“Where they make a desert, they call it peace.” -Tacitus
“They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”-Jeremiah 6:14
The battle has begun. For eight weeks now , a coalition of 100,000 Iraqi government troops, Iranian-backed militias and soldiers from the Kurdistan Regional Government have been fighting to retake Mosul from the Islamic State. Eleven and a half years after President Bush declared combat operations in Iraq over, and six years after President Obama did the same, 5,000 American soldiers are on the ground in Iraq, advising the attackers and calling in airstrikes for the American planes roaring overhead. On the west bank of the Tigris River, across from where the proud city of Nineveh once stood, over a million people are trapped between a few thousand Islamic State fighters and the encircling armies.
Over two years ago, on June 10, 2014, the Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, Da’esh, etc.) stunned the world by seizing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. A month later, they expelled the city’s 35,000 Christians, stripping them of everything they owned – cell phones, jewelry, identity cards, sometimes even children – and marching them out on foot. On August 3, they launched a genocide against the Yazidi people in the Sinjar region, killing 5,000 men and boys, enslaving and raping thousands of woman and girls, and putting 360,000 people to flight. On August 7, they invaded the Nineveh Plain, forcing 150,000 Christians to flee. Thousands of Shi’ite Muslims were kidnapped and executed. The Islamic State’s leader declared a new “caliphate” in the Middle East, and terrorists supporting the Islamic State went on to massacre civilians in France, Belgium, California, Florida, Baghdad, Lebanon, Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nigeria, Libya…the list goes on.
It’s understandable for people to want some good news. And so, as the Islamic State is driven from its territory bit by bit, stories and videos have begun circulating on Facebook, showing Christians returning to their homes and churches. Videos like this one from Al Jazeera, which shows a church service being held in a reclaimed village for the first time since the Islamic State’s invasion. But look closer, and in nearly every shot, you’ll see something the reporter never mentions: a green, white and red flag with a yellow sun, being held aloft in the church as the priest conducts the service.
This is the flag of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
For many Iraqi Christians, this is a disquieting sign. The American government and media often laud “the Kurds” as secular, pro-democracy allies against the Islamic State (usually without distinguishing between the many Kurdish parties in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, who are rarely on the same side). The reality is much less comforting. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its armed forces, the peshmerga, control much of northern Iraq and have been struggling with Iraq’s central government for territory since the American invasion in 2003. Today, many Iraqi Christians and Yazidis remember bitterly how the peshmerga protecting their villages melted away as the Islamic State approached, not even bothering to warn them of their withdrawal ahead of time. Only a month earlier, the Peshmerga had ordered the inhabitants of the largest Christian towns to hand over their weapons, leaving them effectively defenseless. Given that the KRG has taken advantage of the chaos caused by ISIS’ conquest to expand its own territory by almost 50%, it is hard for Christians and Yazidis to trust their motives.
Sinjar was “liberated” from the Islamic State over a year ago, but less than 5% of Yazidis have returned home – largely because, paranoid over the influence of rival Kurdish organizations, the KRG has not allowed them to. The KRG flag flying in a “liberated” church sends an ominous message: if the KRG has allowed Christians to go home, it may have been at the price of their political loyalty.
The Iraqi central government – the KRG’s main competitor – is not any better. The government-backed Shi’ite militias fighting for Mosul include some of those who ethnically cleansed Baghdad of Christians in 2006 and 2007. Last year, the Iraqi parliament, which is dominated by Islamist political parties, passed a law requiring Christian children to be legally registered as Muslims if one of their parents converts to Islam, dooming hundreds of Christian children to endless legal harassment and threats. A week after the battle for Mosul began, parliament banned the sale or manufacture of alcohol throughout the country – a profession traditionally held by Christians. Three days later in Basra, a Christian shopkeeper and father of five was shot dead after leaving a restaurant.
If the United States made it clear to Iraq and the KRG that the safety of Christians and Yazidis was a priority, things might be different – but Iraqi Christians learned long ago not to trust American promises for aid. It was during, not after, the American occupation of Iraq that some 70% of Iraq’s Christians fled the country to escape the genocide being waged against them by Sunni and Shi’ite extremists, including ISIS’ forerunners. It was after the first American “liberation” of Mosul – from Saddam Hussein’s regime – that mass attacks on Mosul’s Christians took place in 2004 and 2008, and that the archbishop of Mosul was kidnapped and murdered. And it was the United States which nurtured the armed rebellion in Syria, giving ISIS the space to conquer large amounts of Syrian territory in 2013 and prepare its invasion of Iraq, with nary a U.S. bomber in sight.
In sum, it is highly unlikely that the forces “liberating” Mosul have the best interests of ISIS’ victims at heart. They will be far more likely to use Christians and Yazidis as political pawns than to offer them real protection in the internal fighting that will follow Mosul’s fall.
All this, of course, is assuming that Mosul does fall. That is still far from certain. The last time the Islamic State and the Iraqi government did battle over Mosul, 1,300 jihadis sent 30,000 soldiers and policemen running – and they have had over two years to fortify the city they won in that encounter. True, the Iraqi army is backed up this time by the U.S., the peshmerga and Iran (at least for now), but the one million civilians in the city are unlikely to welcome their new conquerors – and with good reason.
The Islamic State was able to conquer western Iraq so quickly because they found support among Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, who had been poorly treated by the Shi’ite-dominated government for years. In 2013, government attacks on Sunni civilians in Fallujah and Ramadi forced a half million people to flee their homes. Both of those cities later became strongholds of the Islamic State. As Iraqi soldiers were fleeing Mosul in 2014, the city’s residents pelted them with stones. Because the Islamic State is so obviously monstrous, it is easy to assume that anyone who supports them must be a monster. In reality, the motives of the typical Iraqi ISIS supporter may be as simple as wanting to protect his family from a terrible government.
Can the Iraqi government or the KRG reassure these people? Are they even trying? In every major city the government has retaken from the Islamic State, human rights groups have reported major war crimes against the civilian population. Ramadi was largely destroyed, its 500,000 inhabitants left homeless. After the fall of Fallujah in June, Shi’ite militias kidnapped 1,500 Sunni civilians fleeing a nearby village. 49 were executed or tortured to death; 850 are still missing. In the territory that they have seized since the war with the Islamic State began, the peshmerga have demolished thousands of Sunni homes, even entire villages, leaving their former owners with nowhere to go — except, of course, to the Islamic State.
If Mosul is “liberated,” it will likely be because it has already been mostly destroyed, like Ramadi, Fallujah and East Aleppo were. Revenge massacres against Sunni civilians should be expected. The homeless, scattered survivors will form the support base of an Islamic State movement that, like al Qaeda, will last for decades. If they win, the KRG and the Iraqi army and its allied militias will probably begin fighting over Mosul before too long. It is doubtful that the Yazidis and Christians of the Mosul region will be allowed to return to their homes in peace, or even that they will feel safe enough to do so. Iraq’s Christians, at least, will probably complete the mass exodus they began after the U.S. invasion in 2003, leaving the land of Abraham, Daniel, Ezekiel, Nahum, and Thomas with no Jews and no Christians for the first time in 2,000 years. In any case, peace in Iraq is a long way off.
I realize that this is all quite grim. None of these sad truths seem to fit the questions we normally ask about American wars: “Are we winning?” “Are we safer?” “Who are the good guys, and who are the bad guys?” Rather, in the Battle for Mosul, all the major players are “bad,” in the sense that they are more likely to destroy than save – and that includes the United States, which is choosing, as it has for four decades, a strategy which prioritizes a cheap, short-term victory over Iraqi lives.
The prophets’ view of war may be more apt for the Battle of Mosul: giant monsters smashing into each other, trampling the innocent underfoot, making grand claims about themselves, persecuting the saints (Daniel 7-8). Mindless rulers being dragged by hooks in their jaws into wars they cannot possibly win (Ezekiel 38). “They know nothing,” God says of the rulers of the earth, “they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken” (Psalms 82:5). Still, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed,” says the Lord Jesus. “Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (Matthew 24:6-7).
But what can we “do”? Glad you asked! We can welcome Iraqi refugees with open arms and open homes, as we have opportunity. We can give generously to organizations trying to help Christians, Yazidis and Muslims who have become victims of the Islamic State and the Battle of Mosul. We can press our new president to protect Christians, Yazidis and Sunni civilians. The next time our leaders try to sell us on a war or sanctions regime or revolution or great victory, we can try to remember this moment, and all the moments that led to it, and be more skeptical. And we can pray – not only for Iraq, but for our own nation.
Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East by Daniel Williams
Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East by Patrick Cockburn
Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East by Rashid Khalidi
“They That Remain: Syrian and Iraqi Christian Communities amid the Syria Conflict and the Rise of the Islamic State” by Matthew Barber
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I am grateful that you took the time to share this thoughtful analysis, Joel. Thanks for helping us think about this incredibly difficult situation with nuance and grace.
I really appreciate your second-to-last paragraph. The Bible seems to talk about war in terms of apocalypse and judgement regardless of whether it is justly entered or carried out. I have long wondered what effect it might have on Christian political philosophy, particularly thoughts around just war, if we were to view it more through that lens.