USA Today reports on the efforts of Assyrian Christians to put their own army together and fend off the Islamic State, which has been raiding Assyrian communities in the Nineveh Plains, taking hundreds of women and children for use as hostages and slaves.
The Christians say they are not getting much in the way of official international military aid, the Iraqi army has failed to protect them, and even Kurdish peshmerga forces have withdrawn from the area, so they are taking matters into their own hands. The group has engaged American military veterans to train a “Ninevah Plains Protection Unit” funded by donations, which the group says are running out.
Training for the NPU, which currently has between 350 and 500 men under arms, was organized by a security contracting non-profit called Sons of Liberty International, which describes itself as the first entity of its kind. Founder Matthew VanDyke has reportedly put $12,000 of his own money into the Nineveh Protection Unit, which is the premier SOLI project at the moment, although the group says it would like to provide services to other persecuted communities as well.
VanDyke is described by USA Today as “a filmmaker who became a freedom fighter in the Libyan civil war and spent six months as a prisoner of war under the Moammar Ghaddafi regime,” moved to action against ISIS by the beheadings of hostages James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who he counted as friends. VanDyke appeared on Greta Van Susteren’s Fox News show to discuss his mission earlier this week:
VanDyke described the NPU battalion as a “U.S.-friendly force” whose capabilities and morale compared favorably with the Kurdish peshmerga – they’re fighting to defend the Iraqi Christian community from extinction and exodus. Thus far, this has involved making deals with other factions, but he wants them to have the means to defend themselves, and his review of their morale and military capacity presents them as an excellent investment against the Islamic State. “The Christian community in Iraq has been pushed around for a long time, and it needs to stop, and I have the right connections and experience to be able to pull something together to help them, so that’s what I’m doing,” he told USA Today.
Unfortunately, the international community has not been making that investment in Iraqi Christians. In his Fox News interview, VanDyke described their relationship with the U.S. government as solid, but they are not getting the weapons they need. Neither is anyone else, as official U.S. policy involves sending all munitions to Baghdad, whose central government is not eager to distribute the weapons to anyone except its own forces and a few Shiite militias. The Kurds, who have handled most of the heavy fighting on the Islamic State’s bloody borders, have similar complaints about being chronically under-equipped, as do Sunni tribesmen in western Iraq. Having said that, the level of neglect for Christian communities is remarkable, and they are paying a heavy price for it.
The Assyrian Christians are determined to resist the Islamic State. “We have rights to defend our land and to preserve our holy land, and to preserve our habits and traditions,” USA Today quotes NPU officer Kaldo Oghanna, who asked the international community to support not just Christians but also other persecuted minorities, such as the Yazidis.
“If you don’t help us, we can’t fight ISIS, we can’t protect our area, we can’t do everything,” said NPU Military Committee Director Gevara Zaya. “But if you give us half what you give to Peshmerga or other military forces, we will do double what they’re doing now.”
A report at Al-Jazeera names an Assyrian-American political action group called the American Mesopotamian Organization as a primary overseas sponsor of the Nineveh Protection Unit project, describing its funding method as “crowdsourcing” that even included a telethon via the Assyrian Broadcasting Network of southern California.
The article also asserts that the NPU is entering a “second phase, which involves creating an officer corps and specialty training,” and is no longer working with VanDyke’s SOLI. The Sons of Liberty International website says its involvement with the NPU “extended beyond military training,” and the group considers itself “an ally of the NPU in their vision and ambitions for a future without ISIS and in which the Christians of Iraq can return to their homes and rebuild their communities in the Nineveh Plain greater than ever before.”
The potential problems facing the NPU are accurately reviewed by Al-Jazeera: there will always be concerns about adding another sectarian militia to an already complex military situation, the Assyrian Christian community has already been cut to a shockingly small size, the central Iraqi government is concerned about the Assyrians pushing for some degree of political independence, and there is some uneasy history between the Assyrians and the Kurds, who are currently the apple of the West’s eye in the battle against ISIS. Those seem like minor concerns measured against what awaits Christians at the hands of the Islamic State, but there are, unfortunately, solid political reasons for why fractious Iraq has had so much trouble pushing back against the aggressive nightmare of ISIS.