Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Christian militias in Syria & Iraq

Readers of this blog might remember, that the case of Swiss nationals fighting in Syria for the YPG-affiliated Syriac Military Council had been a topic here already. Now German magazine Focus published a report about this approximately 10 fighters and the support they are receiving from the neutral country.

„Kampf ist christliche Pflicht“ Kreuzzug gegen den Terror: Schweizer Christen ziehen gegen IS in den Krieg by Focus Online


A very great article by Rania Abouzei for National Geographic deals with the current political situation of the Christians in northern Iraq, including it's leadership, plans for autonomy and the recent phenomena of Christian militias, even though their establishment is (so far) rather symbolic. The latter is a huge difference to the passivity of the Christians during the civil war after the fall of Saddam Hussain, when the Christians reacted with passivity to persecution. This shift is also reflected by the contacts of the Assyrian Democratic Movement with the Lebanese Forces, the primarily Christian militia during the Lebanese civil war:

Iraqi Christians Weigh Taking Up Arms Against the Islamic State          
by Rania Abouzei, National Geographic
(...)The Assyrian Patriotic Party, one of several Assyrian political organizations, has armed and dispatched a symbolic, rather than an active, force of some 40 members to join the Kurdish Peshmerga fighting the IS in the northwest of Iraq, according to party official Henry Sarkis.(...)
Still, it marks a significant shift in the attitude of Iraq's Christians, a shift that's fraught with peril.
Since 2003, Iraq's Christian community has been viewed by other Iraqis as a passive victim of the country's many conflicts, not an active aggressor.
Taking up arms will make the Christians direct participants, armed targets who pose military rather than just ideological opposition to ultraconservative Islamist groups.
Sarkis acknowledges this but said his party is prepared to accept the consequences. "We're being killed in our homes, so why not defend ourselves? Then even if we die, we die with dignity," he said. "We didn't want to reach this point—we just want to live in our areas."
Before 2003, Iraq held about 1.5 million Christians. The number today is fewer than 500,000, say community leaders, the majority having been driven out by war and all the trouble it inflicts and breeds, including corruption and insecurity.(...)
Long-term Plans
In another part of Dahuk, behind the high concrete walls of the Assyrian Democratic Movement's headquarters, the local branch leader, Farid Yacoub, 42, says his party too is moving to arm its men.
It is registering volunteers, having gathered more than 2,000 names from the Dahuk governorate alone. But unlike Assyrian Patriotic Party leaders, Yacoub is recruiting men to protect Christian areas after they've been won back from the IS and its allies.
The intention is not to participate in the battle to reclaim those areas. "We have lots who are volunteering, who want to fight, but we don't have the means to arm them," he said.
The party doesn't want Christian villages such as Al Hamdaniyah (Qaraqosh) to be controlled or protected by the Peshmerga after they've been reclaimed. "Our people don't trust them any more," Yacoub said.
There's a bigger issue here. Nineveh has long been caught in a conflict between the central government in Baghdad and the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north.
Some Christians on the Nineveh Plains have pushed to govern themselves, but Kurdistan also has claims on their territory and wants to absorb it into its zone.
Earlier this year, long before the country descended into the current level of mayhem and fragmentation, Baghdad "agreed in principle" to turn the Nineveh Plains, as well as two other areas, Fallujah and Tuzkhurmatu, into provinces. This would enable the Christians to manage their own affairs and secure an independent share of the national budget.
The Assyrian Democratic Movement doesn't want the Nineveh Plains to be part of Kurdistan, but Sarkis said his Assyrian Patriotic Party does.
Sarkis's men are working with the Peshmerga, independent of the national government's recent call for volunteers to fight the IS.
"Let's be honest," he said. "When the [Shiite-led] government asked for volunteers, it's because the war is sectarian, between Shiites and Sunnis. They didn't volunteer to protect Christians. They did so to fight Sunnis."
Yacoub, on the other hand, is not working with the Peshmerga and said his men are waiting for the central government to train and arm them, though with the proviso that they return to their areas.
"Our men said they were worried because they didn't want to defend areas other than theirs. We want to defend areas where our people are, specifically the Nineveh Plains," Yacoub said. "We're nationalists, but the circumstances that Iraq is living through now necessitate that we have a safe place, a place for us."
Turning to Lebanon's Christians
Of all the dwindling Christian communities in the Middle East in recent times, only the Lebanese have picked up arms during civil turmoil. Lebanese Christians battled not only Muslims but also each other during their country's brutal 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.
Duraid Tobiya, the adviser to the Nineveh governor, is also a member of Yacoub's Assyrian Democratic Movement. He said that since the fall of Mosul, his party had received a delegation from the Lebanese Forces, a militia turned political party, and had also sent representatives to Lebanon twice to meet with the party.

He didn't elaborate about the nature of the meetings, saying only that "we want to benefit from their experience. We explained our situation, and they explained their experience in Lebanon." He added, "We might proceed with some things, apply them on the ground."(...)

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