The Christians of Iraq and Syria have had a breathtaking commitment to passivity since being victimized by what we all now finally agree qualifies as a genocide.
Now, the Christians are increasingly organizing to defend themselves—and the West should stand by them instead of outsourcing our moral responsibility to the Iraqis and their Iranian partners and various groups with questionable track records.
A poll in December 2014 found that only one-third of Iraqis say they are concerned about the persecution of Christians in their country. About 67 percent said they are not concerned at all or only “somewhat” concerned.
It’s easy to say that the U.S. should pressure the Iraqi government to protect the Christians, but its track record and these poll results do not inspire hope that it’ll work. The pace of the genocide is such that the Christians and those who care for them simply cannot afford to spend time hoping for the best.
A Christian force known as the Babylon Brigade has been incorporated into the Popular Mobilization Units, an assortment of militias led by the Iraqi government and their partners from the Iranian regime and Hezbollah. The Babylon Brigades and their supporters boast of their nationalism, having battled the Islamic State in non-Christian areas like Ramadi and Tikrit.
However, it numbers only 500 to 1,000 The Iraqi government should be applauded for supporting a Christian unit, but don’t mistake this for an Iraqi commitment to a Christian self-defense force that enables the community to have a say over whether it goes extinct or not.
Current U.S. policy still gambles their survival on the chance that the Iraqi government tied to Iran will protect them, particularly when the U.N. says Christian persecution in Iran has reached unprecedented levels.
The Kurds are allies of the U.S. but, when it comes to protecting Christians, they have been far from ideal. The Iraqi and Syrian Christians have plenty of stories of mistreatment at the hands of the Kurds.
The growth of a number of Christian self-defense forces in Iraq and Syria show potential for what could happen if they receive outside support.
There’s the Nineveh Plain Protection Units in northern Iraq under the helm of the Assyrian Democratic Movement of Iraq, which has a branch in northeastern Syria named the Gozarto Protection Forces. They are backed by the Middle East Christian Committee. The secretary-general of the Assyrian Democratic Movement claims that proper support would quickly grow the NPU’s numbers to 5,000.
Another small force is called Dwekh Nawsha, which is linked to the Assyrian Patriotic Party and has gotten attention because of Westerners joining their ranks. One of their advisers warned in November, “All we’re saying is we’re done. We don’t have equipment. We don’t have the weapons. We don’t have the training,” as he pleaded for U.S. backing.
In Syria, there is the Syriac Military Council, estimated to be about 2,000-strong including a Christian female unit. It belongs to a Kurdish-majority coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. There is also a local Christian defense force near the Khabur River called the Khabur Guards.
Of course, any Christian force will have to be properly vetted. Hezbollah has set up a non-denominational force named Saraya al-Muqawama that includes Christians, Sunnis and non-religious Shiites.
A Christian police force that is favorable towards the Assad regime clashed with Kurdish forces in Qamishli, Syria. Sources close to the situation there emphasize that the Christians who embrace Assad are motivated by a fear of Islamist rebels, not because of any affinity for dictatorship or the regime’s brutality.
It would be a mistake to dismiss the viability of Christian self-defense forces because of their current sizes and capabilities. Unlike the Iraqi and Syrian militias and rebels, the Christians have had to rely only upon themselves for survival. They don’t have a state sponsor like Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Iran to build them up.
The U.S. has provided material support to Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, despite records of human rights abuses, Islamism and ties to terrorists and enemy regimes. The Christians are reliable foes of Islamic extremism who, despite all they have suffered, have never formed a sectarian militia to exact bloody revenge.
It’s time for the U.S. to ask itself: Why are Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds worthy of our direct material aid but the Christians are not? Why do they deserve a chance to stop the murder, raping and torturing of their people, but the Christians do not and are left facing extinction if trends continue?
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.