A Future for the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people in Iraq? Interview with Bethnahrain Patriotic Union President Yusuf Yahqub Matti

ANKAWA, Iraq – Disputed areas, Iranian, Turkish and foreign influence, Popular Mobilization Units, ISIS, genocide and displacement, sectarianism, emigration, instability, protests… where does all this leave the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people? We talk to the President of the Bethnahrain Patriotic Union in Iraq Mr. Yusuf Yahqub Matti.

SyriacPress: The HBA recently sent a letter to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustapha al-Kadhimi. In your letter you criticize the governments of Baghdad and Erbil that they did neither hear nor include the people of the Sinjar ‘disputed area’ on the agreement. In your opinion, why is the Baghdad and Erbil agreement not in the interest of the people of Sinjar?

HBA President Yusuf Yahqub Matti – To answer this question, we must first clarify Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution. Article 140 concerns the demographic allocation and political alignment of so-called ‘disputed areas’ and contains 3 stages; normalization, statistical census, and a referendum on the future of the area for the peoples of the region. What is not in accordance with the application of Article 140 is that there has been no application of the normalization and referendum phases from the three phases of Article 140.

Now that this agreement between Baghdad and Erbil has been signed, something very strange comes to light and questions arise. The Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian and Yazidi peoples are also indigenous peoples to this country… why then is their voice silenced and why are their rights withheld in these areas?

Iraqi PM al-Kadhimi knows very well that these peoples have the right to participate in political dialogues about their ‘disputed area’. Hence, we consider this agreement purely political. In our letter annex statement, we make clear to the Iraqi PM that these peoples must be given their legal right to inclusion in political dialogues, and we call for the formation of joint committees between Baghdad, the Kurdistan Region, and all politicians and parties in the region.

This Baghdad-Erbil agreement will have major implications for the broader region. The pain suffered by the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian and Yazidi peoples in the Nineveh plains was significant. It was the deliberate destruction of the entities of national and religious existence of the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian and Yazidi components, and it has made them very vulnerable now. The attempts to neutralize and exclude the Yazidi and other political parties and politicians from the Sinjar and other dialogues is illegal. They simply do not recognize the political rights of these vulnerable components.

SyriacPress: So, you do not think that the Baghdad-Erbil agreement on normalization in Sinjar may possibly be only temporary? Perhaps, to re-build the region first for the return of displaced persons? And that the agreement does not include Sinjar’s political and military future?

HBA President Yusuf Yahqub Matti – Any agreement, especially on Sinjar, should not only mean reconstruction and the return of the displaced. It should rebuild. I always say rebuilding is reviving the national, cultural, and religious entities and social and political institutions that were destroyed, while reconstruction is putting back material facilities and buildings that were destroyed.

If the Sinjar agreement would only be on the security aspect, then I believe this is to impose a security administration on the indigenous people, i.e. to keep them out of the security responsibility of their own region. This is unacceptable; the Iraqi constitution does not provide for such steps. And Iraqi State Administration Law 58 does not include such a clause. On the contrary, the administration of the region must be in accordance with Article 140 and according to the will of the people residing in the area.

Even with regards to the statistical census, there is a problem. There have been many forms of demographic change. There was terrorism, displacements, massacres, and killing. All Iraqi people were subjected to this. They were abandoned and displaced to safer areas in Nineveh. But the time of terrorism is over and I fear that Baghdad and Erbil may not consider the demographic change that occurred after 2013 and only provide for the safe return of the indigenous people to their areas and reconstruction.

If we take another point of view: do you see the agreement as an opportunity to get rid of the Popular Mobilization Units which are an obstacle to the peoples of the Nineveh Plain and Sinjar?

Before the ISIS incursion and occupation, there were no Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), and security was in the hands of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq and Federal Police Forces governed by Baghdad. But when they returned in the post-ISIS period, after October-November 2016, we see other security forces had formed and entered the areas, i.e. the PMUs. This has seriously complicated the security situation.

If the question is about abolishing the PMUs and integrating them in the official Iraqi forces, I belief this is the main task of the government in Baghdad – to talk to the PMU leaders and integrate them in the official Iraqi forces.

In light of the recent security measures taken by the central Baghdad government, how do you assess Iraqi PM al-Kadhimi and his position on the demands of the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian and Yazidi peoples in normalizing the situation in their ‘disputed’ living areas?

The fact is that the disputed areas have not seen real security since 2005 until now. The security situation is worrying and volatile. To Beth Nahrin (Mesopotamia) violence was done by who and when they wanted. This is definitely the case with the ISIS invasion of the region. Security in general continues to be weak in the region. It is made up from different security formations. This makes things worse and the security situation may not be solved in a wise and proper manner.

Where some components accept the existence of the PMUs for their own interests, and not necessarily in the interest of the other components, our own view must be balanced. It is the responsibility of the governments in Baghdad and Kurdistan to apply article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, and to manage the security file in accordance with the will of the peoples of the particular region.

Bethnahrin Patriotic Union, Yezidi Exile Council of Sinjar, European Syriac Union visit Dutch MP Joël Voordewind on Sinjar & the Nineveh Plain. June 2019.

Is there cooperation between your party and the Yazidi parties to pressure PM al-Kadhimi’s government to comply with your demands, especially since the Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians share the same fate with the Yazidis in northern Iraq?

The Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians and Yazidis have shared injustice and have been wronged too many times in the last 17 years. We were subjected to ethnic cleansing and have reached the point of extermination. As Bethnahrain Patriotic Union, we have an ongoing dialogue with the Yazidis. It is our legitimate right to discuss between our two sides how to protect our indigenous peoples and nations inside Iraq. And we have already cooperated with Yazidi political parties both inside and outside Iraq. Now talks are ongoing to arrange things more rationally and legally and help Baghdad and Erbil to get out of this crisis. If Baghdad does not listen and rely on politicians of the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian and Yazidi peoples, there will be no solution to the current crisis and impasse.

SyriacPress: Where do you stand on the results of the meetings held by the Sinjar Board of Directors and the elders and representatives of the Yazidi clans with officials of the Iraqi government? The latter rejected the Baghdad-Erbil agreement. They say it does not reflect the will of the Yazidi component in Sinjar.

HBA President Yusuf Yahqub Matti – The Yazidis raised true and real matters. They said that they were the once fighting and working on the ground for the last seven years. And that they maintained the security in Sinjar and other Yazidi areas. There was no other security force left there after the withdrawal of Iraqi armed and police forces. They say that they were left at the mercy of ISIS. After the attacks by ISIS, they took up the responsibility to defend their people and made security arrangements. This is a tangible and clear reality for the whole Iraqi people. I belief that the Yazidi delegation that went to Baghdad met with important figures who also had an influence on the security file…

Do you have any concerns that the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people will be treated in the same way by Baghdad and Erbil as the Yazidis were treated about the normalization in Sinjar?

Of course, if we did not have these concerns, we would not have sent a letter to the Iraqi PM demanding our legitimate right according to the three stages of Article 140. This will only happen with a general full agreement between Baghdad and Erbil and the peoples in the region. So yes, this Sinjar agreement has created real concerns because our people have been marginalized. These agreements must not be concluded behind closed doors. Where were the politicians of our people’s parties in this agreement? Why not include our parties?

We must not forget that we are partners with the Yazidis in Sinjar, in 2006 there were 400 families of our people. On the night of the ISIS attack on Sinjar there were 40 families left, and many of them were kidnapped by ISIS.

If the will of our people is further neglected, do you fear the Nineveh Plain will become a proxy war zone between Iran and Turkey or the Shabak PMUs and Sunni Arabs supported by Turkey?

The Nineveh Plain is part of Iraqi territory and the security situation is highly complex. Whether there will be a clash between the Sunni Arabs and the Shabak PMUs? This is possible in the absence of Iraqi wisdom and strong will, and if there is more interference from Iran, or perhaps Turkey. But we must prevent this from happening at all times and avoid repeating past tragedy.

As Bethnahrain Patriotic Union, we have diplomatic relations with Arabs and Kurds, and we have lines with Baghdad. We hope that Arab, Sunni, and Kurdish politicians will have a permanent dialogue on the security issue and prevent foreign interference, whether Turkish or Iranian, in Iraq’s affairs and security.

How do you see Turkey’s position and intentions with regards to its military presence in northern Iraq?

Mr. Erdogan has publicly explained his personal ambitions and his party’s consensus regarding intervention in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. All go back to the dream of reviving the Ottoman Empire. What happened in the Sykes-Picot Agreement over the Ottoman division, was Turkey’s intention to gather as much as possible of the remainder of the Ottoman Empire. In the Mosul referendum, which was held in the presence of British, Turkish, and German leaders, the people of Mosul chose Iraq. But in the Antioch referendum the people chose Turkey. Turkey signed many agreements at that time. Now with the approaching end of the period of these agreements, Erdogan displays many unrealistic efforts to return areas to the Turkish state.

Today Erdogan has a long arm with a strong army. He is trying to extend his arm to northern Iraq, Syria, and even Qatar and Libya. I imagine, with the logic of reason, that no country in the world and the Middle East will accept this Turkish expansionism. And if Erdogan increases his actions of interference and continues with this Ottoman thought, it will harm Turkey and put it at great risk.

Do you think that Ankara’s main concern is to stop PKK activity in northern Iraq?

The issue of the PKK and Turkey is an internal matter and both sides know this. The failure of the Turkish-Kurdish dialogue is pushing Turkey to use endless violence against the Kurds. We have seen this in that Turkish warplanes and artillery have bombed Kurdish-majority villages and cities in Turkey. But our approach is political. Our conclusion is that Turkey must solve its problems with the Kurds internally. The argument of hitting the PKK across the Turkish border… neither international law nor international conventions allow states to extend its army beyond the borders. Turkey has violated Syrian, Iraqi, and Libyan sovereignty.

Did the latest Turkish military intervention affect the villages of our people in northern Iraq?

More than 10 villages of our people have been under Turkish bombardment in the last 7 years. Turkey’s logic and terrorist actions are a breach of the sovereignty of neighboring countries.

Given the efforts by al-Kadhimi’s government to rein in the PMUs and other groups affiliated with Iran, do you think that Iran will remain silent if it might lose the strategic areas Sinjar and the Nineveh Plain, which are Tehran’s main land roads to Syria and the Mediterranean?

Iran’s efforts in Iraq are to disrupt the security situation in Iraq, destroy Iraq, create armed factions outside the official security factions, and create sectarian and national animosity among the Iraqi people. Iran’s policy in Iraq can be seen as a revenge and retaliation for the past and Iran’s desire to control the region all the way to the Mediterranean and Red Sea. This policy has created many enemies for Iran around the world. Iraqis should be careful not to be dragged into sedition.

Is it likely that the Peshmerga will re-establish itself in the areas of Nineveh Plain in the event of PMU-withdrawal. The PMU recently withdrew 5 kilometres from their positions and from the KRI border towards Bashiqa?

This is a possibility, but should not be decided between Baghdad and Kurdistan . The political parties representing the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian and Yazidi peoples must be present in these talks and it should only happen with the consent of all.

What about the Nineveh Plain Forces and their role in obtaining the security responsibility in the Nineveh Plain?

Our forces are present on the ground in Bartella, Alqosh, and Karemlash. And there was an agreement between Baghdad and Erbil, under American supervision, not to keep any Peshmerga forces in the Nineveh Plain except for the Nineveh Plain Forces. The Nineveh Plain Forces are not affiliated with anyone. Everyone knows that the salaries of the entire Peshmerga forces come from Baghdad. In the case of inclusive dialogues, our forces are ready to take up their role in the Nineveh Plain and participate in establishing security.

HBA President Yusuf Yahqub Matti (third from the right) at the Brussels Conference: “A Future for Christians in Iraq”, 28-30 June 2017, Brussels.

SyriacPress: If our people’s politicians are included in the dialogues between Baghdad and Erbil on normalization in the regions, how will the parties and organizations of our people choose their representatives to the dialogues, especially since some parties follow Kurdish agendas and others follow Shiite agendas?

HBA President Yusuf Yahqub Matti – Our political parties are like all other parties around the world. We compete for official positions or deputy seats in parliament. This is very normal.  But some of our people complain that our parties do not agree with each other and describe them as fragmented and divided. But let us remember our experiences between 2006-2020. One does not have to go far into history to find joint documents signed by our parties during major crises. We are 8 parties with many jointly signed documents and demands to Baghdad, Kurdistan, the UN, and the U.S. We have also issued dozens of joint statements and held several joint protests. The Brussels 2017 document is the biggest answer to those who accuse our parties of not agreeing with each other. If al-Kadhimi requests the participation of our parties in the disputed area dialogue, 7 of our people’s political parties are ready to be partners in this dialogue.

Do you see the Baghdad-Erbil agreement as a ‘direct targeting’ of our people and the Yazidis after they openly voiced their ambitions to manage their own areas?

I prefer ‘ignoring’ or ‘neglecting’. Our objections will make Baghdad and Erbil rethink their marginalization of the Chaldean- Syriac-Assyrian and Yazidi politicians. I think that Baghdad and Erbil thought that they could separate things and act according to their will, i.e. without reference to the people in the region. This is wrong and they must reconsider their calculations.

In 2017 our people’s parties asked the EU to create a province in the Nineveh Plain with the intention to become a Governate later (the Brussels Position Paper). We did not see much external and internal political action with the issue of Christians. Why did we not see serious external and internal demands for the granting of autonomy to our people in the Nineveh Plain.

The paper was submitted to the EU. But a year later the Iraqi Parliament unfortunately rejected it. Iraqi Kurdistan announced its acceptance of the document in a press conference, and the Iraqi delegate in Brussels testified that the Brussels conference was a national conference. The Iraqi council of ministers approved the creation of 4 provinces on March 21, 2013. Unfortunately the Iraqi parliament is sectarian and considered our demands to create a Nineveh Plain Governate as an establishing of an ethnic entity.

The population is 4 million in the regions that demanded the creation of governates. They are at the mercy of 1 person’s administration. If the governates were created, they would have been administered by 36 directorates, not 3 directorates. Iraq has 13 Shiite provinces, 3 Sunni provinces, 3 Kurdish provinces, and the rejection of the creation of new provinces was an excuse to exclude minorities and prevent them from obtaining their national rights. It was a conspiracy against minorities.

Our demand was fully in accordance with the Iraqi constitution. The requested province would, under referendum of the population, turn into a Governate. But the Iraqi government measures the demands according to their interests and not according to the interests of the people.

As for the Brussels conference, we have held several meetings: we met three times with MEPs from Brussels who came to Iraq and they met with the participating parties as well as another party.They saw and understood that the creation of the provinces was the only solution to restore and integrate the rights of minorities into the Iraqi people. The official in charge of persecuted religions affairs at the United Nations also met with the parties involved with the Brussels Position Paper. We also met with the delegate from the European Parliament. He asked us what we were insisting on as the outcome of the Brussels conference… we were unanimous in our agreement.

What ways are to end the suffering of our Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people in Iraq?

More than a million of our people have emigrated; 500 thousand remain. Our people are looking to live safely and integrated in Iraqi society. Our people have been persecuted since early times because of their Christianity. It has faced numerous massacres throughout its history. We remain struggling for our rights and security. There is a large number of people with an open mind that would like to return and stay in their homeland.

Disclaimer: translated from the original Arabic here. For the Suroyo TV interview in Arabic see below.