FRANCESCO FIMIANI WRITES — Recently, the Africa and Middle East Regional Forum on Conflict Prevention and the Protection of Human Rights of Minorities concluded its 2021 meeting. Hosted on a virtual platform by The Gambia, the goal of the two-day meeting was to provide “regional insights” to feed into the report presented at the 49th session of the UN Human Rights Council in March of 2022. All discussions presented during this convention will also be shared at the 14th session of the Forum on Minority issues taking place in Geneva in December 2021. The objective of the conference: To highlight issues facing underrepresented minority groups in Africa and the Middle East and to find new solutions for conflict prevention and resolution. Among the stated goals:
- Develop mutual understanding about the role of the protection of the human rights of minorities in preventing conflicts.
Discuss legal, institutional and policy challenges to the recognition and implementation of the human rights of minorities to address long-standing grievances that may lead to tensions and possible conflicts.
Identify why the root-causes of most conflicts, the denial of the human rights of minorities and their aspirations, are seldom acknowledged or addressed.
Strengthen partnerships among various stakeholders and build capacity to address the root-causes of contemporary conflicts and more effectively prevent conflicts.
The website of the organization boldly claims that “most conflicts are characterized by the insufficient inclusion of minorities”. The Middle East, with the destabilization of Iraq and Syria and all the cultural groups that inhabit those regions, is no stranger to this fact.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of different minority groups pepper Western Asia. Though the dominant ethnic group is Arabs, Western Asia is also the home of significant numbers of Kurds, Yezidis, Assyrians, Druze, Copts and Syriac Christian Orthodox communities (collectively known also as ‘Aramaens’), as well as a plethora of indigenous Bedouin tribes that crisscross the desert in their nomadic lifestyle.
Let’s begin with the most prominent of these minority groups- the Kurds. At around 25-30 million in the Middle East and with pockets around the world, they mainly inhabit Eastern Turkey, Northern Iraq (within the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region), Northeastern Syria, and Northwestern Iran, mainly in the Zagros Mountains. You may have heard recently of their assistance in rebuking ISIS and other terrorist groups within Western Asia. They have proven to be effective fighters on the ground and have attracted the global spotlight as well as having effectively helped pass an independence referendum in 2017 in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Today, the Kurds are more or less caught in a hard place: They garner international support for counterterrorism around the world while at the same time are politically overshadowed by the Iraqi federal government. On June 21, 2021, news agency Kurdistan24 reported an official meeting between Iraqi Kurdistan PM Masrour Barzani and US Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller, who reiterated the “importance of continued coalition support to Peshmerga forces in the fight against terrorism and protecting the region’s peace and stability”. Back at home, the Kurds are pushing for accurate representation in the upcoming Iraqi census and for better relations with the new federal Iraqi government to be welcomed on October 10. Of note, in the last Iraqi census, taken in 1997, Kurds were unaccounted for; but with the upcoming census and new election, they hope to finally open a peaceful dialogue on a number of issues, including: oil profits in Kirkuk, population count and autonomy status in the new Iraq, and a resolution to the provision in article 140 of the Iraqi constitution which was supposed to provide a “legal mechanism for resolving the outcome of the disputed territories [such as Kirkuk and its oil fields], partially based on updated census results”.
Kurds in other areas of Western Asia have not been as fortunate. On June 25, 2021, Turkey “neutralized” (killed) three Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) members fighting against government forces in Northeastern Syria. Kurdish people have been under attack by Turkish government forces for decades as Turkey considers the PKK a terrorist group. Kurds in the region have also retaliated with attacks against the Turkish backed Free Syrian army.
One group that’s borne the brunt of radical Islamic terrorism in the past decade has been the Yezidis- not truly an ethnic minority but certainly a cultural minority- a mix of elements of Manichean traditions, Judaism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam-that has been persecuted for its beliefs.
This is not the first time that their unique culture has been under threat. It happened during the British occupation of Iraq and in the formation of the state of Iraq, under Baathist policies by Sadam Hussein that aimed to “Arabize” the area around Mt Sinjar. Plus, lately they’ve been fiercely persecuted by ISIS. After ISIS’ advancement into the Mt Sinjar region in 2014, an estimated 200,000 Yezidis, of the 500,000 that lived in Iraq prior, fled. Many Yezidi women were kidnapped and forced into marriage or sex slavery. Reports estimate that around 3,100 Yezidis were killed by ISIS advancement into their territory in 2014.
Kurdish and Yezidi Tensions Rise
As debate in Iraq continues regarding relations between autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and the new federal government of Iraq, relations between Yezidis and Kurds are at an all-time low. Yezidis are deeply distrustful of Kurds after Peshmerga forces pulled away from Mt Sinjar and were seen as “allowing” the Yezidi genocide to occur. The Kurds, who recaptured Mt Sinjar in 2015, have restricted supplies in the area and very few Yezidis have been able to return. Yezidis are not too fond of the idea of incorporating Mt Sinjar officially into Iraqi Kurdistan and some have called for an autonomous Yezidi zone in Mt Sinjar with international protection.
A decade of persecution, from the first bombings in the US-led Iraq war to ISIS’ advancement into Mosul in 2014, has wreaked havoc on the Christian Assyrian population of the region. According to a report by Erin E. Hughes on the Assyrian/Chaldean diaspora, the Assyrian population dramatically decreased from over a million in the last years of the Saddam Hussein regime to around 300-500,000 in 2014-the last estimate to date. Hughes put it chillingly accurately by saying “ISIS has, for the time being, effectively cleansed most Christians from Mosul and their indigenous land in Northern Iraq’s Nineveh plain.”
There’s history here: In Syria, groups associated with Assyrian liberation were heavily repressed by the Baathist Assad regime. Today, and ever since March of 2013, Assyrians have managed to form the Sutoro Military Front to “protect the Christian areas of Mesopotamia from attacks by the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State, and it includes Assyrians and Syriacs”. However, Sutoro is not united throughout Syria. According to Enab Baladi, roughly 50% of Sutoro forces fight alongside the Assad regime while the other 50% are allied with the Kurdish PYD party of Syria.
The question that remains is: If the Forum on Minority Issues is correct in saying that most conflicts occur due to flagrant disregard of minorities, how will Middle Eastern nations move forward with a peace building process that includes some of the bereaved minority groups mentioned in this article?
Iraq is perhaps the most culturally diverse nation in the Middle East, so whichever government is formed after its October 10 elections must represent that belief. Erin Hughes’ research for the St. Anthony’s International Review states that the best way to protect Iraqi Christians and promote peaceful repatriation into their homeland of Mosul and the Nineveh Plains is to grant the Assyrian community autonomy within the larger federal government of Iraq. Just as Iraqi Kurds obtained Erbil and surrounding areas, an autonomous Assyrian province could allow for an easier flow of goods and aid to a traumatized region. In addition, this would better protect historical Assyrian buildings and monuments and preserve the endangered Syriac language, a dialect of modern Aramaic, which many Assyrians and Iraqi Christians still speak. Yezidis are also championing some sort of protection around Mt Sinjar so they can return to their own holy land.
The idea of an autonomous Assyrian province in Iraq has been supported by former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and former president Nouri al-Maliki, along with The United Chaldean Syriac Assyrian organization of Christian parties in Iraq. It has also gained support from non-Iraqi and non-Chaldo-Assyrian organizations such as Sweden’s Folkparteit and several Labor Party MPs from Australia.
A federal government for a post-2003 Iraq would have to assure that Iraq remains a secular state in order to protect its existing Yezidi, Assyrian, and Kurdish populations and to encourage the repatriation of refugees to their historic homeland. It would have to be dedicated to national unity through tangible means such as infrastructure-not just repaving roads and fixing up dilapidated buildings but addressing rising temperatures and drought due to climate change as well as developing plans to secure water and heat protection for its most vulnerable populations. If war has not decimated these populations, climate change must not either.
Syria may offer little hope for its Kurdish and Christian minority groups. Bashar Al Assad has effectively won the war and there is no indication that the Alawi government wants to relinquish power to anyone else as it hastily tries to piece the country together. Syria allying itself with Turkey in the face of the civil war has also rendered Kurds and Kurdish allies vulnerable to attacks from openly hostile and anti-Kurdish Turkey.
Moving forward, then, peace building between different ethnic minorities within Middle Eastern nations will be key to achieving permanent peace and stability in the region. One possible solution to better minority political representation would be a federal system that allows some ethnic and cultural regions the autonomy to promote their own heritage, languages and values, and allow profits from various resources to be disseminated across federal regions rather than having the central government remain the sole gatekeeper. Growth in the private sector and disposable individual income are also key.
Cultural diversity must be a staple of this cradle of civilization. Arabs, Sunnis, Shiites, Yazidis, Assyrians and Kurds all rightfully claim the region as their homeland. They deserve not just to be protected and preserved, but to flourish there.