Assyrian Christians in the Fight Against ISIS


NPU commanders with SOLI founder Matthew VanDyke at Manila Training Center in Iraq

NPU commanders with SOLI founder Matthew VanDyke at Manila Training Center in Iraq

Sons of Liberty International (SOLI) is the first security contracting firm run as a non-profit. SOLI provides free security consulting and training services to vulnerable populations to enable them to defend themselves against terrorist and insurgent groups. SOLI was founded in response to the deaths of my friends James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were beheaded by ISIS in Syria in 2014. Having witnessed the failure of the international community to deal with security crises involving authoritarian regimes and terrorist groups, it became apparent that a non-state initiative could be instrumental by stepping in where the international community failed.

SOLI began operating in Iraq in December, 2014 with a covert training program for the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), an Assyrian militia of Iraqi Christians, and by closely advising NPU leadership. In January and February, 2015 training was moved to a Peshmerga base with permission from the Kurdistan Regional Government and the training was expanded to the entire NPU battalion of over 300 men. This was followed by a third training, a leadership program in May, 2015 for NPU sergeants and officers. This third and final training program for the NPU was recently covered in the longest feature article Maxim magazine has ever published, Exclusive Report: Meet the American Taking the Fight to ISIS.

The Iraqi government, recognizing that the NPU is now a trained and capable force, will begin integrating the NPU into the coalition against ISIS. Our mission with the NPU successfully completed, we will soon begin working with another Christian force in Iraq to assist them in similarly integrating into the coalition against ISIS.

In assessing our experiences over the past several months, we have learned a lot from our work with the Assyrians in Iraq:

  1. The Assyrian community in Iraq is exceptional. Demographically, the Assyrians of Iraq tend to have higher levels of education and per capita income than Iraq as a whole. Their work ethic is also more Westernized than the general population. This has made them ideal candidates for training, and they learn much more quickly than other forces being trained in Iraq.
  2. The morale of the Assyrians exceeds that of other forces in the region fighting against ISIS. Assyrians are eager to defend their homeland (the Nineveh Plain region of Iraq) and recapture territory lost to ISIS. The NPU has over 2,000 volunteers; their limitation to a battalion sized force is due to a lack of funding and supplies to field a larger force at this time. NPU soldiers requested morning physical training, studiously took notes during classroom instruction, and were eager to participate in all-day, difficult training sessions.
  3. Assyrians are excellent students for training. Having been denied the right to field their own military force in recent years, most NPU soldiers were recruits with no military knowledge or experience. They were eager to learn and train, and did not have poor previous instruction that needed correcting. We had no problems with egos, overconfidence, or know-it-all attitudes that can occur when training young men for combat. The NPU leadership, even those with previous military experience in the Iraqi army, were also eager for our instruction and advising, and were a pleasure to work with.
  4. The Assyrian community is less xenophobic than other regional minorities. Assyrians in Iraq recognize the need to form coalitions with other minorities in Iraq for mutual benefit and survival. The NPU is open to all Iraqis of the Nineveh Plain region of Iraq, and hundreds of Yazidis have already expressed an interest in joining the NPU.
  5. Assyrians should be utilized by the West in the fight against ISIS. Unlike the Kurds and Iraqi government forces, the Assyrian forces do not receive any Western support. Until recently, they were largely dependent on donations from the Assyrian diaspora community, and some Assyrian forces still are. Not supporting Assyrian forces in Iraq has been a serious miscalculation by Western governments, largely due to a misplaced fear of stoking sectarianism or following the desires of the majority Kurds, Sunnis, and Shias who fear an armed Assyrian Christian force in Iraq.
NPU graduation parade at the Manila Training Center in Iraq on February 18, 2015

NPU graduation parade at the Manila Training Center in Iraq on February 18, 2015

We at SOLI are very optimistic about the Assyrian forces playing an instrumental role in the fight against ISIS and in post-ISIS Iraq. However, there are challenges facing the community that should be addressed:

  1. The Assyrian community is not unified. Political divisions among the Assyrian Iraqis are devastating to their ability to form a unified, cohesive force capable of providing security for the Nineveh Plain region of Iraq. There are at least four major Assyrian forces operating in the Nineveh Plain region alone – the NPU, Dwekh Nawsha, Nineveh Plain Forces (NPF), and the Tiger Guards. Each is associated with an Assyrian political party or with the Kurdish Peshmerga. A SOLI attempt to initiate discussions between two rival militias to unify them in May, 2015 was rebuffed by both sides. As in other regional conflicts, most notably Syria and Libya, divisions are increasing as time progresses, and a unified Assyrian army remains an elusive dream. A unified Assyrian army should be the goal of all Assyrian forces in Iraq, as this is the only hope of resisting Arab and Kurdish aspirations for annexing Assyrian lands.
  2. Assyrian forces are plagued by interference from outside groups. This became evident early in our work with the NPU when two small organizations in California began issuing false statements to the Assyrian community and lying to the media about the relationship between the NPU and SOLI. Worst of all, these two groups in California even went so far as to repeatedly interfere with the training of the NPU. It is imperative that the leadership of Assyrian forces resist all attempts by outside groups to influence them – this is a duty they owe to the brave men they are leading in combat and to the Assyrian community at large who are depending on these Assyrian forces to protect their ancestral homeland. We praise the NPU leadership for having the courage to largely resist the influence of outside groups, even when repeatedly threatened by these groups that funding to the NPU would be cut.
  3. There is a disconnect between Assyrian forces on the ground and the diaspora community. The disinformation campaign of Lazar and Gardner was believed by a surprising number of Assyrians outside of Iraq, who repeated and even embellished the false information. This problem was exacerbated by the existence of false Twitter accounts like @AssyrianDefense which portray themselves as belonging to the NPU when they do not (the NPU’s only Twitter account is @NinevehPU), and individuals outside of Iraq falsely claiming to be spokespersons of the NPU. Such statements by third parties should be disregarded, as this has caused great confusion and a loss of confidence in Assyrian forces on the ground in Iraq, which has led to reduced donations to support the forces and potential complications for these forces when seeking international support.
An official NPU document about the NPU's great relationship with SOLI and stating that outside groups do not speak for the NPU

Official NPU document about the NPU’s great relationship with SOLI and stating that outside groups do not speak for the NPU

Despite these concerns, what we at SOLI have observed in working with the Assyrians of Iraq over the past several months has reinforced our confidence in the Assyrian forces to become one of the most important factors in the fight against ISIS and in the future security of Iraq.

In conclusion, SOLI has had an excellent experience working with the NPU and we congratulate them on their success. We look forward to working with additional Assyrian forces in Iraq to help enable their inclusion in the coalition against ISIS. We have great confidence in the Assyrian people and will continue to work hard for their noble aspirations of security and self-determination.

Long live the Nineveh Plain

Assyrian flag




In Egypt, Have the People Overthrown Themselves?

This week’s blog post is at The Huffington Post

In Egypt, Have the People Overthrown Themselves?

“Many of the same protestors who two and a half years ago risked their lives to chant ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam (the people want to overthrow the regime) were now calling for immediate political change in a democratic system outside of the electoral process they had fought so hard to achieve.”

Read the article here

Please leave your comments on The Huffington Post website below the article.

Escape from Abu Salim Prison

Escape from Abu Salim Prison

One year ago today I escaped from Abu Salim prison in Libya.  I had spent half a year being psychologically tortured in solitary confinement, pacing in my cell, staring at the walls and fearing that this would be all I would know for the rest of my life.

matthew vandyke in maktab al-nasser prison, tripoli, libya

On the 165th day of this unimaginable hell, prisoners came to my cell and broke off the lock.  I escaped Abu Salim with other prisoners of war and we ran for our lives.

That night I was watching the story of my escape on CNN.

The world thought I was dead for most of the time I was in Abu Salim prison – I was missing in action.  Despite the widespread belief that I was buried in the desert, Human Rights Watch (HRW) advocated for my release and the international press covered the story.  Only in the last two weeks before my escape did the Gaddafi regime even admit that I was alive and in custody, but they still would not let anyone see me or check on my condition.

HRW went to Abu Salim a few weeks before the prison break and was told I wasn’t there.  I was there, and I was being held in solitary confinement under deplorable conditions.  The Gaddafi regime did not care what the US government, NGOs, or the international press had to say.  I would still be in that cell, if not executed, if we hadn’t won the war.

I had come to help the Libyan rebels, and then the Libyan rebels came to help me.  My fellow rebel prisoners broke me out of the cell and we escaped together.  There was no outside intervention to save me from the horrors of Abu Salim.

A few days after my escape, I was at the Corinthia Hotel as a guest of the rebel government and I came under intense pressure, especially from HRW, to leave Libya.  The international press started calling my mother telling her to convince me to leave as well.  The press was confused about why I was still in Tripoli days after escaping from Abu Salim prison, as if I was waiting for something.

I was waiting for something – for Nouri.  Nouri Fonas was my friend of four years with whom I had been serving in the rebel forces before I was captured.  Transportation was difficult and it took Nouri a few days to arrive from Benghazi.  Soon after he arrived, we left Tripoli together.

The press and HRW had no idea where I went.  They assumed I had conceded to their demands and gone home.

Instead, Nouri and I spent one night in Benghazi, paid a visit to the Ministry of Defence, and then headed back to the front line.  We joined the Ali Hassan al-Jaber brigade, were assigned a military jeep that we fitted with a DShK heavy machine gun, and returned to the war.

freedom fighter Matthew VanDyke in the libya war

Just as when I first joined the revolution in March 2011, nobody was supposed to know about my return to the front lines.  My participation in Libya’s revolution was supposed to be a secret, a personal matter, but being captured and imprisoned in Abu Salim erased my anonymity.  I tried once again to stay below the radar when returning to the front lines after prison until a photographer spotted me as I passed through a checkpoint in the jeep.  The secret was out.

It was for the best, it turned out.  Occasionally, I was able to take the press with me in the jeep to the front lines so they could report on the war while I fought in it, giving them a safe escort in an otherwise uncertain conflict zone.  And thanks to our commander giving Nouri and I a lot of freedom to move as we wanted and fight where we wanted, we had a rare grasp of what was happening on the various front lines in Sirte.  We fought at many different areas on the front lines alongside various other brigades, making us a reliable source of information for the media.

Nevertheless, I was criticized after the war by men incapable of understanding why someone who endured nearly six months of hell in the notorious Abu Salim prison would return to combat after escaping.  To this day some of these individuals, from the comfort of their homes in Europe and the United States, have tried to disparage me for keeping the commitment I made to Libya the day I first put on a uniform in March 2011.

Their criticism speaks volumes about their character, not mine.  I told the rebels when I joined them in March 2011 that I would not leave Libya until the country was free.  I honor my word; that is how I was raised.  I would also not leave Libya before the men I was captured with were accounted for – they could have been in prison in Sirte or another Gaddafi-held city.  Why would I ever abandon them?  Furthermore, how could I leave Libya when there were any prisoners of war still being held by the regime?

These wars of liberation aren’t a game and there aren’t any timeouts.  The war in Libya, and the war now raging in Syria, are all-or-nothing pursuits.  As Omar Mukhtar said, “We will not surrender. We win or we die.”  As I write this, there are thousands of prisoners waiting in their cells in Syria, just as I was waiting in a Libyan prison last year. 

No amount of reporting, NGO press releases, or rhetoric will get them out – Bashar al-Assad doesn’t care what anyone says, just like Gaddafi didn’t care what any of them said about me.

This isn’t the time for observation.  This isn’t the time for politely discussing the situation at the UN, or standing at podiums issuing idle threats about what might happen if lines that we keep moving are somehow crossed.  We are way past going through the motions of diplomacy. 

Those thousands of Syrian prisoners – men, women, and children- are waiting for us.  Each day they stare at the walls and wonder if it will be their last.  I know the feeling, and I’ll do whatever I can to help them escape from their Abu Salim.

And I’m starting with this film.

Why Islamists Lost in Libya and Why Nobody Should Be Surprised

This week’s blog post is at The Huffington Post

“Why Islamists Lost in Libya and Why Nobody Should Be Surprised”

“Those who have criticized me for my participation as an armed combatant in the Libyan revolution, saying that I had helped deliver a country into the arms of Islamists and al Qaeda, have now been proven wrong.”

Read it by clicking here

Please leave comments at The Huffington Post website below the article!

Report on My June 2012 Trip to Libya

Report on My June 2012 Return to Libya

Spoiler alert – Libya is nothing like this: 

The Warriors movie poster

Contrary to media reports, Libya doesn’t look anything like this.

In June, 2012 I returned to Libya for the first time since the war ended. The primary purpose of my trip was meeting with Libyan government officials and mental health professionals in Libya on behalf of After The Revolution, the non-governmental organization (NGO) I created in 2012 to provide PTSD and other combat-related mental health training for Libyan mental health professionals and counselors who treat Libya war veterans.  In addition, I was taking photos and video for, an innovative startup company who I have signed an endorsement deal with because their services show considerable potential for helping the Arab Spring.

And of course, I also wanted to see my fellow veterans from the war with whom I had fought for months to overthrow the Gaddafi regime and bring freedom to Libya.

Almost as much as I wanted to see my friends and comrades, I also wanted to see for myself how Libya, which so many of us had sacrificed so much for, was faring as a post-revolutionary country.  The media had been portraying Libya as unstable, dangerous, and even precariously close to another civil war.  Opponents of intervention in Syria were using these reports to strengthen their arguments against applying the Libya model to Syria.  A few days after my arrival in Libya I was approached by a friend of mine who works for one of the most prominent and recognizable international NGOs in the world, who, in the safety of the opulent Blue Radisson Hotel cafe, told me how bad the security situation was in Tripoli, and how she would soon file a report back to her NGO to that effect.

Yet my Libyan friends were not complaining, and they live there.  They were happy to be free, optimistic about their future, and going about their lives as usual.

I did not come to Libya on assignment to cover a specific story.  I wasn’t under pressure by an editor to produce an eye-catching headline or confirm the well-established media narrative on the security situation in Libya.  I didn’t stay in hotels, I stayed with Libyan friends, as always.  Other than getting one coffee with some Libyan friends, I didn’t spend time trolling around the café at the swanky Radisson Blue hotel with other NGO executives and journalists, transitional government officials, or foreign businessmen.  I didn’t mingle with men in suits and I didn’t travel with private security or any entourage other than my friends.

My time was spent on the streets and in the houkha cafes, talking about life and Libya with a wide variety of characters – former rebel fighters, revolutionary musicians, Tawerghans and Misratis, Islamists, the wealthy and poor, dual-nationals, both a Human Rights Watch employee monitoring torture and an interrogator who admits to torturing prisoners and defends it as necessary, and occasionally a few of my journalist friends who happened to be in Libya covering stories or holding photo exhibitions.

So, what is really going on in Libya?


The security situation in Libya is, contrary to the false impression left by sensationalized headlines of incidents here and there, mostly good.  I left my guns in storage the entire time and routinely stayed out in Tripoli and Benghazi as late as 1 or 2am.  Without my combat gear, thick beard, and suntan I didn’t look half as Libyan as I did during the war and now clearly stood out as a foreigner.  Furthermore, I was occasionally recognized by Libyans as the American who had fought with the rebels during the war.

Yet, I had no concerns for my security.  I did not witness any violence, wasn’t so much as inconvenienced by a militia checkpoint, and felt safer walking the streets at night than I do in my own hometown of Baltimore, Maryland.

There are not roaming gangs of trigger-happy militia everywhere.  There are not routine gunfights in the streets of Tripoli.  There are not widespread kidnappings, terrorist bombings, criminal activity, or any of the other post-conflict mess that characterized places like Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years (as I can attest to, having travelled extensively throughout both Iraq and Afghanistan.  It was, in fact, a little boring at times.


Libyans remain optimistic about their future, and although they complain about politics, the fact that they can complain at all means that democracy is alive and well in Libya.  People no longer walk around looking over their shoulder, but rather they feel comfortable enough to voice their complaints openly and engage in political protests without fear of reprisal.

Some are dissatisfied with the elections, complaining that they know little about the candidates and that most people are just going to vote for family names or tribes.  One Libyan told me “thousands of people didn’t die in this war so I could vote for my cousin.” And he’s right – that isn’t what I fought for either.  But as I argued in my Huffington Post article Why Islamists Winning Elections Is Good for Democracy and the War on Terrorism, whoever wins these first elections (and they will mostly likely be moderates, not Islamists in the case of Libya) will fail to meet voters’ expectations and be voted out of office in a subsequent election.  Some of my good friends in Libya who have political ambitions and actually served in the war and deserve to win, are playing it smart and watching the power-hungry first election candidates walk into the fire of post-revolutionary disillusionment.

Generally speaking, however, Libyans are excited about voting in the election and being the masters of their own destiny for the first time.


Federalism is gaining popularity, not only in the East, but in the West as well.  I believe that some variation of federalism will be a part of Libya’s future, though to what extent remains to be seen.  The allocation of seats in the General National Congress, purportedly by population, greatly favors the West and has left many in the East feeling that they will effectively have little influence in the new government and remain under the domination of Tripoli.  There is talk in Benghazi of another war if Eastern federalist ambitions are not respected by the West. 

The federalists have made a major tactical error in choosing to boycott the elections rather than run and campaign for federalist candidates.  Turnout in the East will be high enough to make a boycott meaningless.


The Islamists are running in the elections, and they will win some seats in the General National Congress.  This result should not be feared by the West – even some of the Islamists recognize and appreciate the US and Europe’s help in overthrowing the Gaddafi regime (I know because I’ve spoken with some of them), and most are pragmatic and calculating enough to appreciate the need to have good relations with the West in the future.

Human Rights

As a former prisoner of war I am especially disturbed when I hear of prisoners being tortured in Libya.  I am also in the somewhat unique position of being both friends with an official tasked with reporting on torture in Libya for Human Rights Watch and a Libyan who has overseen or engaged in the torture of prisoners himself during interrogations and believes that it is necessary for the security of the country.

There is no excuse for torture.  That moral and academic argument aside, torture does and will occur in Libya for the foreseeable future, and much to the chagrin of those of us opposed to it, torture has undoubtedly contributed to the security and stability of the country.  There is no counter-revolution and no significant terrorism or other activity by Gaddafi loyalists.  Why?  Because anyone who was presumed to be a threat is in prison and when tortured they gave up other people, plots, and the location of weapons caches.  I know this for a fact from my friend who has participated in extracting this information from prisoners, and even though he and I had heated arguments about torture, I cannot deny that it has produced valuable intelligence that has helped to snuff out any potential of a counter-revolution.

Despite my belief that torture should be forbidden under virtually all circumstances, the fact that it is producing results in Libya, that it is ingrained into the psyche and life experience of Libyans after 42 years of Gaddafi, and that militias who engage in torture generally could care less what Human Rights Watch or any other outsider says, torture and other human rights violations will persist in Libya for some time.

Tribal Conflict

During my time in Tripoli there was fierce fighting between Zintan and the Mashashia tribe in Western Libya.  There was even a rumor going around Tripoli that chemical weapons had been used, perhaps white phosphorous, perhaps mustard gas – neither has ever been confirmed.  Additionally, the Toubou and Zwai tribes have been shooting each other in Kufra for months. 

The root causes of these conflicts pre-date the revolution and many of them cannot be resolved.  Eventually the tribes will reach an agreement among themselves and a fragile peace will be restored in these areas.  These isolated conflicts are not a substantial threat to the stability and security of Libya as a nation.

That is the truth about Libya.  Tripoli doesn’t look like a scene from the film The Warriors and Al Qaeda hasn’t taken over the East of the country.  The Muslim Brotherhood won’t do nearly as well in the elections as uninformed commentators and analysts in the West fear.  And Libya isn’t going to fracture into fiefdoms and city-states.

Most importantly, Libya is a success story of historical proportions and should be viewed as the most compelling argument for international intervention in Syria to ensure that next year Syrians cast their votes in a free, democratic country also.

Libya election poster with a post with bulletholes in it in the foreground

Photo I took at Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli, Libya in June, 2012 of a High National Election Commission poster, with a signpost riddled with bulletholes in the foreground. These elections came at a great cost in lives and I wish Libya the best as Libyans take the next step in achieving democracy.

The Wonderful Disaster That Is Egypt’s Presidential Election

The Wonderful Disaster That Is Egypt’s Presidential Election

My article this week is at The Huffington Post. Click below to read it:

“The lapdog of a brutal dictator versus an Islamist in Egypt’s presidential elections sure makes our Presidential elections look boring.”

Read more at The Huffington Post HERE

Russian and Chinese Arms Sales to Authoritarian Regimes – Part 2 (China)

Russian and Chinese Arms Sales to Authoritarian Regimes – Part 2 (China)

China: The Evil Twin?

This article is Part 2 of Russian and Chinese Arms Sales to Authoritarian Regimes.  Part 1 can be found here.

This article is also available in Arabic (العربية) at Free Syrian Translators

As Russia equips the world’s authoritarian regimes with the means to discourage Western intervention, China is selling them one of the worst tools of oppression against their own people: artillery.

(Artillery, as defined by the FAS report, includes field and air defense artillery, mortars, rocket launchers and recoiless rifles and FROG launchers 100mm and over)

Artillery sold by China (2003-2010): 1,890

Artillery sold by the US (2003-2010): 390

Why artillery?  Assad’s shelling of Syrian cities like Homs shows how essential artillery is to waging an effective campaign against a popular uprising.

Map showing artillery damage after Assad's army bombed Homs Syria
Map showing artillery damage after Assad’s army bombed Homs, Syria

In Syria, the use of artillery by Bashar al-Assad has accomplished numerous goals:

  1. Artillery has allowed Assad to avoid the mistake that Muammar Gaddafi made – using airpower to bombard the opposition – which led to calls for a no-fly zone and eventually Western military intervention to remove the regime.
  2. Artillery bombardment allows the regime to kill not only freedom fighters but also civilians, reducing the pool of potential recruits and dramatically increasing the war weariness of the population.
  3. The large-scale destruction of towns and cities serves as a warning to the civilian population not to support the uprising, and discourages rebels from holding ground in cities because of the destruction the regime response will cause.
  4. Using artillery provides the regime with some plausible deniability of intent when civilian buildings are hit (such as hospitals or media centers) because it is indirect fire.
  5. Artillery allows the regime to bombard the enemy from a distance, keeping the army together so as to prevent individual units from defecting to the other side.

These Chinese artillery purchases are in addition to all of the Russian artillery already purchased by the regimes in the past and doesn’t even include the smaller mortars (60mm and 80mm).  Syria and other authoritarian regimes have acquired a truly massive stockpile of artillery rounds for leveling cities and destroying any uprising against their rule.

China has been particularly aggressive with artillery sales to Africa.  Algeria, Sudan, and Egypt (under Hosni Mubarak) have purchased the 155mm howitzers from China.  China shipped mortars and rockets to President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe despite international pressure in 2008.

When the regimes don’t have enough cash to pay for the weapons China negotiates trade deals for the natural resources of the countries, allowing the regimes to further pillage the country and the resources of its people in exchange for the arms to remain in power.  This is part of the reason that China deals with pariah states under sanction by other countries; in their weakened state the regimes are forced to enter into resource deals on terms very benficial to China in exchange for weapons.  This allows China to expand influence in the Third World and obtain resources it depends on for economic growth.

Protecting Their Investment

The Russian and Chinese arms trade with authoritarian regimes isn’t just about money and resources.  Russia and China view themselves as superpowers intent on spreading their influence throughout the world.  Chinese weapons are viewed as cheap substitutes for Russian arms and as a consequence they’re the budget alternative for many authoritarian regimes.  With China’s focus on economic power as their means of influence in the world this presents an opportunity for them to ship cheap weapons to the Third World in exchange for favorable trade terms, natural resources, and establishing a foothold in developing countries.

Mali, Sudan, and Ethnic Conflict in Northern Africa

Mali, Sudan, and Ethnic Conflict in Northern Africa

(also available in French here)

Africa, for all its beauty and rich history, has always been a complex and often harsh continent.  Hundreds of ethnic groups, some of which have hostilities that date back millennia, live in largely impoverished conditions in a forced co-existence dictated by colonial-era national borders.

map of ethnic groups in Africa

Ethnic groups in Africa

One of the clearest examples of ethnic and racial tension in Africa is the conflict between Arabs (and the Tuareg, who are Berbers) and sub-Saharan (black) Africans.  For over 1,000 years Arabs enslaved black Africans; estimates of the victims of the Arab slave trade range up to 18 million.  Although the Arab slave trade began to rapidly decline in the 1960s Mauritania did not criminalize slavery until 2007 and even today tens of thousands of Africans remain enslaved through bonded labor or other forms of slavery in the region (it is estimated that 8% of Nigeriens and 10-20% of Mauritanians are slaves).  Beyond this predatory relationship, interaction between Arabs/Tuaregs and black Africans was somewhat limited by the vast expanse of the Sahara desert which acted as a natural buffer zone.

That began to change in the 1800s during the “Scramble for Africa” when European powers colonized and carved the continent into what became (for the most part) the modern national borders.  Arabs, Tuareg and black Africans were lumped together in a band of French and British territory stretching straight across the southern expanse of the Sahara that later became the current states of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Sudan.

map of the European colonies in Africa

How the European Colonialists Created the Borders of Africa

In the past decade four of these countries (Mali, Niger, Sudan and Chad) have experienced rebellions or civil wars fought predominantly along ethnic or racial divisions.  This is not to suggest that ethnicity and race are necessarily the root cause of these conflicts and that the racial conflict was inevitable, but the role of ethnicity and race cannot be dismissed either.  The ethnic and racial animosity that exists is very real and apparent to anyone who has spent time in the region.  These wars occurred for a multitude of standard reasons – politics, resources, religion, history – but it was often quite clear that ethnicity and race were determining factors when the locals chose which side to fight for.

The latest Tuareg rebellion in Mali claimed the desert north of the Niger River as the independent state of Azawad in 2012, separating the Tuaregs from the black Africans in southern Mali.  The previous Tuareg rebellion (2007-2009) occurred in both Mali and Niger with the Nigerien Tuaregs demanding decentralization and that the Nigerien military in their territory be dominated by Tuaregs instead of black Africans.  Sudan fought two civil wars between the Arab-dominated north and the black African south, the most recent from 1983-2005 which resulted in autonomy and later the independence of South Sudan in 2011.  The Sudanese Civil War spilled over into Chad from 2005-2010 as mostly a proxy war between Sudan and South Sudan utilizing the same ethnic militias from the Sudanese Civil War.

Mali, Niger, Sudan and Chad should never have existed in their current form and the redrawing of borders in Mali and Sudan is long overdue.  There may unfortunately never be any widespread reconciliation between Arabs/Tuaregs and black Africans given the history of slavery, racism, discrimination and competition for resources in combination with literacy rates that are among the lowest in the world (a substantial obstacle to education programs designed to foster racial harmony).  Black Africans have been continually victimized by their Arab and Tuareg neighbors in Northern Africa for over a millennium, resulting in a hatred and fear that is deeply engrained.  Religious (generally Muslim vs Christian and animist) and cultural differences further exacerbate the situation.

Sudan and South Sudan are now on the brink of war after less than a year of separation, feuding over border demarcation and oil revenues.  Both sides are using proxy rebel forces and Sudan has conducted air strikes against targets in South Sudan.  If history is any indication, the violence will slowly but surely spill over into Chad as rebel groups conduct cross-border raids.  It is also likely that Uganda will intervene militarily and fight alongside South Sudan if necessary.  This would escalate the conflict into looking very much like a disturbing, regional race war.

In Mali the Tuareg rebellion is far from over.  As the Tuareg celebrate their declaration of the newly independent state of Azawad counter-revolutionary forces are assembling into militias of their own and revenge is at the top of their agenda.  One of my sources has told me on good authority that at least some of the militias are debating whether killing off the Tuareg fighters will be enough or if they should also execute the Tuareg women and children to prevent yet another Tuareg rebellion in the future.  The rest of the war won’t be fought by the Malian army and the Tuaregs, but by disparate militias that will rack up a list of human rights abuses that will dwarf those that occurred during the Libyan civil war.

What is coming will shock the world.

The only way to prevent these horrific outcomes in Mali and South Sudan is aggressive diplomatic intervention by the international community to force a settlement of hostilities.  Such negotiations must result in a legitimate separation that allows for self-determination by both sides.  In Mali this would mean allowing either the independence of Azawad or legitimate, federal autonomy.  The current conflict between Sudan and South Sudan is fairly straightforward (it’s about oil) and can be negotiated; however, the only long-term solution is for South Sudan to construct another pipeline that will free it from dependence on Sudan.  The mutual reliance designed to prevent conflict – South Sudan has the oil but Sudan has the pipeline to transport it – will only cause future conflict.  When China finally chooses a side (it supplies Sudan with weapons yet imports oil from South Sudan) and agrees to construct a pipeline in South Sudan that allows for the export of oil through Kenya, a permanent peace will become possible.  Reconciliation between the Arab north and the black African south is not possible after two civil wars that left over 2 million dead.

Unfortunately, it is far more likely that the Mali and Sudan wars will continue to escalate.  President al-Bashir of Sudan has vowed to fight the South Sudan “insects” who “do not understand anything but the language of the gun and ammunition” and Mali’s President Traore is threatening “a total and relentless war” against the Tuareg.  The only potentially positive outcome is that these wars will be so devastating to all involved that they result in the Arab/Tuareg and black African conflict being finally settled when, desperate to prevent this from recurring, both sides genuinely separate and wage their conflict purely on political and diplomatic fronts, from a distance.  This is the only solution that will fully respect the principle of self-determination and the only permanent one given the amount of bloodshed over the years.

The question is whether Niger and Chad, trapped in the middle of these two wars and having their own history of ethnic and racial conflict, will escape the turmoil unscathed.  If history is any indication, they won’t.