Before the Assyrians Had to Flee ISIS

Assyrian civilians flee in a bus the town of Tel Tamr February 25, 2015. Kurdish militia pressed an offensive against Islamic State in northeast Syria on Wednesday, cutting one of its supply lines from Iraq, as fears mounted for dozens of Christians abducted by the hardline group. The Assyrian Christians were taken from villages near the town of Tel Tamr, some 20 km (12 miles) to the northwest of the city of Hasaka. There has been no word on their fate. Rodi Said/Reuters

When I was 8, I spent a summer in Baghdad and Kirkuk with my mother's Assyrian relatives. My most enduring memory is of our extended family, cousins and cousins of cousins, converging every afternoon around an outdoor table for long lunches my grandmother was always cooking. We reconvened at sunset when the air had cooled. The talk almost always circled back to the same topic: leaving Iraq. My mother had already made it out, married an American and had American kids. Her mother, my grandmother, would eventually follow, as would other siblings. They talked about Canada. They talked about Australia. They talked about Sweden.

I also have other memories, child's-eye memories. One is of strolling through the weed-choked gardens of a former British private club in Kirkuk on the banks of the Khasa river, a tributary of the Tigris. We caught frogs in the ruins of a tiled pool with a dry fountain, and colorful birds twittered in the sunset shadows. There was tranquility there, but also a sense of abandonment that infused the adults. At the end of that walk, my mother was crying.

Another memory: One of our many uncles or cousins took my brother and me out into what we thought of as the desert–the vast, arid nothing outside of town that was so different from the verdant fields of Michigan and Illinois, where we lived. Here, we saw tiny flames dancing out of holes in the ground. These were the gas fields, the great underground sea that the British Petroleum Company had controlled when my grandfather worked there as an accountant. The Brits liked the Assyrians, because they were Christian, a fact of life that led to the Assyrians being hated as traitors in Iraq in the years to come.

It might have been during the walk in the desert, or it might have been another evening, when we were showed a different set of holes in the dry ground. They were half moon shaped, and as we watched in fascination, our guide dug at the holes with a spoon until their enraged inhabitants, large brownish-white scorpions, emerged, tails flailing. He scooped a couple of them into a bowl, so we could watch them fight each other.

Back then, long before Al-Qaeda and the wars on terror and the uprisings that toppled the dictators who held these fractious nations together, there were still millions of ethnic minorities–indigenous peoples who traced themselves back to ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization–in northern Iraq and Syria and southern Turkey.

They never had first-class citizenship under the dictators of Iraq and Syria, but they were able to live, work, advance in professions and go to school in relative peace. That all changed almost immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq. They saw their churches burned down, first by Shia in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War and now by ISIS. Soon, bishops and clergymen were being slaughtered. In 2008, the archbishop of Mosul was sent back in a bag, cut into five pieces.

Then the fleeing started in earnest. The Assyrians joined the massive stream of 51 million humans the U.N. refugee agency says is now on the move, from violence and climate change. For many, there is no home.

"We are fleeing from one place in the world to another," Nuri Kino, an Assyrian who lives in Sweden, says of the Assyrians. "I have followed families that fled Baghdad to Syria to Sweden, deported back to Baghdad, then fled to Jordan, then to Mosul, then to Erbil and are now stranded in Tanzania.

People without the means or energy for such an odyssey stayed behind in villages in Iraq and Syria and Turkey, and their numbers have dwindled to five figures in each nation from millions as recently as 10 years ago.

None of my relatives remain in the ancient Assyrian homeland. They got out long ago and are in the U.S., in Sweden, in Canada, flung far apart, and we, the younger generation, don't even know how to communicate with each other anymore.

This week, everyone with Internet access knows what is happening to Assyrian Christians in the small Syrian villages in the Hassaka region. They are at the mercy of the well-financed fanatical movement known as the Caliphate, or ISIS. To literally hammer home its victory, ISIS took sledgehammers and drills to the remnants of Assyrian culture in the area. Proud ISIS fighters videotaped themselves defacing the 3,000-year-old Assyrian kingdom's winged bulls with drills.

A general view shows a church in the Assyrian village of Abu Tina, which was recently captured by Islamic State fighters, February 25, 2015. Rodi Said/Reuters

This week, a delegation of expatriated Assyrians visited Washington, D.C. Their organization, A Demand for Action (ADFA), was organized after ISIS took Mosul last fall. This small group went hat in hand to a few Capitol Hill offices, including visiting the staffs of senators Ted Cruz and Dick Durbin, politicians who have significant Assyrian ethnic voters in their districts. They also visited the State Department.

Kino, who founded ADFA, was one of the emissaries this week. He was an investigative journalist who specialized in child trafficking until last fall, when he called cellphones of relatives and friends in the Mosul area and heard people screaming in the background, gunfire and cries of "Allahu Akbar."

In D.C., Kino painted the Assyrian cause as universal. "I told them they need to rescue not just the Assyrians, but the world from the worst superpower we have seen since the Nazis," he says. "The liberal media–we–get shocked when we say Nazis. But they are the same. ISIS brainwash youth about religion to get to petrol and the richest agriculture in the world."

Labeling their enemies by religion, be they Shia Muslim, Christian or Yezidi, has always been a mainstay of the jihadi recruiting message, and with it the zeal of a holy war.

"To remind the world that we are Christian is taking away from the fact that this is a strategy to brainwash people to help enlarge the Caliphate to become the superpower of the Middle East," Kino says.

He says he was surprised at how little the policymakers and staffers understood about the situation on the rich soil and sea of fossil fuel, a place prized and fought over since the beginning of recorded time.

The Assyrians who went around Washington bearing reports from Syria served their traditional role – as allies and guides through Muslim Arab society. But we abandoned them long ago. Ethnic and religious minorities in post-war Iraq and post-"Arab Spring" Syria are paying the heaviest price for a "freedom" American policymakers imagined and warfighters supported.

A small band of 800 Assyrians and about 3,000 Kurds are the only organized militia trying to defend Assyrians, and they are outnumbered and outgunned.

The strongest fighting force in the region is the Shia Kurdish PMU, which has been liberating ISIS-held towns for months, and will likely participate in an assault on Mosul this spring. No one can say whether the Shia and the Sunni tribes who have been protecting the minorities–all groups equally under threat by ISIS fanatics–can be welded into a fighting force that includes and protects the indigenous peoples of Mesopotamia.

Policymakers in Washington, confronted with another wave of atrocity and ethnic cleansing, or–as the Assyrians are calling it–genocide, have the strategic equivalent of a bowl of scorpions to work with.