The Assyrians of northwest Iraq and northeast Syria can legitimately lay claim to being one of the oldest indigenous peoples of the Middle East. Christian speakers of Aramaic, they trace their culture, history and collective identity to the Assyrian empire that collapsed in the 7th century B.C.. With the exception of the Jews and the Persians, few peoples in the region can clearly trace their community to such ancient roots. The Assyrians are also sometimes referred to as Syriacs or Chaldeans, among other names (generally depending on their particular approach to Christianity).
While groups such as the Palestinians claim descent from Canaanites, and the Kurds claim roots in the Medes civilization, such links appear tenuous because the Palestinians and Kurds only “discovered” these lineages recently (for instrumental reasons in all likelihood), and they hardly kept Canaanite or Medes culture and identity alive over the centuries. Assyrians, Jews and Persians, in contrast, maintained a clear ideational link to the ancient cultures, languages and national territory of the Assyria, Israel and Persia. They did so since long before modern nationalism gave them a reason to.
In more modern times, the fate of the Assyrian people turned tragic. From the time of the Islamic conquests to the present, the Assyrians suffered continuous massacres and repression. Often working as tools of Ottoman, Persian or more contemporary Arab, Persian and Turkish states, Kurdish tribes carried out raids, massacres and conquests against Assyrian communities. In my course on political violence, I give my students a short article by Nuri Kino about “Seyfo” (Sword), the period around World War One when the Ottoman Empire pursued a “final solution” against the indigenous Christian communities of Anatolia. Almost without exception, the students have never heard of this terrible episode in history.
Whereas mainstream Turkish, Arab and Iranian societies likewise remain willfully ignorant of this history, most Kurds acknowledge the terrible role their forefathers played in these events. Kurdish leaders in both Iraq and Turkey have referred to this era as a source of shame for them, and worked hard to acknowledge the Assyrians’ identity, language, culture and place in today’s society. Kurdish-run municipalities in Turkey went to the trouble of publishing materials in Aramaic for the area’s remaining Assyrians, and the pro-Kurdish parties there even recently elected the first Assyrian member of Turkey’s parliament. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurds have reserved seats for the Assyrian community in their parliament since they established it in 1992. They went out of their way to assure the protection of modern Assyrian communities, culture and language. In Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) insisted that Assyrians be included in the various cantons’ top administrative bodies, and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) incorporated and armed many Assyrians into their fighting force.
Assyrians I have known in Iraq and Syria were all well aware of this. Their attitude towards the Kurds was thus largely positive, although often still ambivalent as well given their difficult history. While living in Iraq in 2003, I spent a lot of time with Assyrians and Chaldeans in Duhok, Mosul, Qaraqosh and Baghdad as I conducted a capacity and needs assessment of their NGOs (in order to help them receive a large sum of financial aid from a Christian charity in Canada). The Assyrians in the north saw a future for themselves with the Kurds, although some of those I spoke to in Baghdad had different views. For the most part, their attitude was a realistic, moderate approach, focused on safeguarding their communities and being part of whatever political institutions (including those of Kurdistan) that would help them do so.
In contrast, the diaspora Assyrian community could not seem more different. Their politics appear to be made up of bitter nationalist victimhood, mired in past injustices. A perusal of their publications and activities shows a movement focused on blaming the Kurds for almost everything. Article after article published in English by the Assyrian diaspora portrays a saintly, peaceful Assyrian community perpetually attacked by Kurdish savages, with condemnation of the Islamic State and other jihadis coming almost as an afterthought.
Let us set aside for a moment inconvenient truths, such as the Assyrian empire’s myriad conquests (dispersing the 12 tribes of northern Israel into oblivion, for example), Assyrian raids on neighboring communities in the 19th century and before, or how the British and French colonialists recruited Assyrian troops to help them quell rebelling Muslims (including the Kurds). The elderly Assyrian men I met in Iraq, some of whom served in the Royal Air Force, may well have helped bomb the likes of Sheikh Mahmoud Barzinji’s villages (although I would never be so impolite as to ask that question to an elder of that age).
The Assyrians do their community no good when they deny the Kurds’ own tragedies, or even reject the notion of a Kurdish land, identity and language (referring instead to “scattered tribes that spoke dialects of Persian”). The discourse often borders on racist, with sentences like “Deception is an art and the Kurds have perfected it.” They even pedal fantastic conspiracy theories, accusing the Kurds in Syria of having purposefully provoked the Islamic State into attacking Assyrian villages so that the YPG could come in and present itself as the Assyrians’ saviors. They take isolated political incidents, such as a quarrel over a piece of property or a skirmish between a pro-Assad Assyrian militia in Qamishly and the YPG, and cast them as part of an endless story of Kurdish depravation.
Such attitudes seem more than a little ironic, since without the YPG and the Peshmerga, the Assyrians of northern Syria and Iraq would all likely be dead, lying in some jihadist-dug mass grave. The diaspora Assyrian community should thus consider doing what their relatives still living in the homeland are increasingly busy with – taking the hand of friendship and reconciliation that the Kurds have extended. They need not forget their history in the process, of course, and deeper reconciliation takes a lot of time and effort from everyone concerned. A lack of empathy for the other and a discourse unable to rise above victimhood will get the Assyrians nothing, however. In the sorry neighborhood that the Middle East has become, the Kurds are probably the Assyrians’ best friend, neighbor and hope for the future.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.