As the Islamic State continues to control Iraq's two "capitals of Christianity," American combat experts have taken it upon themselves to train Christian militia fighters to not only defend the remaining Christian villages from ISIS, but eventually go on the offensive to recapture the historic Christian lands of Mosul and Qaraqosh.
Sons of Liberty International, a group headed by Baltimore-native Matthew VanDyke, a renowned Libyan revolutionary and former prisoner of war, has been operating in northern Iraq since last December. The organization's main focus is training recruits in the Nineveh Plains Protection Unit, a militia made up of a couple thousand Christians, and prepare them to protect the Nineveh Plains from the brutal ISIS extremists.
"The purpose of the NPU is beyond just fighting ISIS," VanDyke told The Christian Post in a Thursday interview. "It is not just a short-term project. They have their eye on being a security force for their region from now on, and being able to demonstrate to their people that they will be safe and that they can stay in the country and Christianity can survive in Iraq."
SOLI, whose efforts are solely funded by public donations, also provides the NPU with frontline consulting, advising on media relations, supplies, and has also bridged a relationship between the Christian militia and the U.S. State Department.
The 35-year-old VanDyke further explained that his organization has already trained over 330 NPU recruits in its first three-week basic training course, which ended in February, and hosted the camp under the safety of a Kurdish peshmerga training facility.
Although the Kurdish peshmerga have become known for providing protection to religious minorities within the Kurdish borders, VanDyke asserted that the peshmerga is not going to fight and die for "Arab" land and have not been any help in defending the Nineveh Plains from ISIS. He further added that is why the NPU, which is the strongest and best trained among the three Christian militias in the region, has its eyes set on becoming a permanent regional security force.
"There is no other force in Iraq that had such high morale," VanDyke explained. "They really have the raw talent and ability to become the best infantry force in the country. Mostly, the Iraqi Army doesn't really fight because most of the guys there just collect a paycheck. The peshmerga don't fight because none of them are going to die for an Arab."
Since SOLI's last training camp ended in February, VanDyke took time to return to the United States to organize, recruit and fundraise for the company. After holdups with the NPU securing another training location and SOLI's lack of funding, VanDyke said the organization has finally received the donations needed to start the next training session in May.
"We have decided to crowdfund the war against ISIS. We give people around the world an opportunity to have a tangible impact on fighting ISIS, rather than just retweeting something or clicking 'like' on Facebook," VanDyke said. "They can make a donation to the fight and have their dollars actually contribute to bringing about the end to ISIS."
Among the 300 American applicants who signed up to help train NPU soldiers, VanDyke said only eight could be selected to join SOLI in Iraq in May, with three of them being former Army Green Berets. He fully expects that at least five of them will show up.
"We have really high-quality candidates now but we are always on the lookout for more," VanDyke said. "Once our funding grows and we are able to expand into other countries, we will be calling on more of that 300 or 500 or whatever that number is at the time."
Although all the training that SOLI has conducted so far has been just basic training, he expects to begin advanced platoon combat training with qualified Christian militiamen, which will provide them with the skills necessary to be able to go on the offensive against ISIS and retake the once-Christian cities of Mosul and Qaraqosh.
However, a Christian offensive on Mosul and Qaraqosh likely won't occur until months from now, VanDyke added.
"[NPU] hasn't been on the offensive yet. We are not comfortable with sending them to the front line until they have advanced training. We are taking a platoon of them and giving them advanced training and getting them combat ready and supplying that platoon, including paying the men's salary for that platoon," VanDyke explained. " In the Nineveh Plains, Qaraqosh and Mosul are really going to be the main targets, and a few villages, but none of that offensive is going to occur until months from now."
VanDyke noted that he hasn't not seen any "religious conflict" among the recruits that he's trained, and added that morale is high among the troops because they are inspired to boot ISIS out of their lands.
"Every one of the recruits has been high on morale and is there to fight for their land and their people," VanDyke said. "For the Christians, Mosul and Qaraqosh were the two capitals of Christianity in Iraq, and they are still under ISIS control. They are highly motivated to go and get their lands and get ISIS out of their country."
As Iraq's Christian population has shrunk over the last 10-plus years from 1.2 million to less than 300,000, VanDyke explained the historic implications behind the NPU's desire to reclaim and secure the Christian land.
"The Assyrian people are the original inhabitants of the country, and at one time they had the largest civilization in the world, and their roots in Iraq go back to pre-date Arabs or Kurds," VandDyke said. "The Assyrian Christian community, part of [their motivation] is an identity struggle, as well as religious."
Although SOLI will only start by preparing one advanced combat platoon to offensive ready, he hopes that eventually more advanced combat platoons will be trained.
Although the U.S. government has not taken an official position on whether they approve of U.S. citizens traveling to Iraq or Syria to fight against ISIS, the State Department is "pleased" that SOLI is working with the NPU, VanDyke said.
"The State Department is happy about that. They have no official position but they haven't had any objections, and they told the NPU that they were glad that they were working with Sons of Liberty International," VanDyke said. "They encouraged me to continue working with the NPU leadership. That is the extent of the endorsement but formerly they won't say anything."