman of the American Mesopotamian Organization, called for "the establishment of three new provinces in the districts of the Nineveh Plain, Talafar and Sinjar. "The current Iraqi constitution allows the proposed region to have its own parliament and executive branch similar to the region under the control of the Kurdish authorities."
"The world should not expect us to be protected by any other forces but our own," Juliana Taimoorazy, a leading Assyrian activist and the Founding President of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, told Gatestone. "We have been betrayed by both the Iraqi military and the Kurdish Peshmerga, over and over again."
She called on the Kurdish government to recognize Assyrian rights. "There are also Assyrians living under Kurdish rule. We ask the Kurdish government to honor Assyrians under their rule by recognizing our identity, flag, schools, churches, and language."
In an interview with Gatestone, Sabri Atman, the founder of the Assyrian Genocide and Research Center (Seyfo Center), said:
"There are two options. Either Assyrians in Iraq will have their own government in Nineveh and will be a free nation, or they might be extinct in a few decades. In order to stop the latter from happening, the Assyrian administration in Nineveh should be protected by the UN and the US. Thank God that Jews, a historically persecuted people just like us, now have Israel. The Assyrian claim for autonomy has never been realized. After centuries of persecution, is it not the time for Assyrians and other persecuted Christians to finally have their own government?"
Uzay Bulut, a journalist born and raised in Turkey, is currently based in Washington D.C. She is a writing fellow of the Middle East Forum.