Mardean Isaac is a British-Assyrian writer and the UK representative of A Demand for Action, a global initiative to protect minorities in Iraq and Syria.
Iraq – a country with which Britain went to war and whose modern state Britain helped to create just over a decade ago – is engulfed in a crisis of historic proportions. The minority peoples of Iraq – including the ethnically Assyrian Christian population, Shabaks, Turkomen, and Yazidis – are in the midst of genocide at the hands of ISIS, or the ‘Islamic State.’ The discourse from British politicians and officials has so far focused on issues of domestic terrorism and humanitarian assistance. These matters are clearly essential. But, as Parliament reconvenes, an erudite, detailed, and creative discussion on what Britain’s role should be in restoring Iraq’s sovereignty and assisting its most vulnerable citizens must be an urgent priority .Entire peoples face eradication.
In recent memory, the UK government has played a leading role in helping the Kurds of northern Iraq – who were facing another round of ethnic cleansing from Saddam Hussein in the fallout of the uprising against him – secure a safe haven in 1991. This endeavour, known as Operation Provide Comfort, has faded in the collective – even the more specialised – British memory. Perhaps the operation was too abstruse, and its achievements apparently too subtle.
But eclipsed as it has been by the invasion of 2003, we should remind ourselves that the beneficial impact of the safe haven is still being felt in the region of Iraq controlled by the KRG. A safe corridor and zone of repatriation, established through an operationally coordinated British-led international force, allowed around 450,000 Kurds to securely return to Dohuk and elsewhere within five weeks of their expulsion. It was under the auspices of this safe haven that the Kurdistan Regional Government was then able to establish and develop itself.
The operation should be used as a precedent for the creation of a safe zone on behalf of Assyrians, Yazidis, and other minorities of northern Iraq, with a view to their long-term semi-autonomy within the Iraqi state.
There are several reasons why an operation is more propitious now than in 1991. ISIS has no airpower, rendering the no-fly zone component of the operation needless. The safe zone would not be in conflict with a belligerent state like Saddam’s Iraq, but would rather proceed – as long as certain provisions regarding its long-term territorial and national status were met – with the support of the current Iraq government. In fact, the Iraqi government approved the creation of a province in Nineveh in January, which was set to establish a basis for the semi-autonomy long advocated by Assyrian leaders.
Though the 2003 invasion is often maligned in Britain because of its lack of international support, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has just recommended the creation of safe zone in Nineveh, and because the operation would not be an act of war or regime change, a range of parties could be called upon to assist the British forces. The forces creating the safe zone would not be staging an incursion into enemy territory, but fashioning a secure territory within an already established, federal democratic state that is in urgent need of buttressing.
The safe zone operation would also address the urgent refugee crisis in Northern Iraq. Following mass expulsions from Mosul, Sinjar, and the Nineveh Province, around 450,000 citizens – mainly ethnic Assyrians and Yazidis – have arrived in Kurdish controlled areas. The infrastructural and humanitarian crisis facing these dispossessed families is immense: in short, they have lost everything that constituted their lives. They line roads, parks, and every available public space in the cities of Dohuk and Erbil. They are in desperate need of food, shelter, and medical supplies.
The sooner a return is facilitated, the more aid and infrastructural development can be focused on the rehabilitation and development of the homes, towns, and cities minorities were forced to abandon. This would avoid the creation of ad hoc sites for dispossessed people – the likes of which have been created in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey to house Syrian refugees whose homes and cities have been completely destroyed – that have entrenched the dislocation of refugees without providing them with a chance to guide their own futures.
The withdrawal of both the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi army forces from the north – which exposed non-Kurdish, non-Arab minority peoples to ethnic cleansing – is a savage illustration of the urgent need for locally derived security forces with a stake in their communities to defend their own soil. The training and equipping of these forces, as units of the Iraqi army, would be another aim of the safe zone operation. As part of a federal Iraq, the presence of these sanctioned security units would contribute to the state’s territorial and national coherence.
However, it would be perilously naïve to believe that these units would be sufficient to prevent further onslaughts from the Islamic State or other extremist factions. Ultimately, there must be an Iraqi army committed to protecting Iraq as a state. The profundity of contemporary fragmentation in Iraq should not be understated, but it is less the result of congenital divisions than of tendencies encouraged by the Iraqi political system and the consequences of the violence within the country over the past decade. The longer divisions are allowed to fester, the grimmer the regional picture will become. Out of the extremity of this crisis must emerge a set a realisations that will cohere the Iraqi leadership and encourage Iraqis to realise and be encouraged to build upon their mutual, collective national interests.
Despite the daunting complexity of the task ahead, Britain must use this period of fragmentation as an opportunity to play a leading role in not only providing protection for minorities in the north but creating a meaningful place for them in their country. It would reverse some of the most harrowing desecrations of human dignity, civilizational heritage, and national integrity of recent decades, and would create a beacon of justice, order and hope in a country and a region on the verge of even greater turmoil.
Together with Stand Up, founded by lawyer and activist Zehra Zaidi, Demand For Action invites you to our Unity Rally in Whitehall on 07.09.14: