Understanding The Christian Militias Of Iraq And Syria
The threat of ISIS and current crises in the region led to the emergence of several Christian militia groups in Syria and Iraq, but what are these groups exactly?
The plight of Christians in the Middle East has been one made up of ongoing violence, displacement, and devastation. Many in the Christian communities of Syria and Iraq have experienced first hand the brutal oppression of ISIS occupation, and many have tried to cope with living under a regime that promotes the destruction of their religion and inevitably their very being. One of these coping mechanisms have transcended what could be described as traditional Christian ethics and has translated into the establishment of several militia groups that allegedly represent the regions Christian communities.
For the purpose of this article, three main militia groups will be examined in the context of their specific communities: the Syriac Military Council, the Nineveh Plains Protections Unit, and the Babylonian Brigade.
Syriac Military Council
The Syriac Military Council makes up the largest Christian militia group in Syria. It was first established in 2013 to fight against ISIS in the backdrop of the Syrian civil war and was intended to be an organization that protected the Syriac, Assyrian and Chaldean community (the three main Neo-Aramaic speaking Christian groups that have come to dominate Christian identity politics in the region) of Syria.
Currently they boast around 250 fighters that operate in and around the crucial city of Raqqa, the dwindling twin capital of the IS caliphate. One interesting aspect of the militia group, as well as several other militia groups, is that foreign fighters are joining their ranks, many of them westerners with previous military experience. The group epitomizes many other militia organizations in the area that have taken the opportunity to fight in the civil war as a means to create awareness for their particular cause, highlight issues in their community and shine a spotlight on the many contributions they have made in the reclaiming of their country.
Nineveh Plains Protection Unit
The NPU was formed in 2014 by the Assyrian Democratic Movement also known as Zowaa. The ADM is a popular political party of the Assyrian (Chaldean/ Syriac) people of Iraq and has since its inception in 1979 been central to the concept of Assyrian nationalism and the advocacy of the Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac people (albeit under the term “Assyrian” exclusively). The NPU has claimed that 500 fighters have been trained since the formation of the group, and as much as 5000 others have been registered. They have participated alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in fighting in the Chaldean town of Tesqopa and are most active in their namesake of Nineveh where they hold considerable sway amongst the Christian community of the area.
The Babylonian Brigade
The Babylonian Brigade is the lesser known of these three militia groups. The brigade was formed in 2014 alongside other Shiite and Sunni militia groups that collectively have around 100,000 volunteers. The brigade itself may have around 1000 fighters, trained by the Popular Mobilization Forces that are made up of various Sunni and Shiite groups. The group’s commander is Rayan al-Kildani, a somewhat contentious figure that has been accused of cashing in the government covered expenses of the militia group, notably by BBC’s Owen Jones who brought up the point that “there are stories about people renting a house in Baghdad, gathering a few people together, announcing they have formed a militia and going to the government to apply for the funds”.
Nonetheless, Al-Kildani can be a rather unifying figure to many Iraqis, a leader who has established the first distinctly Christian brigade in the Shiite dominated Popular Mobilization Forces, and has been quoted as saying that “ISIS terrorists do not differentiate among Christians, Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites — they kill everyone” and that “we have to help our Muslim brothers liberate Iraq”.
These three groups: the Syriac Military Council, the Nineveh Plains Protection Unit, and the Babylonian Brigade exemplify the concept of Christian militia groups in the region.These groups form from a perceived need to fight for Christians in the region, and alongside other militias try to reclaim their territory from the hands of an enemy that is recognized by all sides.
In the case of the SMC, fighters work alongside western volunteers to reclaim Raqqa, in the NPU armed comrades fight hand in hand with the Peshmerga in Tesqopa, and in the Babylonian Brigade fighters strategize with Shiite and Sunni mobilization forces in an effort to combat ISIS. All three groups have their own controversies and are met with opposition from both in and outside their respective communities. But their very existence exemplifies the resolute and determined nature of a people who have become all but extinct in their native land. Perhaps these groups will succeed in their endeavours and in a post-ISIS Iraq and Syria and be met with success and legitimacy. Perhaps they will not. But all that matters for the time being is that they exist and are a significant part of today’s efforts to reclaim the lands of Iraq and Syria.
Perhaps these groups will succeed in their endeavors and in a post-ISIS Iraq and Syria and be met with success and legitimacy. Perhaps they will not. But all that matters, for the time being, is that they exist and are a significant part of today’s efforts to reclaim the lands of Iraq and Syria.
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