The problem of ISIS has shaken the world. For once, all groups have joined/ become unified against one antagonist- ISIS. The creation of Safe Haven is an explicit favoring of one religion/ ethnic group against another in the face of atrocities committed by ISIS. While the proposal has gained grounds in Europe and part, America, its essence fails to address the current conflicts in Iraq, and will further escalate the current conflict into in harder to solve conflicts. In this paper, I will examine ways the Safe Haven proposal fails to address the issue of ISIS, and further, examine ways by which it creates new dimensions of conflict which can be areas of concern in the near future.
Failure to Address ISIS Threat
Despite an unstable domestic state in the past decade, Iraq consists of a multicultural population with an exhibition of acceptance and tolerance. The lack of a strong central government, instability in the region, and the growth of radical terror organizations such as ISIS has endangered the existence of the diverse social groups in this once great nation. Such social groups include, but are not limited to Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Currently, all sides have joined the fight against ISIS. Groups such as Peshmerga (Kurdish group), Shia Militia and individuals from Yazidis and Shabak in the Sinjar, have joined forces to push back ISIS expansion to Iraqi cities.
The Safe Haven proposal calls for “creation of a new Iraqi province in the Nineveh Plain for the protection and settlement of Assyrian Christians.”(NCA) Further, the proposal calls for financial and armament backing by “international security teams” such as NATO.
First, the call for third party intervention will illegitimate already present forces in Iraq. Second, this proposal isolates only one of numerous endangered groups in Iraq threatened by ISIS. The current conflict in Iraq, while complicated, can be generalized by a clearly defined fight against ISIS expansion. All ethnic and social groups can agree and have come together to fight against this terror organization. While the creation of a territory will provide short-term protection for the Assyrian Christians in Iraq, it will also elicit long-term identity-based conflicts with intangible issues.
Danger of unequal distribution
As previously mentioned, foreign aid requested by the Safe Haven proposal is geared towards one social group. Such favorable isolation can evoke identity differences between existing minority groups in Iraq, turning what can be currently considered an interest-based conflict into a more complicated identity-based conflict on the grounds of religion.
The proposal suggests creating financial aid to the Safe Haven to build back heritage sites, rebuild houses of Assyrian Christians and build an educational system that all Christians would benefit from. There are two aspects of this proposal that should to be addressed. First, the foreign aid that might be granted to Safe Haven which only will be distributed to the Christians. Nineveh plain is home to Christians, Kurds, Shabak, Shia and Sunni Muslims who will not benefit from the aid. Until now, the said communities have inter-mingled in peace and have displayed tolerance towards each other's belief systems. However, as the proposal is focused on aid for Assyrian Christians alone, the said aid will not be granted to the other populations in the Nineveh province.
In the wake of ISIS, Assyrian Christians are not the only targeted group. According to Human Rights Watch “Since capturing Mosul on June 10, 2014, the armed Sunni extremist group has “seized at least 200 Turkmen, Shabaks, and Yazidis, killed at least 11 of them, and ordered all Christians to convert to Islam, pay “tribute” money, or leave Mosul.”(Iraqi Christian Relief Council) In a personal interview with a Yazidi victim who had been held captive by ISIS, she mentioned they were “torturing all of us [Yazidi, Christians, and Shia Muslims] to convert to the ISIS Ideology. The only help we had was from each other because we were all victim to a terrorist.” (M.N. Personal interview. 2015. Unequal aid distribution to Safe Haven residents would divide the community by faith.
Granting relief to one group and not the other can instill a sense of “other” in ethnic/ religious communities in respect to each other, as each is in competition for recognition to which the “other” is a prospective threat (Millas 2004, 53). In response to threat or endangerment, individuals and communities begin to express dormant identity characteristic. Further polarizing the community that exists in the Safe Haven.
In addition to inciting cleavage between communities, there exists a sense of “Exaggerated 'entitlement,'” by which the Assyrian Christians can “assert that the group has a right to own what they wish to have,” as they are the supported by a foreign third party. This can create room for violence as the Assyrians in the Safe Haven can begin to see themselves as the elite in the region. While this may not guarantee violence, the newly created hierarchy can remain “decades in the social consciousness and its influence, according to new external factors, may change” (VamikVolkan).
In general, the proposal can also result in the people of different faith hiding their identity to be able to benefit from aids or like the case of Pakistan, avoid taxation. In Pakistan, the government set up law for Shia Muslims to be able to not pay Zakat (religious based taxation) to minimize the Sunni and Shia conflict. It must be mentioned that Zakat is only a belief of Sunni Muslims, and is not shared by Shia Muslims. This favorable isolation of population resulted in cases of people, in order to not pay Zakat, declaring they are Shia Muslim. And hence, the law repercussed in large part of Pakistani society lying to the government, and further inciting mistrust between the authorities and citizens. It is also worth a mention that not only did the Shia-Sunni divide not decrease, but was augmented. This model can serve as a caution for Iraq, as if adopted, the Safe Haven proposal would elicit fraud among the people of Iraq, and further create new conflicts.
Kurdistan Today is Safe Haven Tomorrow
One can envision the future of Safe Haven through the current Kurdistan of Iraq. Initially, a territory in the north was isolated with aims of providing protection. However, recent developments have shown Kurdistan to be its own independent entity. For instance, Iraqi natural resources are used and sold without the central government’s permission, and Iraqi citizens require a visa to travel to the north (Kurdistan). Also, foreign aid such as medical, education benefit and military expansion is not controlled by any means by the Iraqi central government, but by authority of Kurdistan. Better life conditions have detached the Kurds from mass Iraqi conflicts and lackings. Hence, unless it involves endangerment of the Kurds or their territory, they do not become involved.
Creating a safe haven for Assyrians in the province that has more than 26% of Iraq’s oil resources will split Iraq more than ever.(Insight on Conflict) Iraq already has a weak government and splitting the country into pieces would weaken the central government more which in turn would allow for expansion and creation of more terrorist groups who bring vulnerability to the minorities in the country.
Even though ISIS has destroyed ethnic and religious trust among Iraqi communities, there still exists an opportunity for resolution and coexistence by and for Iraqis. The difference in tribal beliefs and ideologies, yet they have always lived together in peace.
As previously mentioned, numerous minority groups are under attack by ISIS terror- Assyrian Christians are not alone. Currently, the people of Iraq are united in their front against ISIS, and a favorable isolation of the Assyrian Christians will ruin the existing alliance of communities and faiths in Iraq. The Safe Haven proposal should be reevaluated to be inclusive to all populations under ISIS destruction, as if it does not, the current front against ISIS united in its anti-ISIS interests will split into identity-based conflicts which cannot be easily solved.
Founder and executive director of Shia Rights Watch, Mustafa Akhwand has dedicated his life to protecting and advocating for the rights of minority groups all over the world. Mustafa also extends his efforts of advocacy to research and implementation of peace-building facilitation in the field and through his special consultation to the United Nation. Mustafa Also pursuing his Master in Conflict Analysis and Resolution (World Religion and Diplomacy) from George Mason University.
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