Iraq's Yazidis and Assyrians remain unconvinced by Kurdistan referendum

Iraq's Yazidis and Assyrians remain unconvinced by Kurdistan referendum
5 min read
16 Aug, 2017
Comment: Whether the futures of Yazidis and Assyrians lie in Iraq or an independent Kurdistan, neither option is likely to guarantee their rights, writes Gareth Browne.
In July, elected Assyrian mayor Ayez Abed Jawahreh was forcefully replaced by a Kurdish figure[AFP]

The world is slowly becoming aware of the plight of Iraq's minorities, and yesterday US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that "ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims".

The term 'genocide' is a rare one in the discourse of US officials, reserved only for the most serious of cases. But even with the international community awaking to the plight of Iraq's minorities - especially the Yazidis and Christians, the path of their recovery is far from clear.

Now with a referendum on Kurdish independence looming, minority groups' qualms with both the Baghdad and Erbil governments are becoming all the more prominent, and the minorities are refusing to see their concerns go ignored.

Iraq's Christian community has dwindled in recent years. Once home to some 1.5 million Christians, the country now boasts a population of barely 250,000, according to a recent report by the World Council of Churches.

Dozens more are leaving every week for new lives in North America and Europe, but the ones who have remained do not appear convinced by the Kurdish case for independence. 

In July, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorities forcefully removed elected Assyrian mayor Ayez Abed Jawahreh, only to replace her with a Kurdish figure more friendly to the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party's (KDP) agenda. Although there were murmurs of corruption on Jawahreh's part, no evidence was presented and many believe it was just an exercise in restricting opposition to the KDP's agenda. 

The victims of the world's latest genocide have been widely courted by Barzani's KDP party, which traditionally attempts to portray itself as something of a protector of minorities.

Diana Sarkisian, an Assyrian human rights activist, suggested "this removal and meddling in the political leadership in Alqosh has shown how little minorities are respected by the KRG".

Assyrians quickly gathered in Al-Qosh to protest, and the Kurdish flag was notably absent from their demonstrations, with the Iraqi one instead proudly held up by many of those present. Assyrians further voiced their disagreement with referendum at an event involving the KRG's representative to the United States in Washington earlier this month. Protesters rushed the stage holding aloft placards such as "KRG is not a democracy" and "Assyrians say no to referendum". 

Sarkisian added that most of the Assyrians in Iraq wanted to remain so, in an "independent province" similar to "that of the KRG", but that obviously it was for the people to decide for themselves.

One minority that has received far greater attention from the Iraqi and Kurdish governments is the Yazidis. The victims of the world's latest genocide have been widely courted by Barzani's KDP party, which traditionally attempts to portray itself as something of a protector of minorities.

Read more: How one Yazidi family was saved from IS by an Arab tribal leader

Indeed Haydar Shasho, the head of the YBS, or Sinjar Resistance Units, a Yazidi militia charged with defending Yazidi homelands in Northern Iraq, went as far as saying that the genocide carried out against the Yazidi people by the Islamic State group "would not have happened" if there had been an independent Kurdistan.

The Iraqi parliament's sole Yazidi MP, Vian Dakhil, has also aligned with the KDP-led push for Kurdish independence, suggesting that an independent Kurdistan would be a "beacon of hope and stability".

Protesters demonstrate in Erbil over the threat posed by the
Islamic State group [AFP]

However this is a far cry from the perspective of most Yazidis, who feel that Barzani's Kurdish Peshmerga - who fled their defensive positions in Sinjar in August 2014 as IS approached - abandoned the Yazidis in their hour of need.

Several weeks after IS' capture of Mosul, the jihadists marched on Sinjar, and the thousands of Peshmerga charged with maintaining security withdrew without a fight. What subsequently took place has been labelled genocide by the United Nations - as many as 5,000 were executed and 7,000 women and children were kidnapped and exploited as sex slaves by IS fighters and officials.

As Hishah Bashir, a Yazidi student now living in Erbil, said: "Barzani and the KDP abandoned us, the only Yazidis that support them now are the ones they are paying. We don't want to be with them, we don't want their referendum." He added: "If we stay with Baghdad, at least we can push for a federal or independent Yazidi province in Sinjar and Nineveh. The Kurds will never give us that; they want full control over everything."

Sinjar's Yazidis are now caught between expansive Kurdish nationalism and the Dawah-dominated Baghdad government

Sinjar's Yazidis are now caught between expansive Kurdish nationalism and the Dawah-dominated Baghdad government, as they clash over who should control Sinjar and other disputed territories. A partial blockade from Masoud Barzani's KDP has left Sinjar without any real recovery almost two years after its recapture from IS.

Everyday life for Yazidis remains difficult, and much of Sinjar still lies in rubble. All the while, Yazidi disenfranchisement with both Baghdad and Erbil grows.

But it is not only the KRG where Yazidi concerns are ignored. In May of this year a bill in the Baghdad parliament which would have allocated a quota of seats to the Yazidis was rejected, and the Baghdad judiciary continues to prohibit Yazidis from becoming judges.

In August 2007, scores of the minority were wiped out in a suicide bombing in the village of Kahtaniya, and just last month two Yazidis selling alcohol were murdered in Baghdad.

Minorities in Iraq have looked destined for annihilation in recent years, and for the Assyrians and the Yazidis there is no obvious option. Whether their futures lie in Iraq, or an independent Kurdistan, they may be forced to settle for the least bad option, or if Baghdad and Erbil to choose to flex their muscles, they may get no say in it at all.

One thing is certain, for the KRG to assume their support for Kurdish independence, as they have done so far, is a far cry from the truth.


Gareth Browne is a freelance reporter based in Erbil. He has been reporting from the front lines in the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group and recently visited Baghdad to study the legacy of the US-led invasion. 

Follow him on Twitter: @BrowneGareth

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.