Sample Concepts of a Christian-Shi’a Alliance in Iraq

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

With the fragmentation of Iraq and Syria primarily along sectarian fault-lines- principally that of the Shi’a vs. Sunni dynamic- third way ethno-religious groups such as the Christians find themselves caught in the middle. Lacking organizational coherence, unity and strength to form their own separatist projects, Christians in Iraq and Syria generally find themselves forming alliances with one major player or another in the respective conflicts. In Syria, two choices exist: the regime and irregular aligned forces (e.g. the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in Wadi al-Nasara in Homs province) or the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) autonomous administration. In Qamishli, the dichotomy of regime vs. PYD administration has played out in the split of the original ‘Sutoro’ militia of the Syriac Union Party (SUP), whereby the SUP loyalist Sutoro has tied itself to the PYD, while a ‘Sootoro’ in Qamishli is aligned with the regime.

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Merry Christmas from the pro-Assad militia Muqawama Suriya last year. For similar outreach and on the Qamishli situation, see this article I wrote.

In Iraq, discrepancies in Christian population by region mean that the main accessible actor to which the majority of Christians at the present time can turn is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). For instance, the Dwekh Nawsha militia active in the Nineveh Plains and tied to the Assyrian Patriotic Party- whatever ideals may be espoused of being able to achieve self-sufficiency in arming- finds itself heavily dependent on the Peshmerga. However, there is still a Christian population in Iraq outside areas of KRG control, and it is largely in this context that we find notions of a Christian-Shi’a alliance- something that has ample precedent in Lebanon with Hezbollah’s outreach to Christians (for the latest examples of this phenomenon, see this excellent report by my friend Kareem Shaheen of The Daily Star in Beirut).

To be sure, in Iraq some components of the Sunni insurgency do try to play up the idea of supposedly having Christians in their ranks, principally as part of a Ba’athist superficial cross-sectarian messaging strategy. The most notable case here is the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order/JRTN) of Iraq Ba’ath Party leader Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri’s Supreme Command for Jihad and Liberation. JRTN claims it is an “extension of the prior Iraqi national army” with members from all ethnicities and religions, including Shi’a and Sunni Arabs, as well as Yezidis, Christians and Mandaeans. Unsurprisingly, such a narrative hardly proves appealing in the face of the dominance of the Islamic State (IS), which has displaced all Christians from Mosul amid a dhimmi pact ultimatum. Though JRTN condemned the displacement, it did not denounce IS by name, opting instead for the conspiracy theory that this tragedy was all the work of the government in Baghdad.

Thus, it should hardly prove surprising that with the militiafication of much of the Baghdad government-aligned forces following the fall of Mosul in June 2014, Shi’a militias in particular can capitalise on the rise of IS and engage in outreach to Christians on the basis of fighting a common enemy. At the most rudimentary level, this takes the form of social media graphics emphasizing affinity between Jesus and Imam Ali.

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Sample graphic of Christian-Shi’a solidarity: “The Messiah forever and oh Ali, grant strength.”

Turning to specifics on the ground, illustrative of Shi’a militia outreach to Christians is the recent case of the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces, a group headed by Aws al-Khafaji, a one-time figure in Muqtada al-Sadr’s office who reportedly visited Damascus in support of the Iraqi Shi’a militias fighting against Syrian rebels. Indeed, it seems likely that his Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces, with similar name, is based on Syria’s Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas. For Christmas, Khafaji and his militia paid a visit to the Evangelical Church in Baghdad, with Khafaji delivering a speech inside the church and granting an interview. In the latter, he emphasized: “On this day, Christmas Day, we want to send a message to the whole world that the religion of Islam is a religion of compassion and brotherhood. The religion of Islam calls on us to protect our Christian brothers…Our religion is not the religion of the Dawa3esh [IS guys] that forced the Christians to leave. Our religion is not the religion of the Dawa3esh that destroyed the churches. Indeed we respect the churches….We defend our country, our lands and every religion present in our country.”

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“The Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces wish you a Merry Christmas”- featuring Christian-Muslim unity symbolism and the militia’s logo on the top-right.

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“Iraq brings us together. The Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces congratulate you on the occasion of Christmas.”

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Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces fighters outside the church with their flags.

An even more interesting case of Shi’a-Christian alliance in Iraq is that of Kata’ib al-Imam Ali and its creation of the “Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary Battalions.” The particular social media pages advertising this concept are not associated with Assyrian identity symbolism but rather Syriac/Aramean. The group is of particular interest because it bases the work with Kata’ib al-Imam Ali on the grounds of Kurdish betrayal and handing over of areas to IS. It should be noted that this sense of disappointment and distrust of Kurdish forces in light of the fall of many areas of Ninawa province is not limited to Christians but is also a sentiment felt by many Yezidis.

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“Syriac Sons’ Brigades”- a Facebook page promoting the “Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary Battalions” as part of Kata’ib al-Imam Ali. The page describes itself as follows: “For the defence of our land and homeland: Syriac Christian brigades.” The symbol used is employed by proponents of Syriac and Aramean Christian identity in opposition to Assyrian identity narrative. Cover photo features “Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary Battalions” insignia on left.

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Promotional video for “Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary Battalions,” featuring a procession with the Christian cross, flag of Iraq (right) and the flag of Kata’ib al-Imam Ali. Those marching in this procession are wearing Kata’ib al-Imam Ali shirts.

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The cohort of Kata’ib al-Imam Ali featuring the Christian cross.

The true size of this Syriac brigade is unclear, and it is hardly evident that it is some kind of major military force in the Nineveh plains. Nonetheless, it is of great interest particularly with the playing up of affinity between Shi’a and Christians. The promotional video features an interview with one Sheikh Ahmad al-Rubai’e, who emphasizes: “And we see that with the companions of Imam al-Hussein [key figure in Shi’a Islam] were groups of Christian soldiers, and today also the Christians go with whosoever supports Hussein.”

In the end, the two-way choice between the Shi’a and the Kurds for Iraq’s Christians was inevitable. Not all Christians are going to trust the KRG and its forces, and in the end, the Shi’a militias do not pose for them the existential threat from IS that has come to be the main authority in all major majority Sunni localities outside of government control. The situation is ever further from the ideal of a coherent, national Iraqi army to maintain order.

 

Comments (23)


1. Norman said:

Christian-Shi’a solidarity/alliance in Iraq? This certainly is a head turner, especially the Evangelical part. Of course, this must be kept from the Evangelicals in the U.S., who are allied with Israel, though that in itself is odd, considering the Jewish faith doesn’t believe in Christ. Who knows, maybe the answer lies with the ones who believe in each others faiths, not killing or threatening others to renounce said beliefs for the radical.

Indeed, 2015 is going to be an interesting year, IMHO.

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December 31st, 2014, 3:57 pm

 

2. Amir in Tel Aviv said:

Jews will take part in this alliance not very long from today. It is strange to think of Jews, Christians, Kurds and Iranians / Shia – cooperating together, but this is inevitable.

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December 31st, 2014, 4:27 pm

 

3. mjabali said:

Amir…

Minorities in the middle east should work together, there is no other way….

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December 31st, 2014, 6:46 pm

 

4. Observer said:

“Amir…

Minorities in the middle east should work together, there is no other way….

Jews will take part in this alliance not very long from today. It is strange to think of Jews, Christians, Kurds and Iranians / Shia – cooperating together, but this is inevitable.”

This is the ultimate proof that there is no such thing as Syrian National Identity or Lebanese or Iraqi or Jordanian or Saudi or Bahraini or Emiraty or Kuwaiti National Identity.

There are sects, tribes, clans, and mafias.

Just scratch the surface a little and you find millennia old hatred and racism.

What a wonderful final irrevocable admission

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January 1st, 2015, 7:36 am

 

5. ghufran said:

More than 76,000 were killed in Syria in 2014 according to SOHR:
ووفق الإحصائية التي نشرها المرصد السوري لحقوق الإنسان، فإن هناك 12861 جنديا من قوات النظام قتلوا خلال العام الماضي 2014، و 33278 مدنيا، بالإضافة إلى 15488 من مقاتلي الكتائب المقاتلة والكتائب الإسلامية.
وأكد المرصد مقتل 366 عنصرا من مقاتلي حزب الله اللبناني، و 2167 مقاتلا من الطائفة الشيعية من جنسيات عربية وآسيوية وإيرانية، ومن لواء القدس الفلسطيني، ومسلحين موالين للنظام من جنسيات عربية.
أما المقاتلون من الكتائب الإسلامية المقاتلة، والدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام “داعش” وجبهة النصرة (تنظيم القاعدة في بلاد الشام)، وجنود الشام، وجند الأقصى والكتيبة الخضراء، ومن يقاتل معهم من جنسيات عربية وأوربية وآسيوية وأمريكية واسترالية، فقد لقي 16979 منهم مصرعهم بحسب إحصاءات المرصد الموثقة، وأوضح أن هناك 345 جثة مجهولة الهوية موثقة لديه لم يتم التعرف على أصحابها.

12,861 Syrian soldiers
33,278 civilians
15,488 armed rebels
366 hizbullah fighters
2167 shia and non shia pro regime fighters other than hizbullah
16979 islamist rebels including terrorists from ISIS and Nusra
345 unknown

the numbers are obviously a subject for discussion and some may doubt their accuracy, however the numbers clearly indicate that civilians are paying a heavy price for this war and that the old label that describes the war as a “regime killing its own people” is too simplistic and just not true, more than 15,000 pro regime fighters were killed in 2014 according to SOHR (opposition)

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January 1st, 2015, 12:29 pm

 

6. ghufran said:

CNN on 2014 in Syria:
Joshua Landis, a longtime Syria watcher at the University of Oklahoma, says “The Somalia-izaton of the country is inevitable so long as the international community degrades all centers of power in Syria and the opposition fails to unite.”
I hope to hear from Joshua on the part related to centers of powers being degraded, I understood the second part.

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January 1st, 2015, 12:41 pm

 

7. habib said:

“Merry Christmas from the pro-Assad militia Muqawama Suriya last year. For similar outreach and on the Qamishli situation, see this article I wrote.”

How exactly is this outreach? Does the writer not know how important Jesus and Mary are for Alawites as well?

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January 1st, 2015, 3:13 pm

 

8. ALAN said:

The last two articles opened promoting indefatigable since four years of the term (fragmentation), and draw many maps to establish the possibility of using this term.
US and its allies worked to deploy hybrid war on the whole of the Syrian Arab Republic space, as and spent US and its allies GCC generous amounts of money to break ٍSyrian entity in order to implement the Yinon plan.
Syrian comment blog is persistently exercising practically hostility toward my country, and even the ears immersed in Engineering (fragmentation)
It is obvious that the above mentioned matter(fragmentation ), is the whole plan too, depend also on the Syrians continuing to be even more divided than they are now, and on the lack of any truly progressive mass. It may be necessary condition to remove it only when the plan will be well advanced, with consequences which cannot be foreseen.

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January 1st, 2015, 5:01 pm

 

9. ALAN said:

I recently returned from the Terrorism and Religious Extremism Conference in Damascus. While there, I had the opportunity to meet with Syrian militia leaders. What they had to tell me and show me confirmed some of my suspicions. I already knew that the United States had trained at least 3000 ISIS “cadre” leaders at camps in Jordan. Colonel Jim Hanke US Army Special Forces (ret) had accompanied me and spoke of this during the conference.

However, the militia leaders brought evidence. They had photographed not only ISIS dead but their identity papers as well. One group of 74 killed in fighting near Kobani included 15 Ukrainians and 8 Chechens. Others included fighters from Saudi Arabia, Yemen but the rest were from North Africa. There was no gloating over the dead despite the fact the exchange took place in a restaurant at the Damas Rose, a government owned hotel in Syria. There was a sadness, a solemnity about this as even ISIS dead, reputed to be mass murderers, looked no different than others, all young, bearded though many distinctly European…..
http://journal-neo.org/2014/12/31/something-strange-about-isis/

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January 1st, 2015, 6:05 pm

 

10. mjabali said:

Even my dog knows that the Syrian people became minorities within their land with time. Look at the Assyrians, the Christians, or the Alawites, or the Syrian Druze…was there more of them in Syria before? The answer is :YES

Look at the families that came to Syria 150 years ago, do we expect them to understand what is the Syrian identity? No… Do we expect those who were brought by the Turks to stand for a Syrian identity? The answer is NO

Whoever came to Syria 100 or so years ago can not grasp the full extent of what is the Syrian identity. They want to sell their homes and leave….no roots..

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January 2nd, 2015, 1:22 am

 

11. Observer said:

Very weak response. I would advise a return to the roots of Syria, giving up the US/Western filthy passports people hold so dearly. Never again setting foot in the US or the EU.
Please go back to Syria.

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January 2nd, 2015, 7:40 am

 

12. mjabali said:

Observaaar

Remember when you were shaming the Alawites for cooperating with the Crusades? Calling them traitors?

You called the Alewites traitors over and over because you claimed they cooperated with the crusades.. (Your family came to Syria 500 years after this and it is not understandable why you stick your nose into our Syrian history) …

I do not see the West as filthy. I really hope that that West is the ally of all the minorities in the middle east, especially in the time when your sect is emptying the middle east of its minorities. Of course you did not see what the Islamic State has done to the minorities in Iraq an Syria….

The only one who sees the West as filthy is the sect you came from mr. Observaar, so why trying to stick this on me. I always love the West and still do. The west for me is a savior from the barbarity of those who are kicking the minorities out of the middle east.

People from my sect had been in the West for a long time and we never attacked it or think or doing so….We are good citizens here ya Observaaar…

PS: I see the thumbs up fairy came to your aid….Ask him if he would buy your property in Syria?

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January 2nd, 2015, 7:58 pm

 

13. Observer said:

Just go back to your glorious wonderful Syria al Athad.
Simple. No equivocation. No issues. Your origin beckons. Your good citizenship calls for your return to the motherland. Bring civilization and western values with you, the country certainly needs it desperately. But first put your money where your mouth is and go back to the great wonderful pure Syria of old. Of course crusaders were welcome, any one would be welcome if one is persecuted, but the lesson was not learned and the oppressed have internalized hatred into almost a genetic trait and alas cannot escape it. The mental lock is final, the key thrown away, the view of the world is unidimensional and oh yes history oh so great a history is without a doubt already known and written and irrefutable.
Of course the West is lovely but Syria is infinitely more lovely.
One last point, an atheist does not have a sect. That is what is liberating for one does not have to continuously remain locked in age old mumbo jumbo.

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January 2nd, 2015, 10:27 pm

 

14. mjabali said:

Observaaaar:

The issue is bigger than your personal insults. It is about us the minorities of the middle east, including the atheists that you claim to belong to.

If you do not like me: too bad for you, your ego seems not to be able to let go the challenges I post against what you write. I am not really interested into being dragged to a low level talk like what you bring that ends up with insults.

Relax Observacion have another glass of wine and appreciate that there is someone like me responding to you.

Your personal insults does let me know for sure that you have nothing to say about the minorities issues.

As for you being an atheist, that is NOT true because you speak like a hard core Salafi when it comes to minorities.

What you said about Shia and Alawites is identical to what the hard core Salafi say about the Shia and the Alawites.

You even called for sectarian cleansing of the Alawites from Damascus; this is the same speech of the hard core Jihadis.

An atheist that talks like a Jihadi does not work. You can not fool me.

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January 2nd, 2015, 11:21 pm

 

15. Norman said:

The first comment under my name is not done by me, It looks like others can take our names.

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January 3rd, 2015, 10:32 pm

 

16. Norman said:

Indeed. But then, one would have to have exclusive use of the name Norman, before you could honestly make your statement, do you agree?

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January 3rd, 2015, 11:53 pm

 

17. Norman said:

I have been using that name since 2005, i think you can use another name or add a last name 🙂

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January 4th, 2015, 9:50 am

 

18. Norman said:

And , if you want to use my name, at least get better grades, it is insulting 20 against to 8 for. you know i have a status to keep.

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January 4th, 2015, 9:52 am

 

19. Norman said:

Gosh Norman the second, I’ve been using this name since 1938, so you’re the one copying, to which you should add a #2 after yours.

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January 4th, 2015, 9:57 am

 

20. Norman said:

As for getting better grades, let’s see: 2015 minus 2005 equals 10. Now, it seems that you’re in grade school, or you just like to play.

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January 4th, 2015, 10:03 am

 

21. Kimbelry Jones said:

Christians in Syria also fight within the ranks of the Free Syrian Army and specifically within the Syriac Military Council which is an Assyrian/Syriac military organization in Syria. This group primarily fights in The organisation fights mostly in the densely populated Syriac areas of the Governorates of Aleppo, Damascus, Al-Hasakah, Latakia, and Homs. On September 25, 2014 they aligned with the Free Syrian Army in the fight against ASSAD, ISIS, JABHAT AL NUSRA, HEZBOLLA, IRAQI MILITIA AND IRANIAN QUD. The Syrian Opposition to Assad’s tyranny runs deep and Assad allies come from across borders to support his genocide.

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January 4th, 2015, 2:42 pm

 

22. Norman said:

You must be older than me, i was taking about your approval 20 against , now 9 with,

Here it is 83. NORMAN said:

It seems that both sides think they can and will win, so both are hoping for the demise of Annan plan,

Dandashy is right, the Syrian Arab army is winning and taking over Homs, Next Qusayr and Rustan, they are moving decisively, they are even better in Damascus suburb,

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Good luck to you any way

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January 4th, 2015, 4:50 pm

 

23. habib said:

21. Kimbelry Jones s

Lol, what genocide?

There a thousands of Sunni refugees in Alawite areas. The army and government is mainly Sunni.

If you’re talking about a genocide against Salafists, then that’s just a good thing.

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January 8th, 2015, 12:25 am

 

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