Connect with us

Middle East

Post-Soleimani, Russia’s Role Will Grow in Iran’s Geopolitical Thinking

Published

on

As the emotional tide following the January killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani ebbs, we have a clearer perspective on what the event meant and whether it was as significant as many analysts and politicians believed.

Though many focused (understandably) on the US’s evolving policies regarding the Middle East in general and Iran in particular, Russia’s stance was less discussed. Those analyses that touched on Moscow focused more on its immediate reaction to the Soleimani crisis than on analyzing its Iran policy over the long term.

First, it is important to understand Iran’s role in Russia’s strategic calculus. Iran is crucial for Moscow, as its location at times renders it the most important player in the Middle East. This fits the rationale of the Russian political elite. Its political thinkers of the 1990s contended that Iran should be a pillar of Russian influence in the Middle East. The so-called Eurasianists, who believe Russia is a mixture of Europe and Asia, say that if Moscow is to limit western power in the Middle East, it needs Tehran.

For modern Russia, as happened during both the Romanov era and the time of the Soviet Union, it is essential to keep Tehran at least neutral. A hostile Iran would mean diminution of Russian maneuverability in the Middle East.

The countries share a similar understanding of several geopolitical developments in the region. Both loathe any western military encroachment in the South Caucasus, Central Asia, or the wider Middle East. Russia and Iran both consider western interference in their respective zones of influence (the former Soviet space and Syria-Mesopotamia, respectively) as undermining their historical imperatives and rights.

But for Russia, Iran plays a larger geopolitical role. As Moscow’s relations with the West generally and the US specifically have worsened over the past several years, the model of multi-polarity in world affairs has become popular in Russia. This trend of geopolitical thinking presumes the development of several clusters of geopolitical gravitation across Eurasia and elsewhere: China, Russia, India, the EU, and the US.

This thinking is not new: it comes from the 1990s, when Russia was economically and militarily weakened, and its only path to improving its position was to undermine the US-led order by developing deeper cooperation with China and other big Eurasian states. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS organizations were the result of this kind of multi-polar thinking.

Iran is missing here, but for Russia it plays a practical role: it shifts American attention away from other areas in Eurasia. Iran, unlike other states such as China and India, can do this militarily. Iranian strategists are clever enough to avoid direct military clashes with US forces (Iran’s entire strategy since the 1979 revolution rests upon this presumption)—but Iran can move its forces into Syria and Lebanon, deeply influence Yemen and Iraq, pose a limited but by no means insignificant military problem in the Persian Gulf, and even stir up trouble in Afghanistan by supporting the Taliban or other groups. This fits into Moscow’s policy of global multi-polarity in which there is a first echelon of states to which Russia belongs and a second consisting of Iran and other regional players that are able to complicate the US’s position in the Middle East.

Thus on a strategic level we are likely to see a further aligning of Iran’s and Russia’s Middle East policies—and we can now factor in the killing of Soleimani and Tehran’s decision to pull out of the 2015 nuclear agreement (and many months before, the American decision to leave the agreement unilaterally).

For decades, Iran’s only real near-ally among the world players was Russia. Now that US-Iran relations have deteriorated so sharply, Tehran will have to rely on Russia even more. The China card will be played as well, as was seen in late 2019 with the hosting of military naval exercises with the Chinese and Russians in the Persian Gulf. However, cooperation with China that is deep enough to change its complicated foreign policy stance will not be easy. China is not yet willing to snub the US by ignoring its sanctions and engaging Iran economically. This means only Russia can serve as a diplomatic lifeline for Tehran to limit western pressure.

Not everything is rosy in the relationship. Iran’s greater dependence on Russia’s economic and diplomatic support gives Moscow enormous leverage over Tehran. This is particularly relevant in the wake of the Soleimani killing. Since 2015, when Russia entered the Syrian conflict, there were reports in both the Russian and the Persian media on concerns in Moscow over Iranian troops gaining influence in Syria at the expense of Russian strategic interests. The death of the architect of Iran’s success in Syria could give Russia a justification to limit Iranian influence in the country and increase Damascus’s dependence on Moscow.

There is also the nuclear issue. While one might expect Russia to support Iranian ambitions, the Russian political leadership is not convinced that it would be geopolitically advantageous if Iran possessed a nuclear weapon. The Russians, like the Americans, are wary of Iran’s technological backwardness and poor security, which could compromise the safety of nuclear weapons. Moreover, as there is much evidence of Iran’s deep strategic cooperation with military and semi-military groupings across the Middle East, Russians fear the dissemination of technologies to uncontrollable groups. This could worsen the security situation in the Muslim world and have a spillover effect on the restless Muslim regions of the north Caucasus.

What seems more realistic is that a growing Iranian dependence on Russia will open up purely economic opportunities for Moscow. There are likely to be deeper negotiations on the possible sale of Russian military hardware to Iran. More significant could be Iran’s closer cooperation with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The Iranian leadership has been toying with the idea of establishing a free trade agreement with the EEU, but the process has dragged on. That could change now that there are opportunities for Russia to use Iran’s relative weakness to link its 80 million person market to the EEU.

The killing of Soleimani opens up new opportunities for Russia: possible tactical gains in Syria and major economic possibilities through deeper cooperation between a Moscow-led EEU and Iran.

Author’s note: first published in BESA Center

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

Continue Reading
Comments

Middle East

U.S. Policy Case for Middle East under New Conditions

Published

on

Image source: twitter @POTUS

In contrast to the presidential elections of the past two decades, the new White House administration has faced great difficulties in shaping its Middle East policy. With internal division, polarization, political system failures and the unwavering pandemic, the Middle East has largely dropped out of U.S. foreign policy priorities. Shortly after his election, George W. Bush came up with the ambitious initiative of a Greater Middle East which entailed a democratic restructuring of the region; Barack Obama quickly sent a special envoy for the Middle East to mediate between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; and Donald Trump, by contrast, dashed a number of traditional constants in the policies of his predecessors. It took Joe Biden’s administration a long time to realize the place of this troubled region in the U.S. grand strategy. Trump left Biden a heavy and intricate legacy, with no room for continuity or a sharp change of course on all fronts.

The continued policy of confrontation with Russia and China, framed ideologically as that of a democracy vs. autocracy, implied a revision of the approach towards the Middle East and a need to restore trust globally, taking into account all the painful experiences of the U.S., especially after the fiasco in Iraq and Afghanistan. How to achieve this amid a shifting global balance of power—clearly, not in favor of the United States—and striking changes in the region where the U.S. is increasingly seen as a key regional player was exactly the question. As early as by President Obama’s second term, a kind of consensus had been reached in the U.S. after long discussions. Trump was also guided by it, although one of his first trips abroad was to Saudi Arabia. U.S. policy in the Middle East is overly militarized, while meddling in the region’s internal affairs and the resources invested do not yield proper political impact. This leads to the conclusion that the U.S. military presence and political commitments should be reduced, avoiding overstretching in the face of emerging global threats and challenges.

The president and the secretary of state were critical of their predecessors, while devising their own approach to the region, with its unresolved conflicts and socio-political cataclysms, was clearly delayed. There has been a sense of uncertainty in the Arab world as to how and when Joe Biden would set a course for the Middle East. Questions arose as to whether one should prepare for a U.S. withdrawal from the region and Washington’s search for foreign policy alternatives. There were growing security concerns in the Gulf, which viewed Iran as a real threat. Namely, they believed that the U.S., having lost interest in the region, would decide to abandon its traditional guarantor role in the face of ongoing course corrections. Washington’s general words about “recalibration,” “redeployment,” and “reorientation” evoked mixed feelings: On the one hand, a desire for America to somehow define itself; on the other, a loss of confidence in it. The prolonged lack of progress in reaching agreement on the terms of a U.S. return to the JCPOA and the uncertainty over the parties’ future intentions were perceived with concern by Washington’s regional partners; not only by the Arab monarchies but also by Israel. The complicated domestic situation in Israel after the establishment of a shaky two-headed coalition and the prospect of a fifth edition of parliamentary elections in the last two years have put U.S. diplomacy in an ambiguous position.

The negative for the United States impact of the Ukrainian crisis on global energy as well as predominantly neutral attitudes towards the crisis in the non-Western world, which is somewhat closer to understanding Russia’s motives, seemed to serve as a stimulant that prompted Washington to shift its attention back to the Middle East—especially since the current conditions on the oil market have led to a significant increase in fuel prices in the U.S., which could have an adverse impact for the U.S. administration in light of the approaching midterms.

In this environment, the announcement of Biden’s upcoming trip to the Middle East on July 15-16 was met with a lot of skepticism, especially within America. The visit to Saudi Arabia came in for particular criticism because Biden promised to make Riyadh a “pariah” after the brutal assassination of Saudi journalist Khashoggi, and he was now planning to rehabilitate it in favor of domestic interests. Biden himself was forced to speak publicly to put the purpose of his visit to the Middle East in a broader global and regional context.

The pessimistic sentiments in the U.S. expert community were vividly expressed by Daniel Kurtzer and Aaron David Miller, two retired senior diplomats who worked for years in the Middle East and at the State Department under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The essence of this image, translated into political language, is as follows: “If you plant a garden and go away for six months, what have you got when you come back? Weeds.” Biden deprioritized the Middle East for sixteen months, and the weeds have grown in the meantime. And so the president was sent on a “diplomatic foray into the region to plant U.S. flags and start to repair the damage done to the flowers and greenery.” The conclusion is that the pivot to the Middle East will not last long, and one should not expect quick pay-offs.

The itinerary from Tel Aviv to Jeddah, where, alongside with the bilateral U.S.-Saudi negotiations, the U.S. president met with a number of Arab leaders in the GCC+3 format (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan) is quite telling. This list indicates the states the Biden administration intends to bet on as well as the range of oft-interrelated problems, the approaches to which the administration considers necessary to clarify and harmonize. These include regional security, continued normalization of the Arab-Israeli relations, the issue of a U.S. return to the JCPOA, warning signals to Iran, a new understanding of the nature of allied relations, conflict resolution with a focus on Yemen, continued Palestinian-Israeli contacts, etc.

The Israeli part of Biden’s trip showed that the United States was not going to revise the legacy of the previous administration, which formally declared Israeli settlements in the West Bank not contrary to international law and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel. By and large, the status of Jerusalem, like the issue of Jewish settlements, is a fait accompli for the United States. At the same time, Biden reiterated his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—it was a purely formal gesture, though: more of a tribute to his election campaign. This position is also enshrined, albeit one-sidedly, in the Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration. Apart from passing remarks about his intention to promote dialogue with the Palestinians and provide humanitarian grants, the American president’s visit to the Palestinian Authority was more of a touristy, humanitarian nature. The text of this widely circulated declaration leaves no doubt that the U.S. continues to pursue the principled policy of ensuring Israel’s security and military dominance as “strategic commitments that are vitally important to the national security of the United States itself.” In this regard, we have seen additional measures of cooperation in air defense and laser technology development. Another important point of the declaration was the message to the U.S. partners in the region that America will “never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon” and will work with them “to confront Iran’s aggression and destabilizing activities.” Finally, the U.S. and Israel praised the Abraham Accords as a critical addition to Israel’s strategic peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and an important starting point for building a new regional security system.

The most complicated and sensitive part of the president’s Middle East tour—the trip to Saudi Arabia—had two dimensions to it. First, a normalization of the long-struggling bilateral relations with a new focus on the policies of Trump and Obama; and second, a presentation of the U.S. administration’s vision of the Middle East strategy.

On the bilateral agenda, Biden tried to find some middle ground in the eternal conflict between “American values” and “national interests,” between respecting human rights and supporting rigid autocracies, which in the United States, i.a. among Democrats, include the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There has been a heated debate in the United States over the dilemma where the prestige of a powerful figure in the kingdom, like Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been directly affected by Khashoggi’s assassination. Did the U.S. president raise human rights issues with the Crown Prince and what was his reaction? Responding to the numerous questions, the president confirmed that he had discussed this issue “directly and openly,” though there remained great doubt in U.S. domestic political discourse about the administration’s determination (and that of Biden personally) to put ideological values above practical considerations. The reaction of the Saudi leadership was no less direct. As it became known in the Arab world, Mohammed bin Salman replied briefly: “And what about Shireen Abu Akleh?” (a journalist of Palestinian origin murdered in Israel). In general, the contrast between the way Americans “defend” democracy and human rights in Ukraine and the way they do it for the Palestinians in the Arab world has not gone unnoticed. This partly explains no mention of the Ukrainian conflict from the Arab side during the talks.

The U.S. president’s trip to the Middle East was the occasion for the public announcement of a revised foreign policy in its regional dimension. Biden thought it was symbolic that he was the first U.S. president to come to Saudi Arabia from Israel and the first to visit the region at a time when the U.S. has no military personnel engaged in military operations there. Thereafter, the U.S. emphasized intensive diplomacy with the caveat that the use of force is seen as a last resort when all other options have been exhausted.

The U.S. Middle East strategy is presented in five main areas. First, the U.S. will not leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran, so it is not withdrawing from the region. Washington will bolster partnerships with countries that subscribe to the rules-based international order, making sure these countries can defend themselves against foreign threats. Second, security cooperation. The U.S. will pledge determination to ensure the freedom of navigation through the Middle East’s waterways, including the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb, to prevent dominance by any country. Third, de-escalation and termination of regional conflicts. The U.S. is ready to work with the partners to counter threats from Iran by forcing it to curtail its nuclear program. Fourth, the development of bilateral political, economic, and security connections, and the promotion of regional projects in energy, free trade and investment. Fifth, the U.S. commitment to human rights, fundamental freedoms and the values enshrined in the U.N. Charter.

It remains a matter of debate how the American president’s significant statements in the Middle East with a leadership bid can convert into practical policy. At the same time, growing tensions in Europe and Asia are gradually pushing this into the background. Assessments of the prospects for achieving the goal in practice are rather restrained, ranging from a complete disbelief in the U.S. ability to achieve ambitious goals in a rapidly changing region to assertions that Biden should be given time and that America still has chances to adjust its Middle East policy to the new realities in the world and in the United States itself. Looks like Biden took some not-so-heavy political baggage from the Middle East. U.S. attempts to present Saudi Arabia’s consent to overflight of its airspace by Israeli civilian aircraft as a breakthrough were quickly devalued by the Saudis’ official explanations that it was only about facilitating international air communications, not about normalizing relations with Israel. The Saudis have also made adjustments to the definition of the U.S. role in lowering oil prices. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Al-Jubeir hastened to declare that the decision will be based on market assessments, and Saudi Arabia intends to continue consultations with OPEC members as well as within OPEC+, i.e. with Russia. The Saudis oppose the politicization of the global financial system and do not support calls for an oil embargo. According to experts, if the decision to further increase oil production was made, such an increase wouldn’t be so critical that the U.S. could take the credit.

Biden’s post-Bush, post-Obama and post-Trump Middle East strategy looks like a desire to find a middle ground between two extremes: over-involvement in the regional set-up coupled with military intervention or a complete turn toward the Indo-Pacific. That is, there is an understanding that the U.S. cannot change the Middle East, nor can it afford to withdraw from it. At the same time, the focus on countering Russia and China, which allegedly took advantage of the vacuum in the region, remains part of this adjusted strategy, much as the pivot to mobilize traditional Arab partners to achieve U.S. goals. And that is where the main contradiction lies. The U.S. plan for a regional alliance of democracies has no real prospect in the Middle East. The results of Biden’s Middle East trip clearly showed that, in contrast to the times of the Soviet-American confrontation, the Arab countries pursue a diversified policy, avoiding a strictly one-sided orientation on the principle of “the enemy of my friend is not my enemy.” With a new round of global confrontation, the leaders of these countries tread carefully, without closing foreign relations on unstable alliances and believing that their national interests in the new geopolitical and regional realities are more consistent with maintaining a situational partnership with the major powers.

Strengthening the U.S. strategic partnership with Israel at the expense of the right of the Palestinian people to their statehood is unlikely to advance further normalization of Israel’s relations with the Arab world, but rather will complicate the country’s integration into the region. As a result, one can expect a sharp rise in radical sentiment among the Palestinians, with the support of the resistance front by Arab states. This is evidenced by the restoration of Hamas’ relations with Syria, as well as the meeting of all Palestinian factions in Algeria facilitated by the movement. In security issues, the Gulf monarchies are looking for opportunities to defuse tensions with Iran through regional mediation as an alternative to U.S. guarantees.

One should not expect a dramatic turnaround in the U.S. Middle East policy. The incumbent president will have to reckon with the balance of power in Congress, which cannot be changed by executive orders. The Middle East will remain a focus of the Democratic administration, albeit not a top priority. The new style, with its emphasis on multilateral diplomacy, will help set a more balanced course toward key regional issues. At the same time, the Biden administration will not be able to ignore that Russia’s multi-vector policy has shown its relevance over the past two decades. The new reality in the Middle East will force American diplomacy to seek interaction points with Russia through overcoming the credibility gap, even in the face of tense bilateral relations. The question is whether it is possible to separate the Middle East from the context of the real geopolitics unfolding at odds. In this sense, Syria will be an important indicator of U.S. intentions, being a country where both Washington and Moscow, like in Europe, are in direct military contact.

From our partner RIAC

Continue Reading

Middle East

An updated Chinese strategy towards the Arab region: Evidence from Saudi Arabia

Published

on

The economic ties between Saudi Arabia and China are a reflection of both countries’ current development. From 1949 until the mid-1970s, interactions between China and the Muslim world were almost non-existent. During the late 1970s, China began its economic reform initiative, which reshaped China’s economy from 1978 to 2000, opening the way for developing the bilateral relations. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and China was improved with the beginning of the twenty-first century. In 2008, the global financial and economic crisis ravaged the United States; this paved the way for further progress in the Saudi-Chinese relationship.

After Saudi Arabia put out its 2030 vision for multilateralism, the movement in Saudi-Chinese relations coincided with the transformation in the global system, which is one of the most essential parts of multipolarity. As a result, China now has more possibilities for being involved in this process.

After China’s openness to the West, the country devoted itself primarily to the acquisition of advanced financial and technological infrastructure. At the time, China was not interested in strengthening its ties to Saudi Arabia and raising the level of the relationship to a strategic partnership. According to Saudi officials, the Chinese economy had nothing to tempt them to create links with it, regardless of China’s significant economic progress made. In terms of the world’s greatest economies, China has yet to make it into the top ten.

There was little trade between the two countries. A mere 1.171 billion riyals, or around 1.5 percent, of Saudi Arabia’s total imports were made in China in 1987. After more than 20 years of economic changes in China, this statistic remained unchanged. Even though China’s volume tripled, China’s share of Saudi imports remained at 3.5%, thus it takes time to create economic ties.

China’s imports to Saudi Arabia doubled in value between 1987 and 1999, rising from 1.2 billion to 3.7 billion riyals. The Saudi’s overall worldwide imports still dwarf this amount, notwithstanding the rise. However, by the end of the nineties, there was an improvement in this relationship. The year 2000 marked the beginning of a major shift in the economic ties between the two countries. There was an increase in bilateral trade that year of more than 1.7 times what it was last year. This is due to an increase in previously unreported Saudi shipments to China. Between 1990 and 2000, exports nearly quadrupled. Saudi’s on-going trade surplus with China can be attributed to this increase in exports.

Economic ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia will be altered significantly. High-level visits, discussions, and exchanges of views between Saudi Arabia and China have created new horizons in bilateral relations, in addition to strengthening economic ties. Globalization has also contributed to the building of trade linkages between all countries, including China and Saudi Arabia. This is also relevant to the World Trade Organization’s principles and the development of a free market economy. The economic ties between the two countries developed dramatically between 2000 and 2007. This is mainly due to the rapid growth of the Chinese economy. Growth in China’s economy has begun to pick up steam, shifting the world’s top economies into a new position. China, which ranked sixth in 2000, surpassed the United Kingdom to take fourth place in 2006. In 2007, it overtook Germany to take third position.

During the period between 2001 and 2007, Saudi Arabia’s exports to China nearly doubled, while imports nearly quadrupled. In the time since 2008, major developments have led to stronger ties between the two countries’ economies, paving the way for future strategic collaboration. After the housing crisis, the financial and economic crisis of 2008 had a significant impact on the development of Saudi Arabia’s ties with China. Because of this tragedy, there was a global economic downturn. Except for China, the rest of the industrialized world’s growth rates were either negative or extremely low throughout this period. China rose from third to second place in the world’s economy between 2007 and 2010, ahead of Japan, which fell from third to fourth.

As of 2010, China’s GDP had overtaken Japan’s, ranking it second in the world’s major economies matrix. By 2028, China is expected to overtake the United States as the world’s most powerful economy.

In terms of bilateral trade exchanges, minerals accounted for nearly eighty per cent of the overall value of Saudi’s top exports to China in 2019. Electrical goods and equipment are among the many items that China exports to Saudi Arabia.

It’s no surprise that Saudi Arabia ranked first and second in terms of oil exports to China in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Last year, China bought more than twice as much oil from Saudi Arabia as Russia did, at 1.69 million barrels per day.

The Chinese grand strategy, based mainly on the Belt and Road Initiative, will not make progress without a solid partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. China is a huge powerhouse that depends mainly on trade and industry; therefore, in order for China to survive, it is likely that in the next few years we will witness a qualitative leap in the bilateral relationship between China and Saudi Arabia.

Continue Reading

Middle East

Iraq Must Recognize Assyrians as its Indigenous People

Published

on

Assyrians are the descendants of the ancient Assyrians.[1] They are historically, culturally, and spiritually tied to northern Mesopotamia, a region that is located from north Baghdad to south of Lake Van, as well as from Persian borders in the east to the Euphrates in the west. However, today, and after centuries of persecution, numerous massacres and genocide they now concentrate in northern Iraq. According to Kelly, while the Assyrians are not legally recognized, many scholars and more importantly the Assyrian community, acknowledge Assyrians as one of the indigenous populations of Iraq. Many studies, research papers and books about the topic have been published. These scholarly studies provide ample evidence that the Assyrians survived the fall of the empire.

The Indigenous Assyrians

US Senator John Nimrod asked, “how do we know that the Assyrians, who are also known as Chaldeans and Syriac, are the indigenous people of Iraq?” He answers by stating: “One only has to take a shovel and dig it into the ground and the only history found will be that of the Assyrians.”

So what do we mean by indigenous people? The modern understanding of the term indigenous is based on specific aspects, including the followings:

• Self- identification as indigenous peoples at the individual and community level,

• Historical continuity with pre-settler societies,

• Strong link to territories and natural resources,

• Distinct social, economic or political systems,

• Distinct language, culture and beliefs,

• Form non-dominant groups of society, and

• Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.

Assyrians meet all the above factors.

The Assyrian community needs to highlight and communicate their unique culture, rooted history, and to stress rights to their historic and ancestral lands on a global level. The doors were opened to effectively do so after the 2007 United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) provides a platform for indigenous perspectives to be heard worldwide. Assyrians attended all UNPFII sessions from 2012 through 2019[2] represented by delegations from the Assyrian Aid Society (AAS); they met with representatives of other indigenous peoples, civil society organizations, as well as representatives of some participating countries.

The AAS representatives clarified who Assyrians are; neither Arabs nor Kurds, but rather the indigenous people of Iraq. They explained that it was vital for Assyrians to be recognized by both the governments in Baghdad and Arbil and to be allowed to govern themselves as the first step to preserve their culture and history.

Assyrians Settled in Mesopotamia since the Dawn of Time

When it comes to documentation, we read from cuneiform texts that after 2750 BC the Akkadian dynasty came into power in northern Babylonia. Sargon, or Sharrum-kin (meaning “just king”), emerged and the power of the Dynasty of Akkad flourished. Sargon expanded his power in northern Mesopotamia, the area later known as Assyria.[3] From these Akkadians sprung the Assyrians (and Babylonians).

The Assyrian civilization existed over at least five millennia ago in Assyria. According to Saggs, Assur (Ashur) was the first capital of Assyria. The name Assur comes from a temple name that was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar, attested from soon after 2800 BC. Religion occupied a major place in the social and economic structure of the lives of the Assyrians. Saggs explained that the religious power and civil functions have always been interlocked.[4] And according to Bottero, Assyria was established in northern Mesopotamia from the middle of the second millennium. She states, “[ancient Mesopotamia] was an original civilization, rich and complex, that survived for three millennia through innumerable vicissitudes, across generations of people, of whom I personally know a few thousand…”[5]

Also excavations in Kala-tepe, near Kara-Eyuk, a mound lying eighteen (18) kilometers north-east of Caesarea in Cappadocia in modern Turkey (still in northern Mesopotamia), shows some tablets written in Semitic containing theophorous names, compounds of Ashur, Itti-Ashur, Taba-Ashur, Ashur-Malik, Ashur-muttabil. That in this region northwest of Assyria there were Votaries of Assur in the twenty-fourth century before the Christian era.[6]

Historical evidence is plentiful to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the Assyrians (Suraye) are the descendants of the ancient Assyrians concentrated in what is today northern Iraq. The Assyrians (Suraye) lived in the modern region of Iraq before Arabs, Turkomans and more recently Kurds arrived to the region and before Islam swept the Middle East. In the Chronicle of 640 or the Chronicle of Toma, we read, “In Mesopotamia, many of the Assyrians that were within the Persian Empire were sold by the Tayaye (Arabs)”.[7] Here the Christian Assyrians are shown to be living in northern Iraq and a good reference to the Assyrians presence in the early Islamic conquest of Mesopotamia.

The Language Continuity

The Assyrians spoke the Assyrian Akkadian language. However, the cuneiform script was not convenient for running a vast empire. Communication between Nineveh, the capital, and the vassal regions were difficult as the Cuneiform was a complex script that few were capable to understand. Thus, in around 750 BC, the Assyrians and the other people within the empire began officially to use the Aramaic alphabet because it was easier to learn and be communicated between the various people under the empire. It is not strange then that the Assyrian language and Aramaic script became the lingua franca of the vast empire. After the fall of the Assyrian Empire, the Medes, Romans, Greeks and Parthians controlled northern Mesopotamia, but the Assyrian language and the Aramaic alphabet remained in use specially by the Assyrians. Scholars have shown that the Akkadian language survived until the 3rd Century of the Christian era. M. J. Geller states, “I have argued elsewhere that Akkadian was likely to have survived throughout the Parthian period, at least until the mid-third Century A.D.”[8]

Even 2,600 years after the fall of Assyria, linguists have shown that many words being used today  were, in fact, in use in ancient Assyria. These linguists have argued that the Assyrian language (known widely by the Assyrians as Sureth), is a mix between the Assyrian Akkadian and Aramaic. Furthermore, the Aramaic script continues to be used by the Assyrians.

Religion Continuity: The Assyrians have been Christians for the last 2000 years.

The Assyrian people converted to Christianity during the time of the Apostles and remained Christians ever since. The Christological controversies that followed the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Chalcedon (451) isolated the Assyrians as denominational units and communities. As the Church established further structure and hierarchy, the Churches of the Assyrians kept the various Assyrian communities together under the leadership of their respected patriarchs. The Assyrian denominational terms Nestorian and Jacobite were born. Later, in 1681 in Diyar Bekir (Turkey) and in 1830 in northern Iraq (Alqosh) the conversion of Assyrians to Catholicism isolated Assyrians as the term Chaldean was given to these converts. However, and according to Nisan, these communities created strong ties between themselves. He states, “… in the far north of Iraq bordering Turkey, The patriarchal ideal was the social norm in the family unit. Further north in the Hakkari Mountains, tribal formations remained the grid of the communal life. These units did not prevent joint action and the cultivation of national unity …”[9]

The birth of Islam was a double-edged sword for the Assyrian Christians and the region’s history. Before Islam, Mesopotamia belonged in part to the Byzantine and Sassanian empires, each people keeping in its possessions a body of troops and administrators. Ras al-’Ayn (Rish ‘ayno) and the territory beyond it as far as the Euphrates belonged to the Romans; Nisibis (Nisibin) and the territory beyond it as far as the Tigris belonged to the Persians.[10] Islam reunited Mesopotamia. On the other side, many peoples (including Assyrians) converted to Islam to escape death or avoid taxes. With time they were Arabized because of the influence of the Koran and the Arabic language. But many remained faithful to their religion and continued to live close to their ancestors historic capitals: Ashur, Kalah (Nimrud), Dur-Sharukin (Khorsabad), and Nineveh (Nebi Yunis) or close to their churches and the diocese of Mosul, Arbil, and Kirkuk in modern Iraq, Qudchanis (modern Turkey) or Antioch and Tur ‘Abdin (modern Turkey).

According to Murre-Van Den Berg “The Church of the East, as present in the region of Urmia, Mosul and the Hakkari mountains at the beginning of the nineteenth century, has its origin in the Christian communities that developed in the first centuries AD in the Parthian and Sassanian (from 224) empire.[11]

The church of the Assyrian people was not spread in northern Mesopotamia alone. History tells us that prior to Emperor Zeno’s closing of the Edessa “Nestorian” work in 488, a very significant event in the history of the Church of the East took place in Beth Lapat, near the ancient Ur. Zeno has addressed his famous instrument of union to the patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch; all three had adopted his formulation of the heretical monophysite christology. In 484 the Church of the East called a synod in Beth Lapat where they did not oppose the Chalcedonian formula of 451, but resented that Council’s confirmation of the repudiation of Nestorius. The path of the Church of the East was now different from the Church of Rome.[12]  This led soon to the separation of the Church in the Persian Empire from the rest of the Christendom – the Church of the East became an independent church.[13] [14] The Church of the East missionevlved into a marvelous church that was born in Edessa (Urhai), then in Adiabene (Arbil) and soon with its headquarters at Ctesiphon-Seleucia (al-Mada’in, near Baghdad).[15] That church is still standing today as the Assyrian Church of the East. It remains an eastern church native to modern Iraq.

One of the most celebrated days in the liturgical calendar year of the Church of the East is the Rogation of the Ninevites. This is a three day fast observed by the churches that follow East and West Syriac (Assyrian) liturgical traditions. This fast is based on the Book of Jonah in the Old Testament where God sends Jonah (c. 786-746 BC) to Nineveh to warn its inhabitants of destruction unless they repent for their sins. The Assyrian King repented and covered himself with sackcloth, sat in ashes and called upon all the people to fast.[16] The Assyrians have observed this fast for the last 2750 years.  

Genetic Studies

There have been genetic studies about the Assyrians. One of such studies was conducted under the leadership of Professor L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza who is one of the most preeminent human population geneticists in the world. He, along with Professors Paolo Menozzi, and Alberto Piazza spent eight years collecting data for their study on the genetics of almost two thousand different populations and gathered some eighty-six thousand entries. Their analysis shows that the Assyrians, as a population, represent a unique genetic profile that is distinguished from other peoples. They write: “The Assyrians are a fairly homogeneous group of people, believed to originate from the land of old Assyria in northern Iraq” (Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1996, 243)[17]. The authors additionally write that the Assyrians spoke a Semitic language and they used the cuneiform that were replaced later by the Aramaic, which used the Phoenician alphabet. The Assyrians to this very day, the authors write, speak this language. They add that the Assyrians living between Mosul and Arbil “are Christians and are possibly bona fide descendants of their namesakes” (Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1996, 218)[18]

Historically, the Assyrian people rarely intermarried with surrounding populations. This fact was supported by the 2000 and 2008 genetic studies that proved Assyrians as genetically distinct from other groups in the Middle East.

Broken Promises

The Iraqi people were looking forward to freedom and peace within a secular and democratic Iraq as President George W. Bush promised to end the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein and secure freedom for all Iraqi people regardless of their ethnicity or religious belief. Speaking from Cincinnati on October 7, 2002, President Bush carefully distinguished between the various people of Iraq when he declared, “the oppression of Kurds, Assyrians, Turkomans, Shi’a, Sunnis, and others will be lifted. The long captivity of Iraq will end, and an era of new hope will begin.[19] However, the new Iraqi Constitution, ratified in 2005, continues to define Assyrians as an ethno-religious minority. Article 125 guarantees fundamental rights to “various nationalities, such as Turkmen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and all other constituents”. The Iraqi Constitution came short from recognizing Assyrians as the indigenous people of Iraq and it divided the Assyrian people into Assyrians and Chaldeans.

Proposed Regions Under The Iraq Protected Indigenous Status

The Indigenous status must be applied on the Assyrians in Iraq: the Iraqi and Kurdish regional constitutions must assert to it and a protected region administered by the Assyrians within historic Assyria must be secured in order to allow the Assyrians to live and thrive in peace in accordance to the 1994 United Nations General Assembly resolutions A/RES/48/163. These steps are achievable, considering that the Iraqi Council of Ministers has approved the creation of the Assyrian Christian Administrative Area. That came first in 2014 a short time before ISIS invaded Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. The approval was reiterated again on June 2, 2019 after the defeat of ISIS.

We suggest the following regions to be categorized as protected federal regions for the Assyrians:

A) Sapna region:

Sapna is a large valley in northern Iraq, contained by two small mountain ranges to the north. The valley is watered by the Upper Zab River, which flows along the eastern portion of the valley, and features hilly terrain in the central portion of it around Amadiya District.

The villages are:

Bibedeh, Komaneh, Deiri, Bilejan, Hamziyya, Inishkeh, Araden, Dawodiya, Dehe, Sersank, Badarish.

B) The Barwari Bala Region:

This is the Assyrian region along the Turkish Iraqi borders that has been forcefully occupied by the Kurds.

The villages are: Aina d’ Nuneh (Kani Masse), Maya, Derishke, Bi-Qolke, Doureh, Aqri, Helwa, Bet Shmiyaye, Hayyat, Hayyis, Malakhta, Jdide, Musakan, Dargeli, Tuta Shamaya, Tarshish, Be-Baloka, Maghribiya, Chim Dostina, Saradashti, Bet Tanoreh, Biqoole, Mani Nsara, Beshmayaye, Dereshkeh, Khwara, BuTarra, Merka Chiya, Hesseh, Kani Blafeh, Moska, Baz, Chaqla, Chalek Nsara, Ayit Horkeh, Dar Keleh, Chameekeh, Torwanish, Bazeveh, BiKozinkeh.

C) Nahla Region:

Nahla is a region in the provinces of Nineveh and Dohuk to the north of Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq.

The villages are:

Kashkawa, Belmit, Hezaneh, Merokeh, Khalilaneh, Jouleh, Rabetkeh, Chameh Chaleh, Kasreh. 

D) Nineveh Plain Region

The Nineveh Plain is a region in the Nineveh Governorate that comprised of three districts: Telkepe, Hamdaniya, Shekhan.

The towns and villages includes:

District of Telkepe (Telkepe, Batnaya, Tesqopeh, Alqosh)

District of Hamdaniya (Khidir Ilyas, Baghdeda, Ba’sheeqa, Bartella, Karamlesh)

District of Shekhan (Ain Sifni, Ba’thra, Qasrok)

Read also the attached details for the Assyrian villages in northern Iraq.

The Issue is Political

Many Assyrians in the national and human rights circles argue, rightfully so, that the recognition of Assyrians as the indigenous people of Iraq lacks neither historical arguments nor evidence. The evidence is there. The Jews and Kurds were assisted to have lands reserved for themselves, so do the Assyrians. Even during his trial, the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein responded to the Kurdish lawyer who claimed that the Christians and Yezidis living in the Kurdish region were Kurds. Saddam said, “as for the Christians, there are Chaldean Christians [Catholic Assyrians] and they are the origin for establishing the Iraq’s ancient Assyrian State”. He added, these Christians are not Kurds. The reason that Saddam opted to mention exclusively the Chaldeans is of course because of Tariq Aziz, his most trusted Christian Ba’ath Party friend and comrade, who was a Catholic Assyrian (Chaldean). Saddam mentions that the identity of a group is based on history and belonging. He was trying to say that the [Chaldean and Assyrian] Christians and Kurds Muslims neither share the same history nor belonging, thus the [Chaldean and Assyrian] Christians are not Kurds.

The Above map is from a book titled, “The Ecclesiastical Organisation of the Church of the East: 1318-1913”. By David Wilmshurt. Published in Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, Vol. 582, Tomus 104. Lovani. In Aedibus Peeters. 2000. 

Religion is an issue since Assyrians are Christians while 98% of Iraq’s population is Muslim. The US applies double standards when dealing with the various oppressed people around the world. The policy depends on the US economic interests. The US helps the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, but does not do the same with the Assyrians. In fact, the US opened all avenues possible to see the Assyrians out. The author’s entire family side that settled in Tell Hafian, Khabor, Syria since 1933 have been resettled in the US, Sweden, Germany and Australia after the attacks of ISIS on the Assyrian Khabor villages.  Most of the Khabor Assyrian villages are empty of Assyrians. Who will occupy those villages? The Kurds, of course.

The Return of Assyrians to their Ancestral Lands

The Iraqi government must establish a road map that clearly defines the process for returning Assyrians to their ancestral homeland and the returning all illegally confiscated Assyrian towns and villages, specially in the Kurdish controlled areas to their rightful Assyrian owners. The two governments must secure the necessary funding for the reconstruction of the destroyed villages and worship places during the Kurdish revolt years. The reconstruction of the 14,000 homes and building in the Nineveh Plains must begin as soon as possible. Many misconceptions exist contrary to the realities on the ground about the condition and situation of the Assyrians. As one Assyrian observer explains, “In the decade leading up to the Islamic State invasion, the Kurdish regional government created the appearance of security in the plains through the harasment of locals and a system of political and financial patronage”. The continuous disputes between Arbil and Baghdad and the so-called disputed territories continue to delay any efforts of return.

The long claimed Assyrian triangle autonomous region that was presented to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference (League of Nations) that was modified later as shown in the map above could be declared as a protected indigenous region protected by an Assyrian Force that could emerge from the already existing NPU (Nineveh Plain Protection Unit).

Assyrian Towns and Villages Names to be Restored

We are told that the names of places are more than a geographical indicator. Indigenous place names carry knowledge that has been passed from generation to generation – they have connected Indigenous people to their homes. While this Assyrians and their cities, towns, rivers, mountains, etc connection has at times remained strong despite several eras of assimilation; however, it has also disassociated them of that link. Thus, the consequences could be annihilative. This historic people-place link is powerful and it has threatened subsequent nations ruled northern Iraq. Hence, subsequent authorities have replaced the Assyrian town names by Arabic, Turkish or Kurdish names. Consider changing (or Kurdifying the name) Arbil (Arbela) to Hawler, Aina d’ Nuneh to Kani Masse, Diyana to Soran, Mar Yaqu to Kasha Fir, Shiyas to Sayjay, Harrania to Rania, Aridu to Rawanduz, Anisu to Qal’aat Diza, Ieri to Sardasht, Arzuhina to Gok Tape, Assur-Iqisha / Bidaro to Zakho, Gannanati to Qasr-e Shirin, Azari to Sulaimaniya, Girmua to Jerwan, Musru to Jabal Maqlub, Milqia to ‘Ain Kawa, Amantu to Sultan ‘Abdallah, etc. [20] It is argued that indigenous people can reclaim the spaces in which their cultures and languages have been subjected to attempted assimilation or outright eradication, but the authorities need to understand and tolerate the indigenous people’s dilemma and endangered situaion.

Final Thoughts

On May 13, 2012, at the Indigenous People’s form in New York, President of AAS in Iraq, the late Ashur Sargon Eskrya, stated, “We call upon you for the inclusion of the Assyrians as one of the indigenous peoples of Iraq and be eligible for support from programs funded by the Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples, as well as support from other United Nations organizations in accordance with the UN Declaration on the indigenous peoples and their legitimate rights.” AAS has called for the support of and empowerment the Assyrian people to rebuild their historical areas, protecting their cultural heritage and language. AAS also called on all indigeous people to cooperate with each other in order to learn and benefit from any successful experiences to ensure the revival and preservation of the languages of the original peoples.

If Iraq does not recognize the Assyrians as its indigenous people, the Assyrians will continue to face genocide and massacres[21] and in time will disappear from Iraq, (and Syria and Turkey). This recognition will not add any burden on Iraq since that status will make the Assyrians eligible for support from various programs provided by the Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples, as well as support from other United Nations organizations in accordance with the UN Declaration on the indigenous peoples. Recognizing the indigenous status of the Assyrians is very important not only for the Assyrians, but also for Iraq, Syria and Turkey themselves. Iraq, Syria and Turkey have their issues of human rights violations and the treatment of non-Arabs and non-Turks in their respective countries. Many argue that recognizing the Assyrians as the indigenous people of these three host countries and recognizing and improving the treatment of all the other components in those societies will open a new page in the history of the three states. We can envision the relationships between those three countries and the rest of the advanced and civil world. In addition, a new page of peace will spring between the Assyrians and those states. The recognition of the three said countries, Iraq most importantly, is very important, because, as Donabed and Joseph argue, “As long as Middle Eastern states do not recognize Assyrians and other peoples as indigenous, the process cannot commence; first peoples will be unable to negotiate in the political forum as long as their host countries monopolize their rights”. And since most Assyrians in Iraq live in northern Iraq’s region under the Kurdish control, then we expect the KRG to do the same and recognize the Assyrians as the indigenous of the region.

The Assyrian people deserve and are entitled to live in peace, security and freedom and their endangered language embraced and protected. Consider that the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages warns that the Assyrian (Syriac/Aramaic) language will disappear within a century. Many linguists argue that a language dies within three or four generations outside its original habitat. Some Assyrian schools have been opened in Iraq and in the KRG region; however, the financial support for these schools is meager and there is no genuine legislation to support the Assyrian language. During the time that you finish reading this article, another language somewhere around the world has died. With every language dying, a culture also dies. Imagine the impact of that on civilization. Most importantly, Iraq was among those countries that voted in favor of the 2007 UNDRIP. Only four countries voted against it and they were Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Lastly, but not least, the Assyrians’ population was around 1.5 million before 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Today, observers put their numbers at 250,000 at best. Only the designation of indigenous people of Iraq will save and keep them in this diverse region of the Middle East. 


[1]           a.. Warda, William M. Assyrians Beyond the Fall of Nineveh: A 2,624 Years Journey. USA. 2013. 

            b. Aprim, Frederick. Assyrians: The Continuous Saga. Xlibris, 2004.

[2]COVID caused the cancellation of meetings in 2020 and 2021.

[3]Saggs, H.W.F. Everyday Life in Babylonia and Assyria. B. T. Batsford Ltd. London. 1965. p. 30

[4]Saggs, H.W.F. The Might That Was Assyria. Sidgwick & Jackson, London. 1984. p. 21

[5]Bottero, Jean, Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods. Translated by Zainab Bahrani & Marc Van De Mieroop. The University of Chicago Press. 1995. p. 21

[6]Delaporte, L. Mesopotamia: The Babylonian and Assyrian Civilization. Translated by V. Gordon Childe, New York, Barnes and Noble, Inc. p. 240

[7]Toma was a Syriac Othrodox priest, a native of Mardin. The Chronicle is preserved at the British Library under reference number ADD.MS.14,643.

[8]Geller, M. J. Paper titled “The Survival of Babylonian Wissenschaft in Later Tradition.” In the Heirs of Assyria. The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project. Sanna Aro and R. M. Whitting, ed. Helsinki, 2000, p.3.

[9]Nisan, Mordechai. Minorities in The Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-Expression. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publisher, London. 1991. p.157

[10]Palmer, Andrew. Monk and Mason on the Tigris Frontier: The Early History of Tur ‘Abdin. Cambridge. 1990. p. 7

[11]Murre-Van Den Berg, H. L. From A Spoken to a Written Language. Leiden. 1999. p. 31

[12]Young, John M. L. By Foot to China. Radiopress, Tokyo. 1984. p. 7

[13]Vine, Aubrey R. The Nestorian Churches: A Concise History of Nestorian Christianity in Asia From the Persian Schism to the Modern Assyrians. Independent Press, Ltd. London. 1937. p. 22

[14]Holm, Frits. My Nestorian Adventure in China. Gorgias Press. 2001.

[15]Stewart, John Rev. Nestorian Missionary Enterprise: The Story of a Church on Fire. Trichur, India. 1961. p. xxxi

[16]Holy Bible: From the Ancient Eastern Text. George M. Lamsa Translation. 1984. Book of Jonah 3:6-7.

[17]   Elias, Joel J. “The Genetics of Modern Assyrians and Their Relationship to Other People of the Middle East.” Article in Nineveh Magazine, no. 1 & 2. Berkeley, 2000.

[18]Ibid

[19]Aprim Frederick, The Betrayal of the Powerless: Assyrians After the 2003 US Invasion of Iraq. Xlibris. 2021

[20]Most of these original and modern names are from Simo Parpola & Michael Porter. The Helsinki Atlas of the Near East in the Neo-Assyrian Period. Helsinki, 2001.

[21]Consider WWI genocide, 1933 Simele massacre, 1969 Soriya massacre and 2014 ISIS genocide and the destruction of Assyrian archaeological sites, villages, churches and monasteries in both Iraq and Syria. 

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

Trending