America and Syria’s Christians

June 21, 2017

In March 2015, the end came for the Christians in Idlib province. A rebel coalition led by Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, captured the provincial capital, giving them control over the whole region. Soon after, they began kidnapping priests, desecrating churches, killing Christians for selling alcohol, and ordering other Christians to convert to Islam. Within weeks, “all of the Christians of Idlib—about 150 families—had fled.” By 2016, Idlib was a place where “schools have been segregated, women forced to wear veils, and posters of Osama bin Laden hung on the walls.”

How was al Qaeda, the sworn enemy of America and the world’s most hunted terrorist organization, able to seize an entire Syrian province?

Partly, with American weapons.

Fighting alongside al Qaeda were rebels backed by the United States, armed with American-made antitank missiles. In the battle for Idlib, those missiles made the difference, repelling regime tanks that tried to stop the rebel advance. The fate of the nearly 2,000-year-old Christian community in Idlib was sealed.

In Syria’s civil war, half-a-million people have been killed and eleven million have fled their homes. The war is enormously complicated. It confounds politicians and ideologies on all sides, refusing to fit into anyone’s picture of what the world looks like. But for American Christians, perhaps the most confounding thing about Syria is (or should be) that in this war, our government and our Syrian brothers and sisters in Christ are mostly on opposite sides.

Before the war, Syria was a corrupt dictatorship with an omnipresent secret police force. Political prisoners languished in hidden prisons and millions suffered from chronic poverty, while the ruling class flaunted its wealth.

For the average person, however, Syria was also very safe. Alawite Muslims and other Shi’ite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Druzes, Christians, and Yazidis lived together and practiced their religions openly and in peace. On Easter, Christians held parades in Damascus, singing songs and hoisting crosses. Christians who had converted from Islam faced harassment and violence from the police, but the millions of Christians whose families had lived in Syria since the time of the Apostle Paul met very little of the discrimination and terror that stalks Christians in Egypt, Pakistan, and other Middle Eastern countries. In one of my previous articles, I described how nearly 90% of Iraqi Christians fled their homeland after the American invasion. Most of them went to Syria.

In March 2011, protestors rose up against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. They wanted the same things as people everywhere: legal justice, an accountable government, free speech, and a chance at benefitting from their country’s growing prosperity. The regime responded with bullets, tanks, and torture. Some Syrian soldiers defected and began helping civilians fight back. By June 2011, Syria was in a civil war.

Where Syria’s protestors saw a chance at freedom, the U.S. and its allies saw a chance to change the balance of power in the Middle East. To oversimplify, the main Middle Eastern allies of the U.S.—the countries that host our troops, buy our weapons, and in some cases, sell us our oil—are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Israel. (As I write this, it seems this alliance is beginning to fray.)

Opposing this alliance was the “axis of resistance”—Iran, the new Iraqi government, the Lebanese terrorist group/political party Hezbollah, and the Assad regime in Syria, backed by Russia. When the revolution broke out in Syria, the U.S. and its allies tried to use it to break, or at least weaken, the “axis of resistance.”

Beginning in 2011, the United States and its allies started bringing weapons to the rebels in Syria. By March 2013, they had already delivered 3,500 tons of weapons by plane (in just one of the operations we know about). And, just as they did when they supported the rebellion against Afghanistan’s communist government in the 1980s and 90s, the U.S. and its allies turned to an old strategy: jihad. In October 2012, the New York Times reported that most of the weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar were going to “hard-line Islamic jihadists.”

These jihadists, many of them veterans of al Qaeda’s war in Iraq, were more experienced, more brutal, and—thanks to U.S. allies—better funded and better armed. They quickly squeezed most of the pro-democracy forces out of the revolution, kidnapping and killing human rights activists who refused to cooperate. They massacred Alawite Muslims and Druzes, drove Christians out of their homes, and declared their intention to “purify” Syria of the “filth and abomination” of Shi’ite Muslims. Altogether, they had nearly a third of Syria’s population in their sights.

By the middle of 2012, “the vast majority of the Syrian insurgency” was coordinating with al Qaeda, the strongest player on the scene. In April 2013, one faction of al Qaeda in Syria broke off and started calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

While the U.S. claimed to “vet” the rebel groups it was supporting to make sure they didn’t cooperate with al Qaeda, the reality is that nearly all of them did—and said so openly. Moreover, ISIS and al Qaeda were directly supported by the U.S. allies of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Vice President Joe Biden admitted so, publicly. The American government knew this was happening, but throughout all of 2013, “officials’ general response a collective shrug.” For a time, at least, al Qaeda and ISIS were just too valuable as a weapon against the Assad regime and Iran to make a big fuss about.

American diplomats often repeat the mantra, “Assad must go.” Indeed, Assad must go. More than that, he must be tried for crimes against humanity, including the killing of young children with nerve gas. But American strategy has made that nearly impossible. The rise of the jihadists in Syria has led millions of Syrians to cling to the Assad regime for protection. Assad may be widely hated in Syria, but as long as he is the only alternative to radicals set on killing or driving 30% of Syrians from the country, he will have enough support to keep him in power.

Meanwhile, just as they did in Iraq in the 1990s, the U.S. and the European Union have imposed harsh economic sanctions on Syria, including on its energy sector and banks. As a result, the value of the Syrian pound has plummeted, food prices and job losses have skyrocketed, medicine has become harder to buy, and electricity and water shortages have become a part of daily life. Many Syrians who live in areas of the country that are still peaceful have to flee anyway, just to find work, or the medication they need to stay alive. A leaked UN report last spring warned that the sanctions might “create a new catastrophe in terms of crippling economic and humanitarian effects,” and the director of the World Health Organization in Damascus claims that the sanctions have made it harder for Syrian children suffering from cancer to get the drugs they need. Unlike those children, the murderous Assad government has been weakened very little by these sanctions.

For Syrian Christians, all this has been devastating. Church leaders estimate that as many as half of Syria’s Christians have now left the country. In rebel-held territory, there are no intact Christian communities left at all.

What is the response of the American church? Mostly, the sound of crickets chirping. (The Economist magazine, more polite than me, calls it “muffled and contradictory.”) Condemning ISIS and raising money for refugees is easy. Criticizing U.S. foreign policy is hard—too hard, it seems, for most American Christian leaders to contemplate. When reality doesn’t match our pre-conceived narratives about persecution, we prefer to change the subject.

The story of the Christian town of Sadad, about 60 miles northeast of Damascus, sums up the dilemma. In October 2013, ISIS (not yet famous) teamed up with U.S.-backed rebels to attack Sadad. They destroyed the town’s churches and killed 41 Christian civilians. When government forces finally retook the town a week later, some Syrian soldiers noticed a strange smell coming from a well near a house. They opened it, and pulled out the bodies of an entire Christian family.

In October 2015, ISIS attacked Sadad again. By then, the United States had already been bombing ISIS for fourteen months. Nevertheless, as ISIS drove across the Syrian desert towards Damascus that summer, they found their path clear, unmolested by American bombs. Secretary of State John Kerry would later be caught on tape talking to Syrian opposition leaders, trying to explain why: “We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage, uh, you know, that Assad might then negotiate.” Once again, the U.S. was trying to use ISIS to pressure Assad and weaken Iran. During this offensive, ISIS captured the town of al-Qaryatain, where they murdered more than twenty Christians.

At Sadad, however, ISIS was beaten back. This time, the town was defended – with reinforcements from Hezbollah.

Like I said—the war in Syria confounds everyone’s politics.

The image of an Iranian-backed terrorist group saving a Christian village from ISIS, while the U.S. deliberately stands back and watches, is more than disturbing. For most of us, it simply doesn’t compute. Iran, after all, is a charter member of the Axis of Evil, a country where converts to Christianity are sentenced to death and the police raid churches on Christmas. America is the Light of the World, the City on a Hill. What is going on?

The only way to make sense of this crisis is to stop looking at it through American eyes, and start looking at it through the eyes of Syrian Christians. To do that, we will have to listen.

Father Elias Hanout, a Christian priest in a town threatened by al Qaeda, says, “It’s simple. If the West wants Syria to remain a country for Christian people, then help us to stay here; stop arming terrorists.”

Father Jacques Mourad, a priest who was kidnapped by ISIS and later escaped, says, “If the world is really serious about putting an end to the ravages of the fanatics, then it will have to stop doing business with Saudi Arabia. Because that is where the funding and weapons for ISIS are coming from. Bombing achieves nothing.”

Father Ziad Hilal, a Syrian Jesuit priest working in Aleppo, says, “When the armed conflict erupted, regional and global powers took a side and did not hesitate to support it with money, weapons and fighters… What every Syrian wishes and prays for is for fighting to stop and for reconciliation among the fighting parties.”

In September 2013, a Syrian Christian woman confronted Senator John McCain over his support for the rebels: “I have a cousin who is eighteen years old, just was killed ten days ago by the so-called rebels and al Qaeda!… We refuse to be forced to leave and flee and be considered collateral damage!”

In August 2016, the leaders of Syria’s three largest churches signed a joint statement, asking the U.S. and the European Union to lift the sanctions on Syria.

They are waiting for our answer.

I wish I could end on a positive note. Alas, the Trump administration seems even more determined to use Syria as a chessboard for its battle with Iran than the Obama administration was. Under President Trump, the U.S. has bombed the Syrian government and its allies four separate times. The most recent bombings seem designed to prevent the Syrian army from retaking too much land from ISIS. According to one report, the CIA has begun a new round of funding for al Qaeda-linked rebel groups in Idlib, while asking those same rebels not to participate in peace talks. President Trump has embraced the regimes in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, in addition to calling for a new alliance to isolate Iran and “stamp out” the threat it poses. If these trends continue—or worse, if the U.S. gets drawn into a shooting war with Iran or Syria—there will be no peace in Syria, and no future for its Christians.

The troubles aren’t likely to resolve anytime soon. But in the meantime, we—all of us—should be asking our leaders, our representatives, for three things:

  • An end to all support for anti-Christian terrorist groups in Syria, their armed allies, and their supporters. A bipartisan group of legislators in the Senate and the House of Representatives has introduced a bill to do just that. Where does your representative stand on it?
  • An end to the unilateral economic sanctions on Syria.
  • A commitment to real talks with Russia and Iran to end the war in Syria, without political prerequisites.

Syria is complicated. But American Christians shouldn’t use that complexity as an excuse for silence.

About the Author
  • Joel Veldkamp is a PhD student in history at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. He lived in Syria from September 2010-May 2011, and has worked for Christian Solidarity International since September 2011. His views are his own.

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