The Assyrian Fighters in North Iraq
By Peter Henderson
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An Assyrian fighter (Dwekh Nawsha) in Baqufa, north Iraq.
(AINA) -- Since the formation of Dwekh Nawsha, an Assyrian Christian paramilitary force operating in the Ninawa Plains area of northern Iraq, on 11 August 2014, there have been a number of news articles about the group: in the National Geographic on 27 August, from the AFP on 27 September, in MintPress News on 8 October, my article in Al-Monitor on 30 October, by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi on 6 November, and from AP on 13 November. The group was also briefly mentioned by Robert Fisk in an article from 16 November.

Media Articles on the Dwekh Nawsha

The first article, by Rania Abouzeid in the National Geographic, described the Dwekh Nawsha being formed on 11 August. Referred to as 'Dukha' rather than 'Dwekh Nawsha', the group comprised 40 men, and was founded by the Assyrian Patriotic Party (APP) with the aim of cooperating with the Peshmerga in the fight to reclaim the Ninawa Plains from the Islamic State (IS). (In an aside, the article mentions Arab Christians, an inappropriate appellation given the identification of many of Iraq's Christians, including Dwekh Nawsha's members, as Assyrians rather than Arabs.)

The AFP article, by Camille Bouissou and published in various places (the link above is to the Lebanese Daily Star), is problematic in that the distinction between Dwekh Nawsha, an APP-founded group which is pro-KRG and which seeks to work with the Peshmerga, and the paramilitary force of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) in Alqosh which is anti-KRG and pro-federal government in its outlook, is poorly drawn. An assertion is made that "2,000 men have already volunteered to fight ISIS", presumably with the ADM. The ADM has maintained armed men since the late 1970's which has long numbered around 2,000 men; furthermore, the ADM force in Alqosh restricts its activities to guarding the town, far from the front lines. While Alqosh's residents were evacuated the group patrolled the town, when they came back the group restricted its activities to keeping watch over the plains from its office. Either way, the group has never sought to fight IS, and if anyone had volunteered for the ADM with that aim, they would have been disappointed. Both Dwekh Nawsha and the ADM force in Alqosh numbered 100 men, according to the article; when I visited both groups in early October, the ADM had 40 men in Alqosh and Dwekh Nawsha had between 50 and 100.

The MintPress News article is a flattering portrayal of Dwekh Nawsha, giving the impression that the group is more militarily savvy that it is, and that it plays a larger role than is actually does. "Each day consists of patrolling several villages on the Mosul Dam frontline, looking out for ISIS explosives that have been planted and keeping a close eye on the militants who lie in wait just a couple of kilometers away." The Mosul dam is far from Dwekh Nawsha's area of operations, and while Dwekh Nawsha do patrol, it must be stressed that they do so behind the Peshmerga.

I won't describe my own article here on the grounds that this piece draws on it, being the result of visits to the Alqosh ADM force and Dwekh Nawsha on 01 and 04 October, and to Dwekh Nawsha on 15 November. One issue is worth mentioning: like the AFP article, I failed to mention a third group, a militia force apparently of around 30 men in Alqosh belonging to the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), which I was later told performed a role similar to that of the ADM force: patrolling the town while the inhabitants were evacuated.

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi's article, published on his website and by the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), has good background information on Iraq's Christians and their situation between the Baghdad and Erbil governments, but suffers for being the result of internet research instead of fieldwork. He asserts that "the group's role seems to be primarily defensive, and evidence does not point to Dwekh Nawsha as a vital military force to coordinate with the Kurdish Peshmerga"; the group does try to coordinate with the Peshmerga, but its role is more focussed on guarding and patrolling, and the term 'defensive' perhaps oversells their role as they do not generally play a role on the front line. Al-Tamimi accepts the figure of 200 men; on 15 November the group told me they had a total of around 250 volunteers but on a rotating pattern, and only weapons for 50 men; their effective force is therefore not more than 50 men. In terms of the photos published with the article, three are worth mentioning: in one, Dwekh Nawsha members hold an APP flag, it should be emphasised that most Dwekh Nawsha members are not APP members despite the group being founded by the APP. In other photos, members are shown in front of a Humvee, and using a truck-mounted machine gun: Dwekh Nawsha has neither of these vehicles, which probably belong to the Peshmerga.

The AP article (the link above is to the Daily Mail's publication) also overstates Dwekh Nawsha's activities. The piece tells us that the "men of Dwekh Nawsha now patrol Bakufa round-the-clock, in the hope that the village stays free long enough so their families can return"; this is true, but Baqufa also has a Peshmerga presence. Baqufa, like the town of Telisqof a few kilometres to the north, was occupied by IS around 6 August, and retaken by the Peshmerga on 16-17 August; Dwekh Nawsha has only recently been allowed by the Peshmerga to base themselves there instead of in the village of Sharafiyya just south of Alqosh. Most Dwekh Nawsha members are not local to Baqufa or Telisqof. Furthermore, it captions a photo of the white, blue and red Assyrian flag as being the APP flag. It also refers to the Assyrians and the Chaldeans as separate groups. While the terms 'Assyrian' and 'Chaldean' are used at various times with either ethnic or religious connotations, the APP uses 'Assyrian' to mean the entire ethnic group, including the adherents of both the Assyrian and Chaldean churches, and Dwekh Nawsha membership is open to any (Chaldo-)Assyrian man regardless of church affiliation.

On 16 November Robert Fisk mentioned Dwekh Nawsha very briefly in his column: "I was intrigued to visit Syria's National Defence Forces (NDF) in Qamishli, far to the north-east of the country, which includes -- like the newly formed anti-Isis Dwekh Nawsha (Self-Sacrifice) group in the Iraqi village of Bakufa -- Christians as well as Muslims." The implication that Dwekh Nawsha includes non-Christians is wrong. (The entire article is slightly odd in that it talks about north-east Syria and the Christian militias there without mentioning the Kurdish YPG forces.)

Dwekh Nawsha's Current Position

At present, Dwekh Nawsha is found in the villages of Baqufa and Sharafiyya, and in Alqosh. They do not yet have weapons for more than 50 men, although the total number of members is higher with groups rotating between Dwekh Nawsha and in many cases their jobs in other areas of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. Some members are local -- for example, one is a farmer from Baqufa, others come from different regions, both in the KRI and in the IS-occupied areas. By their own estimate, around 70% of Dwekh Nawsha members have some military or police expertise, with some being serving members of the Iraqi military or police. Most are not APP members, and the group is open to any Assyrian man -- the group thinks in ethnic and Assyrian nationalist rather than religious terms. (On 15 November the group said that they had contacted the ADM force in Alqosh with a suggestion to collaborate but that they had not received a favourable reply.)

Until recently, Dwekh Nawsha was based in the village of Sharafiyya just south of Alqosh. The Peshmerga in the area have now allowed the group to base themselves, and to patrol, in Baqufa, just a few kilometres north of the front line. IS occupied the area, including Telisqof, on 6 August, and was pushed out by the Peshmerga on 16-17 August; the frontline has been stationary since then, with two major IS attacks and a number of skirmishes. The Peshmerga there say that they are able to go on the offensive but that orders to do so have not yet been issued. Dwekh Nawsha's leadership is keen to be more involved in the fight against IS, but the extent of their activities depends on the Peshmerga, which have not yet enabled a regular front-line role for the group.

Dwekh Nawsha is clearly a group with big aims, and the capacity to expand. Their activities should not be belittled, however, it is also important not to overstate their current role. With more funding the group could easily increase its reach. What they can do is limited as well by the attitude of the Peshmerga towards them, and the group is keen to expand its coordination and collaboration with the Kurdish military with a view to becoming an effective fighting force rather than a behind-the-lines auxiliary.

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