With the fragmentation of Iraq and Syria primarily along sectarian fault-lines- principally that of the Shi’a vs. Sunni dynamic- third way ethno-religious groups such as the Christians find themselves caught in the middle. Lacking organizational coherence, unity and strength to form their own separatist projects, Christians in Iraq and Syria generally find themselves forming alliances with one major player or another in the respective conflicts. In Syria, two choices exist: the regime and irregular aligned forces (e.g. the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in Wadi al-Nasara in Homs province) or the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) autonomous administration. In Qamishli, the dichotomy of regime vs. PYD administration has played out in the split of the original ‘Sutoro’ militia of the Syriac Union Party (SUP), whereby the SUP loyalist Sutoro has tied itself to the PYD, while a ‘Sootoro’ in Qamishli is aligned with the regime.
In Iraq, discrepancies in Christian population by region mean that the main accessible actor to which the majority of Christians at the present time can turn is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). For instance, the Dwekh Nawsha militia active in the Nineveh Plains and tied to the Assyrian Patriotic Party- whatever ideals may be espoused of being able to achieve self-sufficiency in arming- finds itself heavily dependent on the Peshmerga. However, there is still a Christian population in Iraq outside areas of KRG control, and it is largely in this context that we find notions of a Christian-Shi’a alliance- something that has ample precedent in Lebanon with Hezbollah’s outreach to Christians (for the latest examples of this phenomenon, see this excellent report by my friend Kareem Shaheen of The Daily Star in Beirut).
To be sure, in Iraq some components of the Sunni insurgency do try to play up the idea of supposedly having Christians in their ranks, principally as part of a Ba’athist superficial cross-sectarian messaging strategy. The most notable case here is the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order/JRTN) of Iraq Ba’ath Party leader Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri’s Supreme Command for Jihad and Liberation. JRTN claims it is an “extension of the prior Iraqi national army” with members from all ethnicities and religions, including Shi’a and Sunni Arabs, as well as Yezidis, Christians and Mandaeans. Unsurprisingly, such a narrative hardly proves appealing in the face of the dominance of the Islamic State (IS), which has displaced all Christians from Mosul amid a dhimmi pact ultimatum. Though JRTN condemned the displacement, it did not denounce IS by name, opting instead for the conspiracy theory that this tragedy was all the work of the government in Baghdad.
Thus, it should hardly prove surprising that with the militiafication of much of the Baghdad government-aligned forces following the fall of Mosul in June 2014, Shi’a militias in particular can capitalise on the rise of IS and engage in outreach to Christians on the basis of fighting a common enemy. At the most rudimentary level, this takes the form of social media graphics emphasizing affinity between Jesus and Imam Ali.
Turning to specifics on the ground, illustrative of Shi’a militia outreach to Christians is the recent case of the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces, a group headed by Aws al-Khafaji, a one-time figure in Muqtada al-Sadr’s office who reportedly visited Damascus in support of the Iraqi Shi’a militias fighting against Syrian rebels. Indeed, it seems likely that his Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces, with similar name, is based on Syria’s Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas. For Christmas, Khafaji and his militia paid a visit to the Evangelical Church in Baghdad, with Khafaji delivering a speech inside the church and granting an interview. In the latter, he emphasized: “On this day, Christmas Day, we want to send a message to the whole world that the religion of Islam is a religion of compassion and brotherhood. The religion of Islam calls on us to protect our Christian brothers…Our religion is not the religion of the Dawa3esh [IS guys] that forced the Christians to leave. Our religion is not the religion of the Dawa3esh that destroyed the churches. Indeed we respect the churches….We defend our country, our lands and every religion present in our country.”
An even more interesting case of Shi’a-Christian alliance in Iraq is that ofKata’ib al-Imam Ali and its creation of the “Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary Battalions.” The particular social media pages advertising this concept are not associated with Assyrian identity symbolism but rather Syriac/Aramean. The group is of particular interest because it bases the work with Kata’ib al-Imam Ali on the grounds of Kurdish betrayal and handing over of areas to IS. It should be noted that this sense of disappointment and distrust of Kurdish forces in light of the fall of many areas of Ninawa province is not limited to Christians but is also a sentiment felt by many Yezidis.
“Syriac Sons’ Brigades”- a Facebook page promoting the “Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary Battalions” as part of Kata’ib al-Imam Ali. The page describes itself as follows: “For the defence of our land and homeland: Syriac Christian brigades.” The symbol used is employed by proponents of Syriac and Aramean Christian identity in opposition to Assyrian identity narrative. Cover photo features “Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary Battalions” insignia on left.
Promotional video for “Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary Battalions,” featuring a procession with the Christian cross, flag of Iraq (right) and the flag of Kata’ib al-Imam Ali. Those marching in this procession are wearing Kata’ib al-Imam Ali shirts.
The true size of this Syriac brigade is unclear, and it is hardly evident that it is some kind of major military force in the Nineveh plains. Nonetheless, it is of great interest particularly with the playing up of affinity between Shi’a and Christians. The promotional video features an interview with one Sheikh Ahmad al-Rubai’e, who emphasizes: “And we see that with the companions of Imam al-Hussein [key figure in Shi’a Islam] were groups of Christian soldiers, and today also the Christians go with whosoever supports Hussein.”
In the end, the two-way choice between the Shi’a and the Kurds for Iraq’s Christians was inevitable. Not all Christians are going to trust the KRG and its forces, and in the end, the Shi’a militias do not pose for them the existential threat from IS that has come to be the main authority in all major majority Sunni localities outside of government control. The situation is ever further from the ideal of a coherent, national Iraqi army to maintain order.
Syria Comment, December 31, 2014