A key access route connecting the Assyrian towns of Tesqopa and Batnaya in the Nineveh Plain has been blocked by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) forces since March 2020. Local officials told the Assyrian Policy Institute by phone that access to the route, known as the Tel Kayf-Alqosh Road, was closed at a KRG-controlled checkpoint earlier this year purportedly with the aim of slowing the spread of Covid-19. Other roads and major highways in the area have since reopened, while access to this route remains restricted. It is the main route for local civilian and commercial traffic between Tesqopa and Batnaya. Many have reported that the restrictions on movement have caused unnecessary harm to local populations.
More than three years since the liberation of the Nineveh Plain from ISIS control, security remains divided among various actors pursuing conflicting agendas, often advanced at the expense of local communities. The Nineveh Plain is technically under Iraqi Central Government administrative control, but KRG security and military forces are present and active in parts of Tel Kayf District, including Tesqopa and Alqosh. Security in Batnaya is presently controlled by the Iraqi Army. Thus, the route connects territory held by KRG forces to territory held by the federal government.
The strategic Tel Kayf-Alqosh route was first closed by KRG forces in the aftermath of the Kurdish independence referendum held in September 2017, but reopened the next year following pressure from US officials. Similarly in Sinjar, KRG security forces blocked access to Sehela Road, a major route connecting Sinjar and Dohuk for more than a year.
The continued closure of the road, which is seen as disproportionate to public safety needs, has limited access to food, water, livelihoods, equipment, and other essentials. Locals interviewed by the API have also alleged that displaced residents have been prevented from returning as a result.
In recent years, aid agencies have reported a pattern of repeated obstructions by KRG Peshmerga and Asayish security forces of humanitarian efforts in the Nineveh Plain. The continued closure of the Tel Kayf-Alqosh route has prevented aid workers from accessing Batnaya and neighboring villages to deliver essential support to the local Assyrian populations.
"We are unable to assess the needs of the families of Batnaya, and we are limited in our access to [the town of] Tel Keppe (Tel Kayf)," says Ranna Abro, Board Member of the Ankawa-based Shlama Foundation. "It is imperative for the redevelopment of the area that native inhabitants and nonprofit organizations not be restricted in movement by external parties."
The liberation of territory held by the Islamic State provided some reprieve for Assyrians and other marginalized groups, but security threats and a deep sense of mistrust continue to inhibit the return of displaced populations. The Iraqi Government and the KRG do not enjoy a favorable stance among the Assyrians; the Iraqi Government is seen to be largely neglectful of the Assyrians while the KRG is seen to be largely focused on its own ethno-nationalist agenda at the expense of groups like Assyrians and Yazidis. Post-liberation security arrangements have exacerbated their sense of fear and mistrust and have led to uncertainty about the prospects of return for those displaced by conflict and the likelihood of a sustainable future for Assyrians in their homeland.
A June 2020 report published by the API documented that local security forces constituted within an appropriate legal framework that strengthen the rule of law continue to be the preferred means of obtaining security. This dynamic is captured best by the differing rates of return to the Nineveh Plain: Where non-local forces dominate, return rates lag; when forces with pre-existing cultural ties to local populations are in control, return rates are significantly higher. Return rates to areas controlled by KRG forces post-ISIS are low. Learn more here.