Iraq is clearly in play.
Putin has put down his mark and is working with Iran, working Syria and befriending Maliki. The US is frozen in place by recent memories of Iraq, but this does not mean that US interests are not clearly affected by trying to ignore history moving again.
History does not always march in the direction one might want. But that does not mean that you turn your back and hope overcomes the need to act in less than optimal situations. That is clearly the situation in Iraq today.
As Ken Maxwell recently reminded us:
Obama wants a unity government of all the factions in Baghdad.
But it is too late for this. Maliki is not inclined to step down.
Nor are the Sunnis and Kurds prepared to accept him any longer. In fact the Kurds are moving towards a referendum on the establishment of new Kurdish State.
In face of the rapid expansion of Isis control in Iraq and in Syria, and with the abandonment of border crossings by Iraqi forces, Saudi Arabia has already mobilized 30,000 troops on its border with Iraq.
With events moving so quickly and unpredictably on the ground, neither time, nor history, is on the US side this time around.
One thing is certain: The US and the West desperately needs a strategy and it needs one quickly.
There is a dynamic within Iraq which should be of clear concern to the US and an opportunity to protect our interests and to shape effective policy options.
The ISIS are bent on the destruction of Iraqi Christians, and the Kurds are coming to their aide. Indeed, the Kurds have demonstrated a level of tolerance in Iraq not evident by other ethnic groups within Iraq itself.
The action of the Kurds in Iraq, and the obvious moral imperative to protect a minority being attacked by Islamic extremists simply because they practice another religion requires US action, rather than standing aside and pondering the future.
To gain a sense of what is going on in Iraq, we recently had a chance to interview Joseph Kassab concerning the current situation of Iraqi Christians and the positive role which Kurds are playing to try to shape a more secular Iraq.
We have included a biography of Mr. Kassab at the end of this article, but his ties in the country provide him with a regular flow of updated information and it is about that situation which we discussed with him.
An important aspect of understanding the current situation is to understand the terrain and its occupants. At play in the struggle between ISIS and the Kurds is the Nineveh Plains. And in the midst of this struggle the fate of Iraqi Christians is being determined.
According to Kassab:
The Nineveh Plains are a highly contested area; they are not mountainous but very open and thereby provide an invasion area for the ISIS.
It is also highly undeveloped because it is so contested.
In this area are many minorities and among those minorities maybe 60-70% of them are Christians.
The area is also floating on a lake of oil and makes the area very desirable to control; the Kurds want it; and the Arabs want it. It is a very strategic location.
The ISIS is clearly targeting the Christians for ideological reasons; when you want to establish a medieval theocracy you want to create the politics of ethnic elimination of your “enemies.” The U.S. stands for secularism in Iraq; ISIS is on a clear direct collision course with U.S. preferences and policies.
There are many stories and incidents coming from Iraq of ISIS pursuit of and persecution of Christians.
This is our interview:
SLD: Mr. Kassab are you getting reports from various individuals on the ground on what’s happening? Can you could describe what you think is happening?
Mr. Joseph Kassab: Well, I was just talking this morning to some regions on the ground in the impacted area, and from Nineveh Plain where ISIS, or ISIL is getting some real power there. And it seems to me and the way I heard it from them it is done, already. No more Christians are [in Mosul], and if there are any, we believe that there are less than 50 families there.
I was also told especially that women could not leave homes. Unfortunately, two days ago, two or three days ago, two nuns and three orphans, they were asked to leave but. the ISIS people spotted them, they kidnapped them, and they took them, and nobody knows where they are. We are appealing to the U.S. administration and our friends in the Senate and the Congress, and also the Department of State, and the Pentagon to see whether they could help us finding these people. Their families are U.S. citizens, and here in the states. So we have a dilemma in our hands.
As far as the combat situation people are on the edge, there was a fight early last week near the Christian Al Hamdanya District (Qaraqush) in the heart of Nineveh Plain between the ISIS and the Kurds who are creating a wall of defense to stop ISIS. It looks like ISIS, has a strong interest in Nineveh Plain Let me explain why.
First of all, it is the size of Lebanon, and a very plain area, not mountainous. It is to the southwest of Kurdistan. And it is a highly contested area, and a significant dispute between the Kurds and Arabs to annex this particular area. It is highly undeveloped because nobody knows who it’s going to belong today, and it’s up to the Kurds.
The majority of those living there are minorities and 60 to 70 percent of them are Christians. The Kurds want it and the Arabs and specially ISIS want it because it’s floating on a lake of oil, and is also a very geographic strategic and fertile location.
Question: The history of Kurdistan is that the Kurd people are very protective of all minorities. They have a reputation of being kind — a very kind people and also fierce warriors, and protective of all minorities. Is that a fair statement?
Mr. Kassab; Yes, 100 percent it is. And that’s why they want to incorporate with Kurdistan because they know they can and will protect the Christians. They are taking a lot of Christian refugees right away because they’re very, very nice, and they’re doing a lot of work to help them with the humanitarian, aid, and food, for the Christians whom they are taking into Kurdistan.
And I’ve been talking to the leadership,
I know them all and they’re very, very supportive.
I met with them several times with their people, and they always say that they’re more than willing to help the minorities, especially the Christians. Because they believe in one thing that they’re — what the Christians going through at this time, it is also what they went through during the ‘70s and the ‘60s.
(For a powerful overview of what the Kurds went through in this period see the following:
SLD: We have read that tragic history and you are so right.
Mr. Kassab: As a matter of fact, if you remember, they were hit with chemical weapons. So they feel for the Christians. But just as importantly, the Christians at one time when Kurds were fighting for their lives the Christians joined the military police squadron of security people and joined them in fighting for democracy and independence. So that’s why the Kurds like us, because we are trustworthy and supportive of democracy.
SLD: But if you were looking at a situation like this where the current Iraq government is obviously not your favorite government, you have to look at how do you protect your interests.
And the proposition on the table is it’s the right thing to do to work with the Kurds and the Christians is also strategically relevant because by helping these two people, and protecting their interests, you can do two things. You can deal with ISIS, the threat from radical Islam.
And on the other hand, you can actually influence the government or whatever comes next. In other words, it allows you to do the right thing, but it also allows you to put a piece on the chessboard that allows you to influence an uncertain situation.
Mr. Kassab: We’re talking with our friends in the Congress, and some of the National Security Council. And what we talked about is what we should do to save the Christians of Iraq and the minorities, and others that see democracy take hold in Iraq.
And last Thursday and Friday, I was in Washington DC, I had a meeting with maybe seven or eight U.S. Senators on both sides of the aisle, also the Speaker of the House’s office. I went to Congress to help us in saving the Christians of Iraq.
My message was that the only way at this time to save the minorities or the Christians of Iraq, in Northern Iraq, is to empower the Kurds in order to provide this defense for our people.
So they ask me how, so I suggested to them, that since we cannot have boots on the ground, I suggested to them that maybe we should empower them by giving them Intel and equipment in order to fight back against ISIS.
People are contemplating action; they are reaching out to the Kurds based on that. The Kurds are reciprocating, they are happy to see that, but we haven’t seen anything significant yet.
But hopefully we will see that very soon, the U.S. administration will take action.
SLD: Please tell the world about your understanding of ISIS;
Mr. Kassab: Now, who is ISIS? This is something we need to know who ISIS is first. And a lot of reports, they’re misinforming us who ISIS is. I, myself, I can read and write, and understand the language or the dialect of Iraqi people when they speak.
The ISIS people, sometimes I hear them speaking on the videos, none of them, there are people who make fun of them because when they speak, it is not in the Iraqi dialect.
So they are definitely foreigners, that’s number one.
Number two: many stay mute. They don’t say anything.
Do you know why? Because they are Iraqis!
And do you know where they’re coming from? I’ll tell you where they’re coming from. They’re coming from the Iraqi desert tribes, and they are armed, and they are very angry at the el-Maliki government. Some of them are previous officers and generals of Sadam’s advanced army that was disbanded by the CPA administrator in 2003. They are very mad and angry at everyone except their comrades.
Now they are joining the ISIS because they see ISIS has the power and because it’s extremely brutal. And what’s brutal can achieve a lot of things.
SLD: There is a broad strategic point, which is if the Administration gets serious about this and actually looks at how to do something other than to tell us that everyone should get along.
And obviously, they’re going to have to come to terms with Turkey, they’re obviously going to have to come to terms with Turkey and Kurdish issue if the U.S. is going to do what you just described.
Mr. Kassab: The Kurds, in the last, let’s five or ten years, they became very, very strong friends with the Turks. And let me explain. I was in Turkey several times; I had meetings with the high ranking officials in Turkey, including the Prime Minister himself, and the Foreign Minister at an interfaith conference in Istanbul in 2012.
All of them assured me they are willing to help the minorities in their country, and that’s exactly what they plan to do at this time, there’s a big reform on that and also with regard to the minorities in Iraq. They’re saying that in order to do that, we need to empower the Kurds in order to support your people.
So we are all on the same page. When I met with the Prime Minister of Kurdistan after he told me bluntly that the Kurds are doing business with Turkey at this time for over 20 billion dollars a year of trade.
They took me to some of these people to the border area, and I saw myself — how should I put it? A convoy of trucks around a thousand of them waiting to take to go to Kurdistan, to take merchandise and take it to Kurdistan.
So that in fact, yes there is a strong relationship, a strong friendship, and strong commerce between the Kurds and the Turks. Turkey is ready to help the Kurds if the Kurds need the help in fighting ISIS because the Turks don’t like ISIS.
SLD: One critical issue is the oil pipeline through Kurdistan into Turkey, so it is not just the trucks, but also the oil, and then it goes to a port and goes on the open market. You mentioned that the Nineveh Plain is floating on a sea of oil.
Can it be part of the strategy to saved Christians first and foremost, but s also to stop ISIS from grabbing resources that will keep them fueled with huge financial resources?
Mr. Kassab: The ISIS now, they have already taken over some refineries and some oil rigs in Iraq, in Northern Iraq, and Mosel, and they are selling the oil for cash, and cash is a fuel for international terrorism as you know. I don’t know whom they’re selling it to, but they are selling it for cash.
Let me explain something very important for you, you should know this area. Three years ago, I was going from Kurdistan on my way to Europe. The flight was around 3:00 or 4:00 in the early morning the plane took off and I looked through the window, and I saw fire everywhere.
I asked the stewardess what is this? What’s going on here? Is the area on fire or something?
She laughed at me and she said no, sir. These are oilrigs.
These are oilrigs in Kurdistan? She said yes, sir. And they are doing it whether the Iraqis like it or don’t like it.
Biography of Joseph Kassab
He was born in Telkaif- Nineveh, Northern Iraq in 1952 to a Chaldean Catholic family. In 1975 earned his undergraduate degree with excellence from College of Science-University of Baghdad.
This qualified him for graduate studies program at College of Medicine-University of Baghdad to again become the first on his class and earn in 1979 Master of Science degree in Medical Microbiology and Immunology under the auspices of the Royal College of Medicine-UK .
He was then hired as assistant professor at the same college, but the regime in Iraq demanded that he joins the ruling party, when he refused he was threatened and his position was downgraded. When the threats continued and the intimidations intensified he decided to flee Iraq and join in Rome, Italy his two brothers, a pharmacist and an engineer who earlier faced similar challenges to seek asylum. Later on in 1980 they were resettled in the U.S as refugees.
In the U.S, Joseph continued his education by acquiring Graduate Certificate (GC) in Community Education Leadership from Wayne State University, under the auspices of the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) in Washington D.C
He also pursued an intensive curriculum in political science at Wayne State University.
While doing all of this he worked for 25 years as Bio-medical researcher and instructor at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine.
He is currently the Chief Science Officer of Nano-Engineering and Consulting Co.
From 2005-2012, he served as the Executive Director of the Chaldean Federation of America (CFA) where he has dealt with a number of issues affecting Iraqi Christians in Iraq. He started his advocacy, consultancy, and humanitarian work on the plight of the Christians of Iraq and the Middle East since his arrival in the United States in 1980.
Photos and graphics provided by Joseph Kassab