Resisting ISIS Genocide in Iraq
I sat for a quarter of an hour with a woman whose husband had been kidnapped by the Islamic State group 18 months ago as her town of Qaraqosh, outside Mosul, was evacuated; his body was recovered two weeks later. Since that time she has lived with her mother and her four children where we sat -- between plastic partitions inside an Ankawa warehouse -- giving the six of them perhaps 100 square feet and a gas stove to share.
She told me her story in a state of calm and long-worn despair; she didn't cry until she asked me to read a document from the Kurdistan Regional Government hospital about her daughter. (English is the language of medicine there.) It said the problem with her daughter's spine was not serious enough to justify surgery given limited resources. She cried then at her daughter's pain and this fresh cut on a wounded future she sees no hope of healing. Philanthropy from the West and charity from the Chaldean Catholic Church that runs this camp give her and hers food and shelter and care enough to survive, but no real hope of any kind of normal future.
This woman's story is all the sadder because it is not unusual. It is one of many thousands of similar stories across Northern Iraq.
Portraits of Persecution
There are more refugees and IDPs, or Internally Displaced Persons, now than ever before. U.N. statistics say that those who end up in camps like this stay an average of 17 years. That average understates the current problem since international aid is under more stress than ever before. And the problem is likely to get worse still as Syria finishes coming apart. Syrian President Bashar Assad is a bad man, but whoever replaces him will very likely do nothing to protect the remaining one million Christians there from a possible genocide.
We all know about the persecution of Christians in Iraq, because ISIS painted the Arabic letter N, or noon for Nazarene, on the homes of Mosul Christians to mark them for forced conversion, extortion of the dhimmi tax, or death. That Arabic N became an iconic social media sensation. Despite humanitarian aid from the West, no real progress has been made to address the political situation at the root of this crisis.
The persecution of Christians in Iraq is an unfortunate byproduct of U.S. policy. They are Eastern Christians, but Islamists identify them with the West -- with the "Christian invaders." In 2003 there were about 1.6 million Christians in Iraq. Today there are perhaps 250,000.
Despite the genuine concern of our civil servants, the State Department narrative strains credulity. Officials with line authority in the area told me that the situation for Christians there isn't so bad compared to the Yazidis and others. President Obama is about to issue a declaration of genocide against Yazidis that will likely decline to include Christians, though the EU recently passed a declaration of genocide that includes Christians. The administration wants to avoid the legal and moral pressure that would be created by such a declaration. The State Department, moreover, insists that a united Iraq is our best hope against ISIS, and that the United States is "very optimistic" that Baghdad will liberate Mosul by the end of this year.
Such wishful thinking strains belief. Baghdad's celebrated liberation of Ramadi was painfully slow, and Ramadi is a tiny fraction of the size of Mosul. Moreover, Mosul, Iraq's second city, is not a place that Christians would likely return. If your Sunni neighbors had essentially invited ISIS in and stood by while they stole your property, killed some of your relatives, and ran you out of town, how eager would you be to return?
My discussions with political, military, business, and religious leaders in Northern Iraq revealed a growing consensus that the best option for Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities there is the creation of an international safe zone on the Nineveh Plain, currently held by the Islamic State group. Some prefer the zone to be an autonomous zone of Iraq (like Kurdistan is now), some prefer it to be incorporated into Kurdistan as a province or with special autonomy, and some prefer an independent zone secured by the United Nations or American soldiers.
The problem is that none of those options is really feasible right now, given the stated policy positions of the current U.S. administration and the war weariness of the West. Leaders acknowledge that fact, so they despair that a workable regional solution can be found. So I asked about an incremental approach -- beginning with just one village -- modeled after the December campaign to retake Sinjar (Kurdish peshmerga forces accompanied by a small Yazidi force and limited U.S. air strikes retook the traditional Yazidi area, Sinjar, in a single day) coupled with a foreign direct investment strategy to create jobs for IDPs to return and repopulate the Nineveh Plain. The response was enthusiastic. A huge percentage of the IDPs want to return home rather than emigrate, and there are about 5,000 Christian soldiers in training right now with a handful of different Assyrian organizations (a number that could be expanded quickly with funding).
The idea of a safe zone for religious minorities on the Nineveh Plain has been around at least a dozen years and was nearly adopted during the U.S. occupation. But opinions about the idea were mixed, and many bishops, perhaps a majority, were against it, and so therefore was the Vatican. The most compelling argument against it was that concentrating Christians in one area would create a Christian ghetto and marginalize them further. But ISIS has changed the situation on the ground, and the consensus in favor of some kind of self-governed zone for religious minorities is now strong. Among those few who still oppose the idea, to the ghettoization argument they add: Any area with large concentrations of Christians will become a big target for ISIS. It's a fair point, though there are Christian villages on the front that ISIS has been unable or unwilling to spend the resources to take.
I visited the Vatican to open a dialogue about revisiting this issue, and to explain how an incremental strategy could create a flywheel of positive momentum that could eventually contribute to peace in the region. The reaction there was mixed, ranging from enthusiasm at the idea of economic redevelopment so that IDPs and refugees could earn their daily bread, to despair that any such project could work without first securing peace in the whole region.
Given the unlikely prospects for a regional solution, what can we do?
We can take back one village, repopulate and redevelop it, and make it economically self-sufficient. This will change the momentum on the ground, provide hope to the IDPs, and provide a model for the West on how to solve the refugee crisis.
The military piece can work exactly like Sinjar did in December, except that there are far more Christian soldiers under arms (about 5,000) than there were Yazidis. The humanitarian piece can work as it has been, with the same philanthropic organizations providing similar grants, in order to restore access to electricity, water, clean up the streets, and so on. And the redevelopment, the creation of jobs, can be led by investors, chiefly among them the Christian diaspora.
The best way to achieve the first piece is to secure support for the idea by our most reliable military ally in the region, the Kurdistan Regional Government. Their peshmerga forces are ready and willing to do it.
I spoke with peshmerga generals in Talesskef on the ISIS front, whose fighters -- men and women -- had not been paid in five months because of the revenue standoff with Baghdad. Given Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani's speech that week, it increasingly looks like Iraq is breaking up. The generals, who professed I think genuine love for the United States, were incredulous that U.S. policy seems so contrary to U.S. interests:
Why does the U.S. help a very dangerous Iran, get in bed with the Saudis who exported all this extremism in the first place, and the Turks who exterminated Christianity in their country and demand a new payoff from the West in exchange for every little concession? Why doesn't the U.S. see that the peshmerga have shown themselves faithful friends not with words but with blood, and arm us to fight ISIS?
To which I could only answer that I could not defend the actions of my government.
The peshmerga claim that if they had the same American-made weapons that ISIS took from the Iraqi army, they could retake the whole Nineveh Plain in a day. It's not an idle boast. ISIS is very thin there (unlike Mosul, which is a fool's errand).
This suggests a deal.
In exchange for the weapons and the promise of support for eventual Kurdish independence, the Kurds must commit to training and fighting with Christian soldiers to retake the Nineveh Plain piece by piece, and to supporting a self-governing region for Christians and other minorities (i.e., giving up their territorial claim to the area).
Why would the Kurds, our most reliable military ally in the region, undertake this? I believe they would, because they are shrewd and will see it is in their interest. Helping create a protected zone for Christians is good for them because:
-- It brings international respect: This is like Sinjar, squared. Nothing earns respect like protecting the weak. The KRG got very good press for helping the Yazidis recapture Sinjar, though few Americans know what a Yazidi or indeed a Kurd is. But they know what a Christian is, and anyone seen to be protecting Christians in a hostile Middle East will gain the respect and admiration of much of America -- and therefore of its leaders.
-- It creates an ally: The 5,000 Christians training as soldiers today will swell to some multiple of that if there is a safe zone. They will train with the peshmerga, and develop a bond with them that will be hard to break. And they will sit as a buffer between the Kurds and the Arabs who have so frequently abused them.
-- It brings investment: Kurdistan's economy is in crisis because Baghdad has withheld its oil payments for half a year. The Kurdistan government feels keenly the need to diversify its economy. Any foreign direct investment next door on the Nineveh Plain will create trading partners for the Kurds, reducing their reliance on oil.
-- It takes IDP/refugee pressure off of Kurdistan: The KRG standoff with Baghdad has left its government in a financial crisis. IDPs and refugees are only adding to this fiscal problem, so any amelioration is good for the Kurds. Besides, proving such a model will be very popular with the EU, whose respect and recognition the KRG is eager to earn.
-- They keep the weapons: Even if they think the U.S. might be faithless to them again (see Kissinger, et al.), they get the weapons up front. There's no real downside.
So that's how we get the zone.
Insufficient attention is paid to the economic aspect of the zone, injecting foreign direct investment induced by low regulatory costs, significant comparative advantage, and an entrepreneurial desire to promote peace. The West has gelded its economies with regulations so burdensome that -- if we can only lower the security risk at an acceptable cost -- a free area would develop a huge comparative advantage in any number of industries. The very best hope of getting IDPs out of the camps is to create a safe enough place for them and a job. They will do the rest.
So Sinjar is the model. No Western boots on the ground. U.S. air support only; but then economic redevelopment led by Western entrepreneurs partnered with local businessmen.
What are we waiting for?
Like any father would, I thought of my own children as I watched IDP children play together in the gravel yard of their camp in Ankawa. The scene was endearing, then sobering. Many of them were too young to remember their homes on the beautiful Nineveh Plain. Would they ever have any home but this camp? What prospects for a real education and a productive, fulfilling life do these beautiful children really have? Will they still be here in twenty years? Will the West see in time that it could help them help themselves? Or will we allow them to become yet another dependent underclass, not only a human tragedy but a threat to our own security and prosperity?
That depends a great deal on what we're willing to help them do about it.