National Security & Defense

Arm the Christians and Kurds in Northern Iraq

Kurdish peshmerga and Yazidi fighers enter Sinjar, Iraq, November 13, 2015. (Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty)

Whatever you think about America’s decision to invade Iraq, it had the unfortunate side effect of spawning the waves of genocide that have killed and scattered Iraq’s Christian population. Though they are Eastern Christians, Islamist extremists immediately associated them with the West, with the “Christian invaders.” In 2003, there were 1.6 million Christians in Iraq; now, there are perhaps 250,000.

Today’s ISIS genocide is only the latest wave of attempts to wipe out Christian communities that were once the cradle of Christianity. Long before the founding of Constantinople, the Nineveh Plain was the seedbed of Christian civilization. I just visited a monastery there in which people have prayed in every day since a.d. 640. When it was built, Christianity had already been flourishing there for almost six centuries.

The current U.S. policy of slavishly protecting the artificial borders imposed on Iraq a century ago has blinded us to the reality that we should be arming our most reliable military allies in the region — the Kurdish peshmerga — to fight ISIS. Instead, we have sent arms to Baghdad, which is then supposed to pass some share of them on to the Kurds. But the perennial tension between Baghdad and Erbil prevents that. So since Iraqi central-government troops abandoned those U.S. weapons in the face of a few thousand ISIS fighters, we have been left with the alarming reality that ISIS has U.S. heavy weapons while our friends the peshmerga do not.

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The peshmerga generals I spoke with on the ISIS front at Talesskef were mystified that we snub them out of fear of offending Baghdad while at the same time we cozy up to Iran and continue to support Saudi Arabia and Turkey. They have the impression that we do not understand our own interests. They are right.

#share#In my February travels through northern Iraq, I found that this latest wave of genocide — the ISIS wave — has finally galvanized most Iraqi Christians to support a safe zone for religious minorities. This idea was rejected a dozen years ago because some Christian leaders saw it as ghettoization. While of course different leaders approach the problem differently, most seem to have concluded that U.S. support, which they regard as the crucial element of any such plan, will not be forthcoming during the next eleven months of this administration. They are right about that. The U.S. State Department is mired in the fantasy that Mosul will be retaken by the end of the year.

RELATED: Arming the Right Allies

But the retaking of Sinjar in December by the peshmerga leading a small Yazidi force set a precedent that creates hope that an incremental strategy can turn the tide and give Christians the security foothold they need to exercise their celebrated entrepreneurial spirit to rebuild their communities. Sinjar was retaken in a single day. The American airstrikes were merely reallocated from other ISIS targets; the Pentagon knew that the peshmerga were moving that day on Sinjar.

And the peshmerga claim they could take the whole Nineveh Plain back in one day with U.S. air support (and, particularly, with U.S. weapons to match or at least neutralize the U.S. weapons that ISIS has stolen). There are currently 5,000 Christian soldiers under arms, almost all of them training with the peshmerga and prepared to fight to reclaim their ancestral homeland. That is a sizable force for an area currently held by fewer than 1,000 ISIS fighters.

RELATED: Recognize Kurdistan and Arm It, against ISIS in Northern Iraq

The Kurds crave a closer relationship with the U.S. and are willing to supply more than enough fighters to take back the Nineveh Plain. Why then aren’t we arming them and the Christians and offering a no-fly zone like the one that proved so successful at fostering security and economic self-sufficiency next door in Kurdistan?

However well intentioned our invasion was, we caused this problem — the U.S. broke the fragile détente that was protecting Christians. We have a responsibility to do something to repair it. Arming the Kurds and the Christians who want to fight alongside them to reclaim their homeland, and then backing them with U.S. airpower, would both harm ISIS and begin to stem the refugee crisis. (In Erbil alone, 50,000 Christians still sit in camps, with no real prospects of integration.)

Every day, the prospects for restoring religious pluralism in Iraq slip further away. It’s time to take action.

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