If you thought the Syrian civil war was complicated before, get ready for your head to spin. An Assyrian Christian militia is now battling the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which is accused of being part of the Kurdistan Workers Party, a designated terrorist group by the U.S. State Department.
Jeff Gardner, the Director of Operations for Restore Nineveh Now, spoke to Clarion Project’s National Security Analyst Ryan Mauro about the situation and the Assyrian militia named the “Gozarto Protection Forces.” Assyrian is often used interchangeably with Christian, as the former is the ethnicity of the minority group and the latter is its religion. He also shared photos of the GPF that can be seen below.
The Kurdish YPG forces and the Asayish, the Kurdish police, have been battling a militia loyal to the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad in the northeastern part of the country around Qamishli. The fighting now includes the Assyrian GPF, which opponents accuse of being an ally of Assad, Hezbollah, Iran and Russia. Gardner has direct contact with the GPF and says they want a democratic Syria but are being forced to respond to Kurdish aggression against the Assyrians.
According to Restore Nineveh Now, the YPG kidnapped two members of GPF and one member of an affiliated police force, the Sootoro, around April 20. It also attacked a GPF/Sootoro training academy in the town of Zalin. Shortly before that, in Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government's police recently stopped Assyrians from protesting against the Kurds' treatment and land grabs.
The GPF and the pro-Assad National Defense Forces reportedly counter-attacked the YPG and Asayish in Qamishli, capturing several checkpoints and protecting the military airport. The GPF Twitter account confirmed that it is getting assistance from Russia, writing in November that a Russian military aircraft transported its members to fight the Islamic State in a Christian town.
Below is our interview with Jeff Gardner, Director of Operations for Restore Nineveh Now, to learn more about the GPF:
Ryan Mauro: Which Assyrian Christian self-defense forces are Restore Nineveh Now Foundation linked to and where do they operate?
Jeff Gardner: The Restore Nineveh Now Foundation works closely with the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, in northern Iraq, the Gozarto Protection Forces in Hasaka Province in Syria and also with the Khabur Assyrian Council of Guardians also in the Hasaka Province in Syria.
As for their comparative strengths, the Gozarto Protection Forces (GPF) has over 500 active men in the field and the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU) has 350 active men with over 2,500 awaiting training.
Mauro: What is the relationship between these forces and the governments of Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Russia and the Assad regime?
Gardner: All Assyrian forces have a good working relationship with these entities in opposition to common enemies such as the Islamic State and other jihadist groups.
Uniquely in northern Iraq, the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU) is the only registered local security force on the Nineveh Plain under the authority of Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Abadi, and the only one to have constructed a training camp (flying the Iraqi national flag), located near the city of Alqosh, Iraq. Just 30 miles from Mosul, the Alqosh camp strategically positions the NPU for the upcoming military campaign against ISIS.
I had a chance to meet and speak with the leadership of the GPF in Qamishli, Syria, and I asked about their relationship to Assad. They were very clear that they do not support a dictatorship for Syria, regardless of who it is, and they stand firmly for a secular, democratic nation in which all peoples are represented.
When I asked why they wear the Syrian flag on their uniform, they informed me that it was the flag of their nation, the very same flag that flies in front of the U.N. and the flag that all Syrians voted on and approved. When, they noted, the democratic process results in the flag being changed, then they too, as members of the nation of Syria, will change their flag along with the rest of the country.
Mauro: Christians have been facing a ferocious genocide in Iraq since 2003. Why haven't they picked up guns and organized local defenses until recent years?
Gardner: Assyrians are local citizens of their respective countries and have, until recently, trusted that matters of security and protection would be secured by their respective national armies and local government forces. However, after 2003, the situation for Assyrians in both countries changed dramatically.
In Iraq, the Assyrian militia that was fighting Saddam was first disarmed by U.S. forces and then later, as conditions in Iraq deteriorated, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) blocked all Assyrian attempts to create local Assyrian forces, even those who were designed to do nothing more than protect soft targets like Assyrian schools, churches and businesses. Finally, in 2011 forward, the Kurds forcibly disarmed even average Assyrian citizens (and Yezidis as well) throughout the Nineveh Plain and Sinjar, leaving them incapable of defending themselves.
Once disarmed, the Assyrians and Yezidis were abandoned by the Kurdish Peshmerga as ISIS stormed across northern Iraq. The KRG's program of forced disarmament and failure to defend Assyrians and Yezidis, even women and children, has been extensively documented by a number of groups.
Mauro: What is the end-goal for the Assyrians in Iraq and Syria? Are they mostly united on the desire for an independent state or an autonomous state?
Gardner: Assyrians want to establish local Assyrian administrations on their lands, notably in the form of semi-autonomous provinces with locally-governed regions. They refuse to be folded into and crushed by an independent, separatist Kurdish state (be that the so-called Kurdistan in northern Iraq or the so-called "Rojava" in Syria), but rather want to be part of multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries with control over their own affairs at the local level.
Federalism or cantons work perfectly well in countries like Switzerland, Canada and Belgium. A similar arrangement would also work in Iraq.
Mauro: Would a move to arm the Assyrian Christians result in a war between them and the Kurds? Or could a compromise be worked out?
Gardner: Assyrian Christians are peace-loving people who have avoided war at all costs. However, to keep them unarmed and unable to protect themselves in the face of Islamic jihadist genocide is unacceptable.
The Kurds have made it clear, by virtue of their actions, that they have no intention of defending the Assyrians or Yezidis, even in areas in which they claim sovereignty. The KRG seems to want to have their country and eat these residents, too—this scenario, more than anything else, raises the potential of war.
Could a compromise be worked out? Yes, and one has already been proposed.
In January 2014, the Council of Ministers, which is the executive branch of the government of Iraq, endorsed a plan (backed also by Prime Minister al-Maliki) to create four new provinces in northern Iraq. These provinces would serve the needs of the local, uniquely ethnic and religious peoples, giving them broad powers to run local affairs. The KRG has opposed the creation of these provinces.
The irony is that if there is apprehension that arming the Assyrians might cause friction with the Kurds, then the fault lies with the Kurds and not the Assyrians.
The United States should not arm the Kurds for two reasons: First, Kurds in Iraq are providing support to radical Kurdish terrorist groups such as the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in Turkey and the YPG (People's Protection Units) in Syria. Both of these groups, which are nearly one in the same, are destabilizing the region through a war of terrorism waged against our NATO ally, Turkey.
Second, the Kurds of Iraq, specifically the administration of President Barzani, cannot seem to get along with the Arabs of Iraq and have a history of shooting first and then (maybe) talking later.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.