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Towards an Assyrian Strategy for the Kurdish Question in Iraq

by Ghassan Hanna Shathaya - February, 1998.

Posted: Friday, June 09, 2000 at 06:46 PM UT

“Looking at the reasons why Arab and Kurdish nationalists seem to agree on denying our people their nationalist aspirations, one can see a common thread of racism, bigotry, and out right attempt to exterminate our people from their ancestral lands.”

During the last three months, the Assyrian public has been watching quite eagerly the Syriac teaching experiment in northern Beth Nahrain. That experiment which allowed our people (for the first time in Iraq's modern history) to exercise our rights to teach our children our language in our own ancestral lands. News of the suspension of that experiment and denial of that news seems to be the norm those last few months. What at stake is the basic right of a people to be allowed freely to teach their own language to their own children without harassment, restrictions, or outright suppression. The language at question, Syriac, is Aramaic (the language spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ) mixed with a heavy dose of Akkadian words. Our Fathers, the Assyrians and Babylonians of antiquity who while adopting Aramaic around 800 BC, enriched it with their Akkadian language and created our current language, Syriac.

The Syriac-teaching experiment started six years ago when the newly created American no fly zone in northern Iraq allowed the Kurdish groups a direct control of that part of Iraq. Through the efforts of the Assyrian political movements, especially that of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (Zowaa), pressure was mounted on those groups to allow teaching Syriac in areas that have a high concentration of Assyrians. After several attempts and months of delays, those Kurdish groups finally agreed to allow the Assyrians to teach their own language in primary schools (age 6-12 years). That decision raised the hopes of our people in a better future for our nation and was hailed as a giant step in burying the hatches between our people and the Kurds. The Kurds whose shameful participation (along with the Turks) in the massacre of more than 60% of our nation and the occupation and demographic changing of our ancestral land of northern Beth Nahrain (Assyria proper) had left many scars in the minds of many Assyrians. Many were happy to see the Kurds refusing to follow in the footsteps of the Arab nationalists who ruled in Baghdad and whose anti-minorities policies are well known. Many were happy to see that the Kurds were finally paying back for some of the sacrifices that our people gave, whether in material or lives, to the Kurdish movement through their strong support and participation in it. Unfortunately, while that experiment was under way, a low-level parallel terror campaign was unleashed against our people whose objective seems to be the continuation of the ethnic cleansing that was started by the criminal figures in the Kurdish history, the likes of Bader Khan, Merkor, Simko. . etc. However, hope was always high that the decent and patriotic Kurds will be able to curtail their ultra nationalist elements and foil their plans. Unfortunately, the balance of power does not seem to be on their side.

Looking at the reasons why Arab and Kurdish nationalists seem to agree on denying our people their nationalist aspirations, one can see a common thread of racism, bigotry, and out right attempt to exterminate our people from their ancestral lands. While Arab nationalism (as demonstrated by Saddam's Baath Party, Naserites, and that of earlier Satea' al-Husery) is driven more by racism and bigotry, that of the Kurds seems to be driven more by fight over the land, and a history of bloody massacres against our people. With an equation like that, the options for our people seems to be limited, especially since the Kurds through their alliance with the Ottoman Turks succeeded in massacring the majority of our people. That put us currently at a mere 1. 5 million individuals in Iraq compared to 3. 5 million Kurds, less than a million Turkomans, and 16 million Arabs. However, the Arab Muslims of Iraq while having a history of discriminatory practices against our people, have on the other hand no history of committing massacres (apart from the government planned one in 1933 in Semel and that in Sorya in 1969) against our people. In other words while large sections of the Kurdish population, and till recently, participated actively in massacring our people, the Arab population has no such experience throughout its history of 1300 years in Iraq. Add to it, the fact that the Arabs share with us the strong commitment to the unity and integrity of our ancestral land of Beth Nahrain. Saying that, the "forced Arabization process" unleashed against us by the criminal regime of Saddam Hussein is an unprecedented escalation of Arab racism and bigotry towards our people. An act that meets the Kurdish nationalist strategy of exterminating our existence in Beth Nahrain, albeit through "forced assimilation" rather than "physical extermination" or the more recent "forced migration" policies of the Kurds.

The above facts are raising several important questions that need to be answered to formulate an Assyrian strategy in dealing with the Kurdish question in Iraq. Some of my thoughts on the subject are:

There has to be a clear and unshakable commitment by the Assyrian political movement to attempt to build a strategic alliance with the democratic Iraqi political groups that focuses on directing our combined resources towards fighting the Kurdish separatists elements. This means that the Assyrian Democratic Movement (Zowaa), that's active in the Kurdish controlled areas, needs to rethink its own "strategic alliance" with those Kurdish groups. That is especially since it's proving to be quite ludicrous to have a "strategic ally" who's continuously attempting to renegade on its promise of allowing you to teach your own children in your own language, let alone meeting your calls for your national rights in "Kurdistan". In that direction, it's of importance to rethink some of past decisions, the likes of having the Assyrian Martyrs' Day commemorating the massacre of Semmel by the Iraqi government in 7 August, 1933. While it's a crime (that demands apology and compensation) what the Iraqi government did, however to forget the killing of half a million Assyrians by the Kurdish-Turkish alliance in 1914-1919 is unacceptable. More, to replace their memory with a date for a smaller massacre (3000 martyrs) is putting the emphasis on the wrong group of people and commemorating the wrong event.

It's of utmost importance for the Assyrian political movement inside Iraq to lobby heavily the Assyrian communities outside Iraq, and allow their direct involvement in decisions that have a national impact on all Assyrians. This lobbying should be directed in using their resources in their second homes to influence its policy makers to exert a positive pressure that could result in a peaceful attainment of the Assyrians' national rights in Iraq.

Unfortunately, the Kurdish nationalism chose for itself an "Arian identity" over its Mesopotamian roots. Hence, presenting itself as a totally alien group to the rest of the Iraqis. While it's a fact that the majority of the Kurdish immigrants to northern Mesopotamia during the last 200 years are descendents from Iran and Turkey, hence, of Arian race, however, a good percentage of Iraqi Kurds have Mesopotamian roots through the assimilation of the Medes and Gutiumians among them. It's of utmost importance for the Assyrian strategy to emphasize that part of the Kurdish identity, to fight the separatists' elements inside them, and to build a common historical background with our Assyrian people. Such emphasis should also be applied on the Arabs of Iraq to develop a common Iraqi identity that should be used as the medium to resolving Iraq's ethnic problems in a peaceful way. In other words, we need to emphasize that Kurdish national rights could and must be attainable inside the framework of united and indivisible Beth Nahrain.

The current experiment in northern Iraq is proving without any doubt that it's not in the Assyrian national interests to severe completely all contacts with the central government in Iraq, regardless of the governing regime and how much deplorable and loathsome it might be. We should never allow ourselves to be at the mercy of Kurdish nationalism, which so far has demonstrated a clear interest in our Fathers' land and our total "disappearance from it".

Of Iraq's political groups, the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) seems to have attracted the highest percentage of involvement from the Assyrians, drawn by its calls for "internationalism" and an honorable history of patriotic positions. While its founder Yousif Salman Yousif (Fahed) was a proud and vocal Assyrian from the Chaldean Church, however, since the ascend of the Kurdish elements in this party and the Assyrian questions seems to have totally disappeared from its program. It's ironic that the ICP's Assyrian members are trained to fight for Kurdish and Arabic national rights but seems to shy away (and even work against) from involvement in the Assyrian national movement. With the current rise of Assyrian nationalism, the Iraqi Communist Party (always under the influence of its Kurdish leadership) seems to have decided to play the Chaldean vs. Assyrian card. The ICP's unprecedented act of creating a separate group by the name of Kurdistan Communist Party-Iraq, an act that clearly calls for the separation of northern Iraq is one that needs a serious study. That act which would have sent Marx, Lenin, and all other Communists' out of their graves for its creation of two Communist parties in the same state (all while Communists call for Internationalism!!), should be looked at from the prospective of the Kurdish influence. It's interesting that in a recent interview of Mr. Karim Ahmed, the General Secretary of the Kurdistan Communist Party-Iraq (KCPI), with Bahra (Zowaa's newspaper) conducted in October 1998, he was quoted as saying that he believes "there's a problem between Chaldeans and Assyrians" in his party, hence, the "leadership" decided to leave it up to them to solve their own problems!!! However, "the party prefers the name Chaldo-Assyrian as their national name"! As to what happened to Marx's, Angeles', and Lenin's definition of "nationality", well I presume that does not apply on the "Assyrians" but it does on "Chaldo-Assyrians"! Why does the KCPI (and its mother ICP) actively educate its members about Kurdish unity of the Bahdinanis and Suranis and Arab unity of Shia and Sunni (and between Iraqis and the hardly understood Algerians), but shies away from educating its Assyrian members to ignore the religious differences between the followers of the Church of the East and those of its Chaldean splinter is beyond me! Actually, why does a national party like the ICP (and its regional creation, the KCPI) refuse to take a position regarding the Assyrians, the third largest ethnic group in Iraq. More since when did the "leadership" leave it to the "masses" to formulate its own policy. Worse, since when did the leadership "follow" the masses!!

It's unfortunate and very disturbing that the Iraqi Communist Party has succumbed to its Kurdish nationalist elements and to Arab bigotry and decided to take a route that goes against its honorable history of being at the forefront of defenders of minorities' aspirations and rights. More to take a position that is a direct insult to the works and positions of its own Assyrian Founder, Yousif Salman Yousif (Fahed) who was a follower of the Chaldean Church who never shied away from referring to himself in his national name, that of an Assyrian.

It's of utmost importance for the Assyrian national strategy to direct its efforts to bringing back into its fold a group of its sons and daughters that have spent most of its years of struggle for attaining someone else's rights, all while forgetting its own. That misdirection that went against even what Fahed himself called for, that of creating an Assyrian branch for the Iraqi Communist Party. Something that was left uncompleted after his martyrdom.

Going back to the issue of teaching Syriac, as of last month, the Kurdish leadership has decided to allow our students to continue to be taught in Syriac, albeit in private schools only. The reason given was that they (the Kurds) can not afford paying for it!! While, a Western individual listening to that reason might think that the government in Iraq depends on a taxes' collecting system to cover its expenses, something that does not exist. The reality is, the Iraqi society is totally subsidized by the oil that exists under its land. That commodity which is owned entirely by the government just as well as 90% of the economic activity in the country. In the Kurdish controlled areas, while they are not allowed to sell oil on their own, however, their "government" functions by taxing the Iraqi oil and all the goods that are imported through Turkey and Iran. In other words, what the Kurdish parties are telling our people is that the money they get (from extorting the central government and from the 15% allocated to the area by the "oil for food" program) from the taxes will only be spent on themselves and their Kurdish people. In other words, since other groups do not have their numbers of guns and bullets then they have to pay for teaching their own children from their own pockets. A precedent, if left unchecked, might be followed by worse actions directed on creating more difficulties for our people, all so they could be forced to leave their ancestral lands to the Kurds.

It's interesting to note that the above act makes a mockery of the Kurdish demands during the "Self Rule" negotiations with the Iraqi government during the 1970's, which emphasized the equitable sharing of Iraq's oil wealth among its different ethnic groups. Those calls seem to be forgotten, especially now since those Kurdish groups have laid their own hands on that wealth. This act, forces the Assyrian political movement to go through the only way possible to solve this "Kurdish selfishness". That is by lobbying the Americans, the newest and latest employer of those groups to apply pressure on them and to remind them about their old positions when they used to be in the "opposition" and "the oppressed people"!

Finally, the Assyrians should always be mindful and grateful to the decent Kurds whose efforts resulted in this Syriac-teaching experiment, something that none of the Arab nationalist governments ever even considered doing it. Let us also remember that an average Kurd, Arab, Turkoman, etc. aspirations and needs are no different than those of an Assyrian, however, political groups that attempt to reach those goals on someone else's expenses are what this article is directed against and what should be made aware of.

Let us hope, as Assyrians we will be able to achieve our national rights with the minimum amount of sacrifices. With the least amount of confrontation, and with utmost understanding that our goals should be linked to that of all the people of Beth Nahrain for without them our path will be bloody and our sacrifices great, something I am sure that no Assyrian would like to see.

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