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The Middle East in the Post-War World
National and Religious Minorities: The Assyrians

by Dr. David Barsum Perley
Speech presented on June 6, 1947 at New York University, School of Education.

Posted: Tuesday, July 03, 2001 at 05:55 PM CT

Dr. David Barsum Perley (1901-1979)

It is difficult, in these difficult days, to be an Assyrian. Sometimes people seem to know nothing about him, although he is a very aged gentleman who has seen nearly ten thousand years roll over his head, and still he presses on. However, in all frankness, one must acknowledge the admission of the Editor of the Near East and India, who has crusaded against the Assyrian cause for years as the instrument of the Colonial Office, that "there is no finer human material in the whole of the Middle East than the Assyrians".

Be that as it may, no cause is so symbolic of the state of national and religious minorities in the Middle East as that of the Assyrian. That cause will show how solemn promises have been cynically broken and will illustrate why British prestige is close to its nadir at this moment by reason of the pursuit of her game of Power Politics despite the fact that she has just emerged victorious from a great political convulsion; at the same time, it may serve as a pointer or a warning to our country that has just come into the scene of the Middle East.


“Will America unjustly enrich herself, as the British, at the expense of this "Forgotten Ally" by allowing them to find their abject and ignoble defeat in their glorious victory of 1941?

The Middle East was the home of civilization. It is now the nerve centre of our problem...

There is but one solution to this explosive political situation - the realization of the natural aspirations of all the native elements.”

Dr. David Barsum Perley
June 6, 1947

The present Assyrians are the descendents of the ancient Assyrian Empire, the oldest heart from which emanated the fire of civilization. They are Christians, who claim an unbroken spiritual descent from the early Apostolic Church. Speaking Aramaic, in which the Gospel was originally written, they were the first, as a people, to adhere to the new Faith and the first to convey it to non-Aramaic speaking peoples. Thus it was that in the early Christian centuries they were famous missionaries who evangelized the entire East as far away as China, Burma, and India as testified to by the Nestorian Monument in China and by the Nestorian Tablet in Madras.

Prior to 1914, they lived as hardy Highland clansmen in the Mountains of Hakkiari, Kurdistan, in the north of what is now Iraq and in the southeast of Turkey but within the Turkish Empire. Here they led an autonomous existence from time immemorial as a millet or nation under the supreme rule of their Prince-Patriarch, the Mar Shimun, who was recognized as both the temporal and spiritual head of his Christian Millet by the Persian Emperors, by the Arab Khalifs, by the Mogul Khans, and by the Ottoman Sultans.


When World War I broke out, the Assyrians joined the Allies after the Patriarch had been urged to declare war upon the Turks from the heart of the Turkish Empire by the Eastern Committee of the British War Cabinet by reason of the magnificent fighting qualities of the Assyrians as well as the extremely important strategical position of their homeland in the neighborhood of Turkish, Persian, and Russian frontier. Mr. J. S. Ward, stated in the London Daily Telegram of Nov. 10, 1933:

It was we who invited them to rise against the Turks, and promised them their independence if they would do so.

Can Great Britian, now that she is responsible for order in the country, afford to neglect so valuable a military asset as this nation has proved itself to be?

— Dr. W. A. Wigram
Our Smallest Ally (PDF, 17 MB)

Believing in the promises, the Assyrians poured every man into the ranks of the new armies. The British Government has generously recognized the great contribution made by the Assyrians to the Allied cause, but the plan ended in disaster for the Assyrians; for, by the end of 1915, they were totally driven out of their hills and forced to flee into Persia. And by the time they made contact with the British troops in Mesopotamia, they had lost two-thirds of their numbers. As soon as the war was ended, all the promises to the Assyrians were forgotten, and to the utter amazement of all the non-Arab population in the Middle East, a new Arab state was erected in Mesopotamia under the name of Iraq. The Assyrians were then left in refugee camps in the land and told that the problem of their settlement must await the making of peace with Turkey. That peace took four long years, and when it was finally made, the question of Hakkiari (the former home of the Assyrians) was left open and referred to the League. The League sent out a Commission to study the problem, and accepting the report of that Commission, it gave Hakkiari to Turkey, but made Turkey surrender important territory north of Mosul with the understanding that it was to be an autonomous home for the Assyrians with all their ancient rights under their Patriarch subject to a mandate to Great Britain to administer the whole for a period of 25 years dating from 1923.


The Mosul Controversy presents an excellent example of the sordid game of Power Politics in the Middle East. Kemalist Turkey argued before the League that geographically Mosul was an indivisible part of Turkey. Britain alleged, on the other hand, that it belonged to Iraq and fortified its claim by the moral force of the plausible argument that there are Assyrians who as Christians need protection from the Turks, as if Oil Politics could be satisfied with a partial violation of the moral and humanistic sentiments! At any rate it helped the greatest Christian Empire to be victorious in her struggle for oil.

An exceedingly curious situation arose on May 21, 1924, at the Conference of Constantinople which dealt with the preliminaries of the contest over the Vilayet of Mosul. It was the contention of Fethi Bey of Turkey that no cession of land to the Assyrian Territory was a necessity as the Assyrians could still find in Turkey the tranquility and prosperity which they enjoyed for centuries. To this, Sir Percy Cox replied that Fethi Bey's assertion did not square with the Assyrians' own views and that they had the most vivid memory of the treatment they bad suffered in the past at the hands of the Turks which they could neither forget nor ever forgive -as if Sir Percy was authorized to speak for the Assyrians and as if these "refugees" had an invincible army and navy!

Now all these may sound very unimportant in these tremendously important days. The fate of a little people is of small moment in view of the greater injustices which have been done to people everywhere. But curiously enough, the treatment of the Assyrians has done more to undermine people's trust in -British promises and justice (and that of the entire West for that matter) than any other single incident since 1914. The Assyrians stand out, and are constantly quoted, as perfect examples of British diplomacy and commercial greed by most of the leaders and agitators in the Middle East. Who has not heard Arab, Kurd, Lebanese, Hebrew, and Druze leaders murmur in bitter sarcasm whenever British good-faith is in question, the words: "Remember the Assyrians?" Remember the Assyrians is both a watchword and a reproach. The Arab world believes that Britain is concerned only with commercial greed and that all illusion of the selflessness of the West has long since departed in the face of the proof of usury and double-dealing that the West has given so often, and in no case more callously than in that of the Assyrians.


In 1920 there was insurrection in Iraq. Britain again organized the Assyrians into what is known as the Assyrian Levies to police the troublesome, turbulent Moslems. But this very task was bound to foment bitter hatred against the unfortunate Assyrians. Nevertheless, the Assyrians, firmly believing that the power of Britain would never desert them, proved loyal soldiers of Britain. In the words of Lt.-Col. Sir Arnold Wilson, the then Civil Commissioner:

They saved the British Army from utter disaster in 1920.

And that:

It was the Assyrian Force that saved the swamping of the British rule in the Arab revolt of 1920.


After negotiating (in 1930) the Anglo-Iraq Treaty of Alliance and the Financial Agreement which placed the main oil fields and railways in the control of the British, Britain decided to terminate the Mandate without provision or qualification. The Permanent Mandates Commission was very apprehensive about the future of the racial and religious minorities in Iraq, but Britain urged the unconditional entry of Iraq into the League upon the following undertaking:

His Majesty's Government realizes the responsibility in recommending that Iraq should be admitted to the League should Iraq prove herself unworthy of the confidence placed in her, the moral responsibility must rest with His Majesty's Government...

The Statesmen (Sir Francis Humphrys and Lord Cecil) who issued this undertaking forgot the most common rule of International Law that no state can interfere with the internal affairs of another sovereign state. That is a perfect example of the verbal claptrap which has made Britain a laughing-stock and scorn through the Moslem lands. The Assumption of Moral Responsibility sounds magnificent, but the Arab question was-what does it mean? Nothing at all. And its evil lies in the pompous self-deception of its phrasing, as much as in the desire to deceive others. Gibbon rightly laughed at the statesmen of rotting Byzantium for their high sounding titles and phrases. They are symptoms of national decay.

That Declaration has been written in Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, Hebrew, Druze, and Armenian characters on every market-place wall throughout the Middle East. It would scarcely be exaggerating to say that many of the British troops who fell in the Iraq rebellion of 1941, the invasion of Syria or who died on the road to Palestine would never have perished if the sorry farce of the abandonment of the Assyrians had not been clothed in such high-sounding and pompous hypocrisy of self-justification. The Arab understands force. He even appreciates slick double dealing. But he despises the weakness of snuffling hypocrisy under the mantle of piety.

Influenced by this absurd but solemn Declaration and after carefully emulating Pilate's washing of his hands, the Commission reluctantly recommended Iraq's admission in 1932, whereupon the Iraqis immediately celebrated their independence by a massacre of the Assyrian Christians. A British eyewitness exclaimed:

I saw and heard many terrible things in the War, but what I saw in Simel was beyond human imagination!

And on the record, Sir John Simmon shook hands with murder, when he stated in Geneva:

Apportionment of blame is a barren proceeding.

Some 12,000 of the-victims of that massacre were moved from Iraq to stagnate in a pestiferous valley in Syria immediately after these massacres.


In 1941, as the Nazi-inspired Iraqi Army rose in revolt against the British Forces stationed in Habbaniah at a time when the Nazis had seized Syria it was again the Assyrian Levies that saved the situation for the British and the Allies; for, had the Iraq rebellion succeeded, the British flank would have been completely turned in the Middle East. Capt. A. M. Hamilton stated in May, 1945:

The British Empire, and indeed all the Allied nations, owe the Assyrians a heavy debt following their key-victory at Habbaniah in 1941, which checked German expansion to Asia Minor and stopped a rapidly growing danger of linkage in force with Japan via the Persian Gulf at a time when the latter was posed for attack. But for the Assyrians' historic stand at Habbaniah, Rashid Ali and Nazism would certainly have controlled Iraq; the Allies would thus have been split at a critical phase of affairs before they had mustered their strength and the vital oil region would have been lost -- as probably would have been the war itself-for both India and Russia would have been isolated and the Mediterranean out flanked.

The late Philip Guedalla, who was commissioned by the British Air Ministry to write the story of the air war in the Middle East, declared:

They (the Assyrians) have saved Iraq and the whole position in the Middle East. Indeed, they had saved something more. For three weeks later the Germans went to war with Russia, and they had saved the road through Persia, which was now vital for the transit of Allied aid to the USSR. If that was to be safeguarded, Iraq must be in sure hands; and by strange conjunction of events, Habbaniah had helped to save the Kremlin.

But what is the condition of the Assyrians today? Worse than before the massacres of 1933. Listen to Mr. Guedalla:

Few communities have shown more courage than the Assyrians... and their gallantry was duly rewarded by a long alternation of massacres and migrations. And this, despite the fact that they were Allies in two World Wars.

Can Great Britian, now that she is responsible for order in the country, afford to neglect so valuable a military asset as this nation has proved itself to be?

— Dr. W. A. Wigram
Our Smallest Ally (PDF, 17 MB)


Will America unjustly enrich herself, as the British, at the expense of this "Forgotten Ally" by allowing them to find their abject and ignoble defeat in their glorious victory of 1941? This anomalous situation constitutes the greatest challenge to the Atlantic Charter and to the principles of the Declaration of Independence. The racial and religious minorities in the Middle East are starving for decent, free existence. Here there is no racial problem between the Assyrian, the Kurd, the Hebrew, the Yazidi, and the Arab. Nor is there any deep-seated conception of democracy or communism. The problem is solely one of Power Politics, and unless that problem is controlled, the issue will become one of ideology -- and this, to the discomfiture of democracy.

The Middle East was the home of civilization. It is now the nerve centre of our problem. We dare not permit it to become a hell of power politics. Another massacre of the Assyrians took place only last December - February in the Iranian Azerbaijan during which time some twenty-four (24) Assyrian towns were completely annihilated.

There is but one solution to this explosive political situation - the realization of the natural aspirations of all the native elements. If a federated independent community, comprising all the racial and religious minorities were to exist, like the Swiss Cantons, it would act as a great stabilizing influence in the Middle East. With such an organization, the majority states would find it easy to collaborate, forming an eventual great Semitic Federation. They have lived together since the beginning of times; and before the advent of alien agencies, each has respected the culture and the aspirations of the other.

Dr. David B. Perley (1901-1979)

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