Interview with Metin Rhawi head of European Syriac Union Foreign Affairs
Could you please introduce yourself and your organization?
I am head of Foreign Affairs for the European Syriac Union. What we basically do is advocacy for the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people in our homeland, Mesopotamia, or Beth Nahrain, as we call it, today Iraq, Turkey, Syria, parts of Lebanon and parts of Iran. Our work is basically trying to raise the issue and the situation for this minority who have been the indigenous people of this region for the past 8.000 years or something. The situation for Christians is currently very crucial, losing almost everything they had, many having gone abroad.
Originally I was born in the Southeast of Turkey, in Midyat, and I belong to the Syriac Orthodox Church. But among our people we also have the Chaldean Church, the Apostolic Church of the Assyrians, the Maronite Church, the Melkite Church and the Orthodox… So there are many denominations.
How familiar are you with the situation in Iraq? Do you travel there frequently?
I have been in Iraq four times in the past 1.5 half years, and once to Syria. Unfortunately I couldn’t make more trips to Syria because they closed the border from Iraq, so we need to go through regime controlled airports in Syria, and that is not possible for me because I have taken a stance against the regime in Syria.
So I am well informed and I have seen with my own eyes and I have a network of political parties, NGOs, different associations and military militias in Iraq.
Why is there so much division among Christians? I counted 12 political parties and several militias.
I don’t know if you could necessarily call this division, these are political views of the current situation, or at least how to solve the current situation, and as within any country or nationality you have many political views, many parties, among our community we have also many parties, at least 13 or 14 parties, so even more than the ones you discovered, and five of them have their own militias. I think this is due to the fact that you have the Baghdad regime on one side and the Kurdistan Regional Government controlled by Kurdistan Democratic Party on the other side. These local politics are benefiting from the situation when you have political groups which are split, rather than joining forces.
In this case they can, at any time, play the situation against each other and this is what we are facing, unfortunately they are giving us some kind of hope from different sides, and at the same time our community, and the political parties, are in really great need of doing something for the people who have been tossed around in different directions, in order to reach their goal, to give something to the people, some kind of security and hope for the future in their homeland.
Then you see the big policies between these big nations who are interfering, Iran with the Shiia concept, Turkey with the Sunni concept, and the Syrian regime and the United States and Russia, so it is quite a puzzling situation and you need to have all the facts, trying to understand why these communities are so divided.
But you would agree that it is negative for the aspirations of the community to have so much political division?
It is, in one sense. If you don’t have a common strategy and agenda, of course it is negative. Today what we can see with these political parties, different members of the European Parliament, different political associations and foundations, and us, we have reached an agreement between all of them among the community to have a number of common demands for the Nineveh Plain.
For instance, we are starting to have the same agenda in some very important and common issues, and that is the positive thing today that I would like to focus on. But of course it is quite frustrating that there are so many different factions within a small community like ours, because from two million ten years ago, we are today close to 400 thousand. So we can understand that we should not be so divided, because we are losing the grip, while discussing among ourselves what to do as the next step.
After the liberation of Mosul, do you expect to see conflict between Baghdad and Kurdistan over the disputed areas?
As for the “disputed areas”, that is their term, but we don’t agree with it… The Nineveh Plain is not a disputed area, even though Baghdad and Erbil many times tried to make it appear so, this is the land of our ancestors since many thousands of years back. Bartella city has been home to Syriacs since about 5,000 years before Christianity, so how can it be a disputed area?
But, having said that, what is actually happening on the ground today is that you can see the regime trying to take the Northeastern part of the Nineveh plain, and the Peshmerga controlling the Southeastern part, so they have already, more or less, in practice, split the region, so now for us as Christians it is very important to really make it obvious that the Nineveh Plain is not open to be divided by these two political powers of Baghdad and Erbil.
As for the future, whether they are going to have an armed fight, I don’t know, that is difficult for us to say. Until now they have been quite good at talking, they respect each other, but you never know… They have had ISIS in their faces for two years, what will happen in the future is very difficult to say. But for us, at least, we know that they are interfering on the ground, in a region which belongs to us and which they call a disputed area.
However, you can also say this is a totally disputed area, because even Turkey talks about getting involved, so it is quite a difficult situation…
So can I gather that you would prefer to see the Nineveh Plains not directly under the control of Baghdad or Erbil, but autonomous?
The situation in all of Iraq and also in Kurdistan is a great lack of democratic process. It is still the strong people who make decisions, there is empowerment of powers which are already quite strong and the local minorities are more or less powerless. So what we need to do is work to empower the local minorities, like the Yazidis, like the Shabaks, the Turkmen and the Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians, in order to have this autonomous region together, with different provinces within it. Whether it is going to be connected to Baghdad or to Erbil… I think this is a question of what the law says in Iraq today. Obviously it should be closer to Baghdad, but with very good relations with Erbil.
In our opinion we should have an open book with each other as a province or autonomous region both with Erbil and Baghdad and explain that this region can be an autonomous region. The ministers’ council of Baghdad, two years ago, declared that the Nineveh Plain can be an autonomous region for the Chaldean-Assyrian-Syriac community, but we have not seen anything more than talk. Erbil shows the same willingness: “If the community want their freedom and self-government in an autonomous region in the Nineveh plain, we will help them”, but still we cannot see more than one autonomous region and that is Kurdistan, and the rest is Iraq.
So we hope, really, that all this talk becomes real policy and for this we need the support of the United States and the European Parliament to support this region becoming an autonomous region, with the good help of Kurdistan and the very, very good help of Baghdad.
In the future, how it develops, I truly don’t know, because you never know, in this region, what is going to happen a year from now, it is very difficult to say.
This scenario you described only seems to work if Kurdistan remains in Iraq. If Kurdistan becomes independent and the Christians are forced to choose between joining an independent Kurdistan or remaining in Iraq, what do you think the majority would choose?
I think it is very difficult today to say, and it would not be good for me to do that.
I think it is quite obvious that the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people are in great need of support from both places. Even if Kurdistan declares itself an independent country and sovereign state, for us the issue is to have good relations with Kurdistan, as a country, and also with Iraq, as a country. In that case we would have borders with both Erbil and Baghdad, so for us that is the big policy of the local strong powers today, what they decide to do and how they decide to do it, unfortunately there is a risk that could go to civil war, of course, because it would be a civil war, Kurdistan is an autonomous region in Iraq.
So it is quite difficult. I don’t know which side people would like to choose, because unfortunately we have bad experience today from both sides.
Many people tend to think of the time when Saddam was ruling the country was a more peaceful time than today, although they knew he was a dictator. So you are familiar with the situation in Iraq and you can understand that the situation today is not good. Everybody was treated very badly under Saddam, but today it is not everybody, but certain groups are treated worse than others, certain groups are not given democratic rights, certain groups are not being defended the right way, certain groups have to rely on themselves even if they are not powerful enough. And if you take their powers from them, more and more, their situation is going to be very frustrating.
The more recent waves of persecution of Christians in Iraq have come from the Islamic State, but I remember at the time the people said that the ones who had taken their houses, were not ISIS, they were their Arabic neighbors. So it would seem that in more recent years the more severe persecution came from the Sunni majority, whether Islamic State or the local Arabs. But I have also spoken to many Christians from the region, with many of them off the record, and I asked them if they trust the Kurds, despite the fact that they fled to Kurdistan and the Kurds were the only ones who seemed determined to fight ISIS on the ground. And many of them answered saying that they remember that the Kurds also persecuted them in the past, so they are cautious. Is this your feeling as well, is there a feeling of suspicion between the Christians and the Kurds, or is this something of the past…
When you are looking forward to the future and to establish something you have trust in, and believe in for the future, you calculate with the past and your accumulated knowledge of what happened.
Of course we have very, very bad experience with each other. Both with Sunni and Shia Arabs and with Kurds. In the Ottoman Empire, when Iraq was part of it, there were also Kurds persecuting us, as well as Arab Sunnis and Arab Shia. So I don’t know today if we need to bring all those fears with us into the future, but at least we should know that this happened, not forget it, but we should forgive and continue to build a future together, along with the people living there, because obviously we cannot expel the people from there, the majority living there are Arab Sunni or Arab Shia or Kurds, so what we have to do is reconciliation.
This is really important and we are working with that as European Syriac Union also, along with other communities there, it is important to trust in the future, to trust in each other, what the Kurds and the Peshmerga did during the Islamic State invasion of the Nineveh Plain… Of course without them we would probably have lost everything, so we have to be thankful for that. But at the same time we know that they could obviously have done more for us, they could be standing there in the front line, they could have given us weapons to defend ourselves along with them and probably, together, we could have fought ISIS before they became stronger, but to go into that issue of how and for what reasons ISIS became so strong and had the possibility to become so strong, like they have been for the past two years, that is a question which will take us too long to answer… And there are many conspiracy theories to look into of course…
Obviously people on the ground, whether Sunni or Shia, have also hurt us and whether Kurds or Arabs, they have also hurt us, but we need to trust in each other in some way, because we will be neighbors anyway, we need to build a common future together and that can be done with respect and democracy. And that quality type of living today does not exist in Iraq, nor in Kurdistan, really, because you can feel the tension, I have been in Kurdistan many times, and you can feel the tension, where you feel that you are not a first rate citizen, because you are not Kurd, because you are Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian. And because you don’t feel you belong to a strong party, because parties dominate Kurdistan today. More than the government dominating Kurdistan, it is the KDP that dominates Kurdistan. And that is also an issue…
What we would like to have is Mr. Barzani should stand up and say OK, if this is what the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrians want, this is not a disputed area, this is your area, we give it over to you, we can help you, in what way do you need help from us?
And the same thing from Baghdad, because they have a decision from their ministers’ council from two years ago, they should say: This is what you want, tell us how we can help you.
And then, I think the European Parliament, the United States Government and even the Russians would understand that this is ok. This is a good situation where we can also be supportive and find common solutions.
Of the five different militias that I found in my research, the Nineveh Plain Forces, the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, Dwekh Nawsha, Qaraqosh Protection Committee and the Tiger Guards… Are some of these considered pro-Kurd and others Pro-Baghdad?
In the end, whether they like to say that or not, some of us must be more pro-the side that gives us the permission to be a military militia.
The Nineveh Plain Units answer to the Government of Baghdad, the Nineveh Plain Forces are from Peshmerga ministry, from the Kurdistan region. This is why we operate in different places. If we belong to Peshmerga, obviously we cannot move in the areas where Baghdad moves, and vice versa.
Dwekh Nawsha is unfortunately a very, very small group and there are also the Nineveh Plain Guards Protection Units from Barzani’s side also, the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian Popular Council. That is pro-Kurdistan, more obviously than the others.
Then you have the Syriac Falcons, newly established, by Salwon Momika, of the Syriac Democratic Union who was held hostage for almost two weeks recently, in fights. He established himself as a political party and also militia. The first movement within the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian group established in the liberated areas, and he faced problems, of course, and he was held captive, but now he was released.
But what is not working there, what we are obviously being stopped from, we made it clear to our militias, on behalf of the European Syriac Union, and along with Mr. Lars Adaktusson, that we need to find a common agenda for the military unification also, in order to become an army for the Nineveh Plain in the future. But of course neither Baghdad nor Erbil like this, and that is obvious. Maybe they don’t like me to say that, but I will do it anyway.
Transcript of interview published 7 July 2017 by journalist Filipe d’Avillez (Renascença, Lisbon) with Metin Rhawi (European Syriac Union), about the situation in the Nineveh Plain and expectations for after the liberation of Mosul (2017).