Syria, and the conflict which is now shredding it, is a complex set of political objects, players, and misery. As such, any examination of the crises facing Syria’s Christian population must account at least partially for these dynamic forces that have developed into the current cyclone of violence and oppression.
The first set of assumptions we should displace is the idea that the rebels fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad are a group of westernized democrats who champion the rights and freedom of all of the people and religions residing within the territorial frontiers of Syria. They are not. Money and fighters from the gulf states, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, as well as Jihadists volunteers from such obscure and ostensibly uninvolved regions as Bosnia in the Balkans, and Chechnya in the caucuses, are flowing into the fighting at an alarming rate and provides evidence to the suggestion that this is not an internal dispute, or a “civil war”, in any real political sense but a proxy war being fought between the rich Sunni Islamic governments of the Gulf states and the last holdout of the socialist and marginally secular, formerly Soviet funded, Baathist Shia regime of Bashar al-Assad.
In light of these facts, an undercurrent of tacit if not explicit support for Assad has been seen within many groups concerned with the rights and lives of the Christian community in Syria. But like so many conflicts in the region, we are dealing with demons battling monsters. Assad is not a saint because he protected the saints of Syrian Christendom.
In my research I have watched numerous videos of combat footage from Syria, and even some executions that have made it to the internet. I have yet to determine what is more horrible: a gang of Syrian rebels shouting “Allah Hu Akbar,” steel eyed and intense, executing Christians in the name of Islam; or the lazy and dispassionate, almost sterile and soulless, secular eyes of Assad’s death squads executing a group of men for no other reason than that they are suspected of something. Proceeding to laugh and joke at the dead and mock their terrorized families and stripping the bodies of items, the dim eyed death squad moves along to the next region to be terrorized. Both are revolting in their own way.
That is the nature of this war now. There is little meaning to it. It is war on one side to maintain Syria’s status quo, and on the other to institute an Islamic State, where, in the words of one Rebel fighter, “Sharia will be implemented, Christians will pay the Jizya, convert, or be killed.” Indeed, some rebel strongholds have already established Sharia compliant zones from which the Christian community has already fled or been butchered.
In a report in the National Catholic Reporter, one 29 year old Syrian Catholic unequivocally declared that if Assad were to fall, he would leave the country. This would be a prudent and necessary move if the position of the Rebels is to kill Christians, convert them, or make them pay the special Islamic tax on non-Muslims. Often, the rebels just opt to kill Christians rather than bother with the conversion process or the tax system. They are getting plenty of money from other sources; they don’t need the extra cash.
In my previous article on the Christians of Egypt, I stated that “the Christians of Egypt will either be protected by dictators or butchered by Islamists.” This is certainly a specific condition of the Christians in Egypt, but it is also applicable to Syrian Christians, and is a general truism that has applied to the entire middle-east for the last century: where Islam is involved, for Christians to be secure, or any minorities, a dictator is required to keep Islam restrained. This is, of course, a dirty business. Assad is a brutal dictator and always has been. Syria has the unenviable record of being the worst human rights violator in the Middle East, and that was before the war even began. This is like being the best Nazi in the SS division.
Instead of a nuanced and enlightened approach to the Middle East, which the press told us this administration will be known for throughout the ages, President Obama has doubled down on his human rights failure in Egypt by deciding to fund and provide aid to the Syrian Rebels. The reason: chemical weapons may have been used by Assad. They may have. They may not have. And a report by the U.N. suggests that it was actually the rebels who initiated the attack. Who knows? But his “red-line” is more a trifling concern with the aesthetic than it is a concern for the freedom of Syria or a concern for its people.
A few dozen people were killed by chemical agents somewhere, by someone, within a war that has lasted two years and has claimed the lives of nearly 100,000 people. Many red lines should have already been crossed.
There is no moral reason why the United States should be funding and supporting the Rebels. There is, however, a geo-political reason. The Gulf States, with their oil, have a death grip on U.S. foreign policy. The Saudis very much want to see Assad fall because that would be a blow to Iran and its ever increasing aggrandizement and regional hegemony.
There are no winners in this game except for the Islamists. Either way, the Christians of the Middle East will continue to suffer. If Assad falls, the Christians of Syria are gone, and the Saudis will have won a great victory. If Assad remains, Iran, an Islamist, rather than a secular regime, which persecutes its Christian population without mercy, maintains a regional bulkhead and salient into the Mediterranean. But the Syrian Christians will be relatively safe until at least Assad’s death. Either way, a regime somewhere that persecutes Christians and minorities wins.
This state of affairs suggests that the belated involvement of the US in the Syrian war is a grave error and should be ceased immediately. It is a brutal question of outcomes; neither is pretty; both are heartbreaking; one is less so.
If Assad falls, we have two Islamist regimes bordering each other, Iran and Syria, Shia and Sunni respectively. In this scenario, the Christians of either country will in all likelihood be brutally oppressed. If Assad remains, the Syrian Christians will continue to live in relative stability after the country is rebuilt. Iran will still persecute its Christians, but we won’t have two hostile regimes, a condition that always leads to larger scale oppression, doing it at once. And we can pray that next time the secular forces of Iran rise up, as they did in 2010, Obama won’t so capriciously ignore their cries and true reform may one day come to the region. Right now though, without full scale military involvement and occupation of a region extending from Morocco to Pakistan, the MORAL foreign policy is the lesser of two very insidious evils: Keep the status quo.