Foreign Policy Essay

Why a Minority Safe Haven in Iraq Won't Work

By Gregory J Kruczek
Sunday, July 24, 2016, 10:25 AM

Editor's Note: The Middle East and Iraq and Syria in particular have long enjoyed religious diversity, with a range of Muslim and non-Muslim groups, including some of the world’s oldest Christian communities. The Syrian and Iraqi civil wars have proven devastating to this diversity, raising the policy question of how to protect those religious minorities that have not fled. One possibility being floated is a safe haven within Iraq itself. Gregory Kruczek, a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech, explores this idea, concluding that it is impractical and might make things worse for the very people the world is trying to help.


In March 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry charged the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or, Daesh, as “genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions – in what it says, what it believes, and what it does.” After detailing ISIL’s crimes against humanity, Kerry punctuated his remarks with: “Naming these crimes is important. But what is essential is to stop them.” Many believed Kerry’s remarks meant the United States was ready take a more proactive role on behalf of the ethno-religious minorities, women, and children victimized by ISIL. Diaspora groups, activists, and U.S. politicians alike had been clamoring for the establishment of a safe haven for persecuted communities in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains. On June 21, an escaped ISIL sex slave urged Congress to enact such a plan or else the region’s minorities would be wiped out. The situation in northern Iraq is dire, and the populations that have suffered under ISIL are in need of assistance. But a safe haven will not be effective without a long-term political plan for protecting Iraq’s persecuted minorities.

The Nineveh Plains stretch north and east from Mosul, encompassing the districts of Tel Kef, Shekhan, and Hamdaniya in northeastern Iraq. Mosul and its environs have historically been described as an ethno-sectarian mosaic within Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland. Several of Iraq’s largest ethno-religious minority groups are indigenous to the area, including an estimated 350,000-450,000 Assyrian Christians (Syriac/Chaldean), 500,000 Yezidis, who practice a syncretistic religion, and 250,000-400,000 Shabaks, who practice a heterodox form of Shi’ism. These minorities have historically been plagued by charges of disloyalty to the state. In 1933, Iraqi troops and Kurdish militias massacred Assyrians. Yezidis were treated as an outsider minority that had to be forcibly integrated. Assyrians, Shabaks, and Yezidis were all victims of Saddam Hussein’s Arabization programs.

Seeking greater autonomy over their affairs, in 2014, several minority groups lobbied Baghdad for the creation of the Nineveh Plains Governorate. The Plains Governorate was to be split from the larger Nineveh Governorate, yet attached to Baghdad as part of a federal Iraq. Governorates in Iraq are afforded the right to form their own administrative councils, which may enact legislation as long as it does not contradict with the federal government. For example, they may constitute police forces and implement programs for education, culture, health, agriculture, and social welfare. Crucially, each governorate is entitled to a share of the federal budget depending on its needs, resources, and percentage of the national population. Baghdad initially endorsed the Nineveh Plains proposal, but its implementation was stymied by political infighting and, later, ISIL’s invasion. Complicating matters, Kurdish nationalists claim areas in and around Mosul as part of Greater Kurdistan. The 2005 Iraqi constitution lays out a plan to hold plebiscites about adding these disputed territories to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), but disagreements between Baghdad and Erbil over which territories were “disputed,” federal budget allocations, and the degree of Kurdish autonomy meant these reforms have yet to be implemented.

In June 2014, ISIL forces seized control of Mosul and most of the Nineveh Plains. The group then targeted Iraq’s minorities for persecution, including massacres, expulsions, and sexual slavery. Shrines were systematically destroyed as sites of idolatry. Christians were essentially treated as hostages under ISIL’s protection. Yezidis and Shabaks, considered apostates, were slated for destruction. The UN claims ISIL still holds approximately 3,500 Yezidi women and children while thousands of Yezidi men and boys remain missing.

[A] safe haven will not be effective without a long-term political plan for protecting Iraq’s persecuted minorities.

Safe haven proponents argue such an area would not just halt ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide, but would stem the flow of refugees by removing the need to flee. It would also ease the financial and security burdens these refugees have placed on their hosts. The KRG has long complained of strained resources and increased security concerns stemming from Syrian refugees and Iraq’s internally displaced persons (IDPs). Located near the Iraq-Syria border, scene of ISIL’s notorious “destruction of Sykes-Picot” propaganda video, an internationally brokered and manned safe haven would also de-legitimize the group’s self-styled caliphate to potential followers, territorially speaking.

But calling for a safe haven is easier than implementing one. Legal justification is not necessarily the most difficult aspect of establishing a safe haven. Historical examples show that the international community can forge an appropriate legal path to justify humanitarian intervention when it desires. For example, though a non-mandatory resolution, United Nations Resolution 688 contained broad language to provide the international community with the legal footing necessary for intervening on behalf of the Kurds in 1991’s Operation Provide Comfort on the basis of Kurdish refugees being a threat to international peace and security. Rather, the first barrier is determining the size and exact location of the would-be safe haven itself, which impacts the number of refugees admitted and, more importantly, the size of the troop contingent needed to secure it. Second, there are issues regarding safe passage. Refugees are scattered throughout Iraq’s central and southern governorates. There is still a veritable security vacuum in parts of the country, especially around the Nineveh Plains. So getting people to the haven would put them in danger if they are not protected en route. Third, a proper administrative mandate must be determined, including duration, financing, internal governance, security vetting, humanitarian aid, rules of engagement, the country or countries responsible for constituting the safe haven force, and a long-term plan for political integration and resettlement.

Although the United States, Baghdad, the KRG, and regional minority groups share a common interest in rolling back ISIL’s Nineveh gains, coordination problems have plagued their efforts. Baghdad has been paralyzed by infighting and corruption within the largely Shi’i-dominated regime. Progress has been made in pushing back ISIL in western Anbar, but the Iraqi Army and its allied militia forces are still unprepared for the assault on Mosul. The Kurds, meanwhile, have moved southward, taking over the disputed territories vacated by Iraqi security forces. Kurdish leaders continue to speak of a unilateral move toward independence, which would likely include the annexation of the Nineveh Plains, the very place proposed for a safe haven. The Kurds claim they are ready to take Mosul, but Baghdad remains reluctant to cooperate with them, lest this lead to another KRG land grab. The United States is stuck in the middle, aiding both Iraqi and Kurdish security forces while eyeing Baghdad’s increasing reliance on Iranian-trained militias, as well as the KRG’s secession threats.

[C]alling for a safe haven is easier than implementing one.

Lost among this geopolitical discussion are the wishes of the inhabitants of the Nineveh Plains area, many of which were forcibly displaced from their homes. A 2014 survey of over 4,000 displaced Yezidis and Christians (Chaldeans, Syriacs) conducted by the Nineveh Center for Research and Development, an Iraq-based NGO for minority rights, revealed that, although most (56 percent) desired to return home, a sizable minority – some 42 percent – wished to leave Iraq and migrate abroad. Many of those who wish to migrate abroad cite betrayal by neighbors collaborating with ISIL as the reason they can never return. In response to this threat, a number of self-defense forces appeared, including the Christian Nineveh Plains Protection Units and the Babylon Brigades. These groups have reached out to diaspora communities in the West for political, economic, and even military support.

Thus, the proposal for a safe haven in the Nineveh Plains complicates the situation for persecuted minorities and may exacerbate already deep intergroup cleavages. Memories of sectarian violence under U.S. occupation are still fresh across all segments of Iraq’s population. Muslims and non-Muslims were both victims of car bombs, church and mosque destructions, and massacres. A sense of political alienation from Baghdad that falls along sectarian lines permeates many groups, especially Sunnis. Indeed, a leader from the Sunni militia group Jaysh al-Mujahideen claimed: “In 2006, we cooperated with the government to expel Al Qaeda from Sunni cities, but the government did not keep its end of the bargain. They chased our leaders and arrested us…ISIL are terrorists, but so are the Shia militias.”

At the same time, minorities resent KRG claims to their territories. Assyrian Christians have long complained about persecution under the KRG. Some accuse the KRG of forcibly evicting them from their homes under the pretext of fighting ISIL. Yezidis, too, have asserted the KRG leadership prefers to exploit their suffering rather than defeat ISIL. The chairman of the Yezidi Human Rights Organization International recently said the KRG betrayed the Yezidis: “… the Yezidis cannot ‘trust’ the KRG…the KRG fled without any fighting against ISIL; refused to give Yezidis any weapons and, in fact, most of the Kurds [in Sinjar]…joined up with ISIL and killed, raped, and abducted their Yezidi neighbors.” Those refugees already under Kurdish control in the disputed territories are now facing pressure from the KRG to sign a Declaration of Allegiance, which seems to validate Kurdish claims to the Nineveh Plains and support its “return” to Kurdistan. The Nineveh Plains Governorate proposal is the best way to assuage minority fears, guarantee their political rights, and strengthen the Iraqi state and national identity.

[T]he proposal for a safe haven in the Nineveh Plains complicates the situation for persecuted minorities and may exacerbate already deep intergroup cleavages.

A safe haven would also seem to obviate the plan for a separate, minority-dominated governorate. That is, as long as a safe haven exists, a governorate does not. In an externally brokered safe haven that lacks a proper administrative mandate regarding duration and political integration, minorities would likely lose the ability to govern their own political and cultural affairs in the name of security and stability. A governorate, however, would help cement the status of minorities within the Iraqi federal structure. For the Assyrians, Yezidis, and other minority groups that wish to remain in Iraq, it would allow them to retain political and cultural autonomy while demonstrating their commitment to and citizenship within the Iraqi state.

If and when ISIL is expelled from Iraq, Baghdad must move forward with the Nineveh Plains Governorate proposal. The best long-term solution for preserving the political rights of Iraq’s minorities is to grant them political and cultural autonomy within an ethno-religiously inclusive federal Iraq. This is not to say the current situation does not warrant some form of immediate protection for Iraq’s minorities. But a safe haven alone would only be a band-aid. In the short term, some of the Pentagon’s recent $415 million allocation for the Kurdish Peshmerga could be directed to other minorities’ self-defense forces for training and protection. Though this move would certainly come with risks and would need to be done carefully, such an effort could lead to these forces’ participation alongside the Iraqi Army and its militias in the retaking of Mosul and Nineveh, and perhaps, take the first step towards national reconciliation and political integration. In the end, however, the only way to address Iraq’s growing sectarian challenges is a political arrangement in which repressed ethnic and religious minority groups are empowered with a degree of political and cultural autonomy.