The campaign to liberate Mosul from ISIS is frequently depicted by both political leaders and media outlets in primarily negative terms: as an endeavour to expunge the group as an end in and of itself. But along with the campaign to dislodge the group from its last remaining strongholds in Nineveh, the status of several of Iraq’s territories, and the very existence of communities and peoples within them, are at stake.
The Nineveh Plain, inhabited mainly by Assyrians, Shabaks and Yezidis, is one such territory. While the Plain, which extends north and east from the city of Mosul, remains largely occupied by ISIS, competition over its post-ISIS future rages.
Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Peshmerga expanded into and occupied the Nineveh Plain. The summary annexation of the Plain was enshrined in the 2009 KRG draft constitution, which lists the individual districts of the Plain as part of the "historical entity" and within the "administrative borders" of the Kurdistan region. The KRG has used the emergence of ISIS to significantly expand its territory, and both political and Peshmerga officials have declared that all of these territories are now "Kurdish" and will be annexed to the KRG. The peoples of the Nineveh Plain, however, continue to fight for a greater stake in their own future.
The conditions that prevailed in the Plain prior to the invasion of ISIS make for a grim blueprint of a future under formal KRG annexation. Kurdish parties and militias carried out massive electoral fraud backed by intimidation and violence in 2005 and 2009 elections. The KRG and its proxies expropriated US aid and development funds allocated specifically for minorities in the Nineveh Plain. Those seeking to resist KRG annexation of the Plain and assert their own political will faced intimidation, violence and even murder. Legitimate police forces comprised of local Assyrians and Shabaks were blocked from forming or dismantled and replaced by security forces loyal to the KRG.
Despite the almost entirely non-Kurdish demographic of the region, the central argument promulgated by the KRG to justify its occupation of the Plain was that the Peshmerga was the security force most willing and able to defend its inhabitants. This claim was unmasked in appalling fashion during ISIS’ invasion of the area in August 2014. Having disarmed Assyrian residentsof the Plain prior to the ISIS invasion, the Peshmerga fled under the cover of night without firing a shot to protect Assyrian civilians, after reassuring them that they would be protected and that there was no need to flee. This pattern was echoed in the Yezidi stronghold of Sinjar, and has led to to a deep and lasting sense of mistrust among Yezidis and Assyrians towards the Peshmerga.
The Nineveh Plain is neighboured to the north by the governorate of Dohuk, known to Assyrians as Nohadra, together forming the historic heartland of Assyrian demographic and cultural continuity. The staggering scale of the illegalconfiscation of Assyrian land in Nohadra, undertaken directly by or under the auspices of tribally and politically connected Kurds, is vast enough to have been recently described by an Assyrian political leader as "a genocide like that carried out by ISIS, only more gradually."
Assyrians seeking to overturn these confiscations have exhausted every possible legal and political avenue within the structures of the KRG to no avail. Threats and even assassinationhave resulted. The long-standing practice by Kurdish tribes and parties of seizing Assyrian land during periods of upheaval and displacement and preventing the return of original Assyrian inhabitants is of particular concern when contemplating the return of IDPs to the Plain.
The political dynamics feeding into contestations over the Nineveh governorate are highly complex, involving not only the KRG and actors representing local populations, but Turkey, the PKK, Baghdad and Iraqi Sunni Arab political parties. It is impossible to lift particular territories such as the Nineveh Plain out of the quagmire of contemporary Iraq. But the survival of local populations in the Plain can be ensured only if measures are taken to empower them directly.
The Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), an Assyrian force already deployed and receiving support from both Baghdad and the United States, is a model of how security forces native to the Plain can defend their own communities in a broader federal framework. Structures of governance and administration must similarly carry the consent and trust of those seeking to return to their homes and towns. Resources allocated for reconstruction must be channelled through NGOs, development organisations and other bodies that are close and responsive to the needs of their constituents, minimising the potential for manipulation and expropriation.
The realisation of these measures and capacities must precede decisions over the political future of the Plain following the extirpation of ISIS. In January 2014, Baghdad announced the creation of a province in the Nineveh Plain, following long-standing calls by Assyrian, Shabak and Yezidi political parties. The subsequent invasion of the Plain by ISIS, however, exposed the inadequacy of top-down governmental decisions per se in addressing fundamental questions facing Iraqi territories. Recent discussions in the Iraqi parliament over the status of territories in Nineveh continue to reflect deep political suspicions and impasses, demonstrating clearly that the political future of the region will continue to be contested after ISIS is dislodged from Mosul. Only through the empowerment of their independent and legitimate capacities can Assyrians and the other peoples of the Plain navigate the coming period of uncertainty and political competition.
Over the past decade, the peoples of the Nineveh Plain have been subject to conditions and contestations that are inimical to their own survival and flourishing. The coming period must be seized to not only rid Nineveh of the Islamic State, but to restore and buttress the agency of its most vulnerable communities against the very real prospect of total disappearance.