As the conflict in Syria continues, Jayson Casper sat down with Miles Windsor, head of advocacy at Christian charity Middle East Concern, to discuss where Syrian Christians’ allegiance lies, whether those who fled the country may return, and how Christians in other countries can help.
Jayson Casper: There has been much reporting about how Syrian Christians supposedly support the regime, the opposition, or are neutral. There is also reporting about how their stance may have shifted over time. What is your perspective on how the hard-to-define majority of Syrian Christians should be described?
Miles Windsor: The first point to stress is that within Syria’s sizeable Christian communities, there are both supporters of the Assad regime and supporters of opposition groups, so it’s important to avoid blanket generalisations. And a second basic point is that for most Syrian Christians, and indeed most Syrians generally, political allegiance is usually nuanced or qualified.
“Improved security alone will not be sufficient to facilitate large-scale return of IDPs”
Although there are Syrian Christians who support, and are active within, opposition groups, most Syrian Christians tend to favour the Assad regime. This is certainly the public position articulated by most Syrian church leaders.
Such support has historical roots. The Assad regime has traditionally granted a significant degree of freedom to the diverse religious communities of Syria.
Please click here to read the full article at World Watch Monitor.
If you think American news is polarized, check out al-Jazeera. If you think American news pushes boundaries and aims to shape a narrative, check out al-Jazeera.
If you think news in general reflects the attitudes of its audience, then God have mercy, check out al-Jazeera.
I remember many years ago, when the channel was first becoming known to American audiences, I defended its professionalism and boldness to give voice to opposition figures often excluded by government and traditional media.
Since then the accusations have piled on that al-Jazeera is little more than a tool for Qatari foreign policy. Even journalists jailed in Egypt rail against the unprofessionalism and bias of the station.
But this video reaches a new low. The transcription is not complete, but it is fair. It is a heated debate on whether or not a minority religious segment in Syria should be wiped out entirely.
To be noted: al-Jazeera selects a Christian to defend the Alawites, further aiding the sectarian nature of discussion. Also to be noted, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad comes from the Alawite community, which stands strongly behind his continued rule.
Thank God the debates in America are about gun control or marriage equality. But there is also a worrying fringe debate, creeping into the mainstream, against Muslims in general. God spare America this development. Look at al-Jazeera, and Syria, for the alternative.
Video via the Clarion Project. Click here if there is any difficulty in accessing the clip.
Here is a link to a well organized and concise description of the different actors present in the ongoing Syrian conflict, from War on the Rocks. If you would like a good primer, it is worth your time to read. Keeping up with the news reports and ever-changing developments is difficult.
Here is the general outline, with a brief excerpt from each section:
Russia happily incurs international opprobrium for backing Assad so that it can preserve access to its last remote naval base in Tartus, which remains a symbol of Russia’s global reach; discourage external interference in a country’s internal affairs; and, most importantly, remain a counterweight to U.S. hegemony in the Middle East.
With chemical weapons off the table, Assad’s external opposition in disarray, Islamists dominating the insurgency, and an American public unhappy with foreign wars, the Obama administration feels it has few options other than taking steps to prevent the civil war from destabilizing Syria’s neighbors and harming U.S. security.
Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia:
Assad’s three greatest regional foes—Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia—are divided according to their taste in proxies. Saudi Arabia favors more nationalist-minded groups, perhaps because members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1990s and the jihadis in the 2000s challenged the royal family’s rule.
Qatar and Turkey have worked together to bolster the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s sway over the external opposition, which has waned despite the two countries’ best efforts. On the battlefield, Turkey appears to have turned a blind eye to Sunni jihadis gaining access to northern Syria while Qatar is widely alleged to have supported conservative Salafi Islamist militias united under the Islamic Front.
Iran has demonstrated the seriousness of its commitment to sustaining the Assad regime by helping provide cut-price fuel and weapons and deploying members of its armed forces, including the special Quds Force, to train Syrian paramilitaries and coordinate military operations against the rebels.
The Syrian government is militarily and politically stronger than its opponents. The U.S. reversal in September 2013 of its threat of punitive strikes in favor of the signing of an agreement to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles awarded President Assad diplomatic leverage to play for time and stymie a peace accord. Unless the balance of power changes, Assad will continue to be defended on the international stage by Russia and draw military and financial sustenance from Iran. With such an advantageous position, the regime’s delegation at Geneva played it slow to ensure the opposition got little of any benefit from attending.
An assessment of the Syrian military’s performance in 2012 revealed that the Syrian Arab Army lacked the numerical and command capacity to sustain effective operations in multiple domestic theaters. Beginning in mid-to-late 2012, the SAA—with apparent training and coordinating assistance from the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps—began merging existing “popular committee” local protection militias into an organized, trained, and salaried paramilitary force, the National Defense Force (NDF). Since then, the NDF has become a critical part of the Syrian military structure, usually used to hold seized ground and to bolster coordinated offensives.
The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) is the main body representing various factions of the Syrian opposition outside Syria. Internal infighting between rival groups has structurally weakened the organization. The infighting came to a head on 18 January 2014 when a third of its members boycotted a vote to attend the Geneva II talks. One of the SNC’s main components, the Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council, withdrew from the coalition as a consequence. The infighting is a result of conflicts among the factions’ regional backers or irreconcilable differences over the future of Syria.
Free Syrian Army / Supreme Military Council
The FSA has not represented a distinct military organization for a long time now. Today, the FSA name represents more of a brand or umbrella with which primarily nationalist and often secular groups associate themselves. The SMC, meanwhile, presents itself as a coherent structure with organized local, provincial, and national components led externally by Selim Idriss. The command structure, however, has not proven itself nationally and Idriss has been more of a distributor of military aid than a commander.
The Islamic Front represents the singly most powerful opposition military organization in Syria, with an estimated 50,000-60,000 fighters operating in 13 of Syria’s 14 governorates. The IF’s political charter calls for an Islamic state in Syria governed by sharia law, but is vague regarding the specifics of what this would actually entail. While all seven constituent groups within the IF are certainly Islamist, they in fact represent a relatively broad spectrum.
Despite its admitted links to Al-Qaeda, JN has since mid-to-late 2012 demonstrated a remarkable level of pragmatism in religious, political, and military matters. Its military forces consistently demonstrate levels of professionalism and effective command and control superior to that of comparatively moderate groups. While JN represents a numerically smaller organization than most members of the IF, its fighters often represent something more akin to special forces, taking a key frontline role in offensive operations. Because the group fights effectively and does not seek to dominate the opposition, it has healthy relations with all Syrian rebel groups from moderate to Salafist. JN’s widespread provision of social services to the civilian population through its Qism al-Aghatha (or Department of Relief) and avoidance of incurring civilian casualties in areas hostile to Assad has meant the group enjoys a surprising level of popular support.
Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS):
Since its emergence as an active armed entity in Syria in late April/early May 2013, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham focused on acquiring and consolidating territorial control in eastern and northern Syria, particularly in regions bordering Iraq and Turkey. As this proceeded, ISIS began establishing outposts further into Syria’s interior in Hama, Homs, and areas of the Damascus countryside, most notably in the Qalamoun and in Eastern Ghouta. As its influence expanded and confidence rose, ISIS began imposing its harsh behavioral codes and kidnapped, imprisoned, and sometimes executed its opponents. Public beheadings became common, as most importantly, did incidents of ISIS violence against other rebel groups.
The only two major players the article does not describe are Israel, as a state, and Christians, as an element of the population. This is likely because the article focuses on those actively participating in the struggle. Israel, apparently, is taking a wait and see approach. Christians, meanwhile, are understood to be pro-Assad historically, are sometimes besieged by Islamist elements, but are generally keeping quiet, careful not to be seen taking sides.
Of course, those following the conflict closely will likely take offense at some of the descriptions above. For those generally bewildered, however, I trust this summary is helpful.
I confess to not following every detail that emerges about the crisis in Syria, and ask patience from those who have who can bring more to bear in this brief post. Please comment freely.
But in searching briefly for a presentation of the evidence tying the recent chemical weapons attack to the Syrian government, I was disappointed by this article on CNN:
A declassified report by the White House does not divulge all details of the evidence the United States is looking at. And it remains unclear what the “streams of intelligence” cited in the report may be and how they were collected.
It goes on to summarize the result of the evidence, presented by Secretary of State Kerry:
“We have declassified unprecedented amounts of information, and we ask the American people and the rest of the world to judge that information,” Kerry told lawmakers Tuesday.
It “proves the Assad regime prepared for this attack, issued instruction to prepare for this attack, warned its own forces to use gas masks.”
Physical, “concrete” evidence shows where the rockets came from, when they were fired, and that not one landed in regime-controlled territory, Kerry said.
“Multiple streams of intelligence indicate that the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21,” the White House says in the declassified report.
“Satellite detections corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred. … The lack of flight activity or missile launches also leads us to conclude that the regime used rockets in the attack.”
Here is an analysis of the evidence from Reuters, carried by Ahram Online:
No direct link to President Bashar al-Assad or his inner circle has been publicly demonstrated, and some US sources say intelligence experts are not sure whether the Syrian leader knew of the attack before it was launched or was only informed about it afterward.
While US officials say Assad is responsible for the chemical weapons strike even if he did not directly order it, they have not been able to fully describe a chain of command for the 21 August attack in the Ghouta area east of the Syrian capital.
It is one of the biggest gaps in US understanding of the incident, even as Congress debates whether to launch limited strikes on Assad’s forces in retaliation.
The strongest evidence, they say, comes from a link between Assad’s presidential circle and the scientific center responsible for chemical weapons:
Personnel associated with the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Council (SSRC), which has direct ties to Assad’s entourage, were likely involved in preparing munitions in the days before the attack, they say.
A declassified French intelligence report describes a unit of the SSRC, known by the code name “Branch 450”, which it says is in charge of filling rockets or shells with chemical munitions in general.
US and European security sources say this unit was likely involved in mixing chemicals for the 21 August attack and also may have played a more extensive role in preparing for it and carrying it out.
Much of the US claim that Assad is responsible was initially based on reports from witnesses, non-governmental groups and hours of YouTube videos.
Perhaps my disappointment is conditioned by the long wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq, the case for which was built on faulty or misrepresented ‘streams of intelligence’. I understand that this work cannot be made public fully. I have a basic trust in the US government, but I also fear the behind-the-scenes maneuvering among world and regional powers, masquerading as concern over chemical weapons.
Here is an alternate explanation along with direct testimony, from Mint Press:
However, from numerous interviews with doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families, a different picture emerges. Many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the dealing gas attack.
“My son came to me two weeks ago asking what I thought the weapons were that he had been asked to carry,” said Abu Abdel-Moneim, the father of a rebel fighting to unseat Assad, who lives in Ghouta.
Abdel-Moneim said his son and 12 other rebels were killed inside of a tunnel used to store weapons provided by a Saudi militant, known as Abu Ayesha, who was leading a fighting battalion. The father described the weapons as having a “tube-like structure” while others were like a “huge gas bottle.”
“They didn’t tell us what these arms were or how to use them,” complained a female fighter named ‘K.’ “We didn’t know they were chemical weapons. We never imagined they were chemical weapons.”
As stated above, this article places primary blame on Saudi Arabia, while reporting how different nations seek to influence events:
More than a dozen rebels interviewed reported that their salaries came from the Saudi government.
Ingersoll referred to an article in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph about secret Russian-Saudi talks alleging that Bandar offered Russian President Vladimir Putin cheap oil in exchange for dumping Assad.
“Prince Bandar pledged to safeguard Russia’s naval base in Syria if the Assad regime is toppled, but he also hinted at Chechen terrorist attacks on Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi if there is no accord,” Ingersoll wrote.
“I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us,” Bandar allegedly told the Russians.
But it is not just Russia:
“They believed that Prince Bandar, a veteran of the diplomatic intrigues of Washington and the Arab world, could deliver what the CIA couldn’t: planeloads of money and arms, and, as one U.S. diplomat put it, wasta, Arabic for under-the-table clout,” it said.
Bandar has been advancing Saudi Arabia’s top foreign policy goal, WSJ reported, of defeating Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies.
Although Saudi Arabia has officially maintained that it supported more moderate rebels, the newspaper reported that “funds and arms were being funneled to radicals on the side, simply to counter the influence of rival Islamists backed by Qatar.”
But rebels interviewed said Prince Bandar is referred to as “al-Habib” or ‘the lover’ by al-Qaida militants fighting in Syria.
Certainly there can be misinformation and invented testimony on all sides, but the reporter for Mint Press, Dale Gavlak, writes consistently for the AP and has contributed often to Christianity Today. I have met her once and appreciate her journalism. She states, however, she did not investigate personally in Syria, but relied on a local journalist.
In the end, is this much different than ‘streams of intelligence’? Yes, at least in part, for the journalist is named. Unfortunately, as seen above, not all of his sources are. But the two accounts are almost comically different. The first builds its case on the complexity of the attack, the second on the incompetence of the delivery.
So what should America do? Here I will pause, for I realize that geopolitical realities are messy and our ideals, perhaps, can rarely be realized. In fact, perhaps, they must often be compromised. Among the regional powers listed above, are there any with which our ideals can rest comfortably?
So shall we choose between the least bad options, using language with which President Obama has described the recommended missile strike? Or should we just stay out of someone else’s fight? If so, it is not as simple as saying we will stay out of a civil war, since so many other regional agendas are in play. Should we let them decide matters, and keep our ideals from having any influence at all?
Goodness. I hope we have moral men and women in our administration making these decisions. But I fear that as long as our intervention is portrayed in ‘humanitarian’ terms, we compromise these ideals by not being fully honest.
I fear a situation as in Libya, where a mandate was given to protect the people of Benghazi from Gaddafi’s anticipated assault. Not long afterwards US-supported NATO forces went far beyond their mandate to aid the rebels and facilitate the overthrow of the government, even though, reportedly, there were no ‘boots on the ground’.
But tough decisions must fall to someone, and I am glad the president has involved Congress. Our intervention must now be the choice of the American people, for good or for ill.
Syrian church leaders have welcomed and endorsed the call of Pope Francis for a day of prayer and fasting for Syria on Saturday, 7th September. The Pope condemned the use of chemical weapons, along with all other forms of violence, and renewed his appeal for urgent effort towards a negotiated settlement rather than military escalation. The Pope’s call has also been welcomed by other religious leaders, including the Grand Mufti of Syria.
The Syrian crisis is increasingly complex, with the chemical weapons attack of 21st August a particularly heinous example of the numerous atrocities perpetrated by a range of parties. Widespread violence between Government and various opposition groups continues, including in the major cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. There are also conflicts between Kurdish groups and opposition groups as well as intra-opposition clashes.
The death toll continues to rise and the number of displaced people grows ever larger. The most reliable estimates suggest that at least four million are displaced within the country and that more than two million are officially registered as refugees in neighbouring countries (many more have not officially registered).
Syrian Christian leaders are appalled by the continuing violence and violations of human rights. Their consistent message is that a solution can only come through political dialogue and that all parties must prioritise the needs of the Syrian people.
Syrian Christians urge that we join in prayer for Syria at this time. They request our prayers that:
a. Peace, justice, and reconciliation will be established in Syria
b. Calls for renewed effort to find a political solution will be heeded by all those in authority and with influence
c. There will be effective provision for those internally displaced and for refugees
d. The international community will cease using Syria as a place to pursue their own agendas and act only in the best interests of the Syrian people.
But simply praying is not enough for everyone. Robert Miner is a friend of ours who lived for 26 years in Jordan, working extensively with the Program for Theological Education by Extension. With a small number of like-minded friends, he protested the possible strike at the American Embassy in Amman.
His petition declares:
Please take note that we strongly disapprove of the proposed US attack on Syria, which is soon to be discussed in the US Congress.
The cause of peace in Syria, as well as in the entire region, will in no way be furthered by an attack by the US and its allies on Syria, but will lead to further death, destruction, and the prolonged suffering of the Syrian people.
We demand the US withdraw its military and denounce these threats against Syria.
Thousands of Syrians, including large numbers of Christians, have fled from their homes, especially in the Homs and Hama governorates and more recently Damascus and Aleppo. There have been reports of the targeting of Christians by both government and opposition sides.
Several prominent Syrian Christians have been killed recently, including Defense Minister General Dawoud Rajha (assassinated in an attack on the National Security Offices in Damascus on July 18) and Brigadier-General Nabil Zougheib (assassinated along with his wife and son at their home in a Christian neighborhood of Damascus on 21st July).
Most Church leaders point out that any such targeting is not religiously motivated but is either politically motivated or is criminal activity for economic gain. Many Christians fear that radical Islamist groups are becoming more influential, and that this may lead to increased hostility towards Christians and other minorities. They fear that they may become more vulnerable to criminal activity, including kidnapping-for-ransom incidents.
Throughout the ongoing unrest, Syrian Christians have faced a dilemma of allegiance. They regard the current regime as having been a protector for many years and fear that any replacement regime is likely to prove more hostile. Yet along with others in Syria, they know that open allegiance to either the government or to the opposition could bring retaliation from the other side.
I try to keep my eye on Syria, without pretending to know what is going on, or summoning the effort required to really gain an understanding. In general, I am wary of foreign interference, suspect there is already much going on, and have unfortunately become anesthetized to the constant reports of killing. But as ruthless as the Assad regime appears, once protests evolve into armed insurrection, it is hard to take sides.
That said, I found this account interesting. Middle East Concern focuses on the state of Christians in the region, and I haven’t followed them enough to know how objective is their reporting. This one, however, reads well.
I found it interesting especially to note that one of the inner circle assassinated recently was a Christian. It is generally understood that Assad’s Shia-offshoot Alawite regime pulled other minority groups into its ruling ‘coalition’. The last paragraph presents well the state Christians now find themselves in.
I don’t envy them. Surely Christians are complicit in many of Assad’s crimes. The assassinated general’s participation in the regime was likely as a member of the Christian religious sect, rather than as a member of the Christian faith community. The line should not be drawn too finely, but it is fair to ask the question:
Strictly from the perspective of their faith, what should Christians do now?
The sect behaved politically, finding stability and security – as well as likely economic advantage – in remaining close to the Assad regime. The community may have simply accepted this as the status quo, honoring the king as the Bible commands, even when unjust. They may have paid ill attention to these issues of justice, but this is the case with Christians everywhere who are part and parcel of a nation’s fabric, as appears the case in Syria.
But now? The sect must be weighing the political advantages of remaining in Assad’s corner versus abandoning ship before it is too late. This report suggests they have adopted a stance of neutrality, which may be the wisest political course of action. There are landmines on every side, though.
The faith community, however, must be troubled further. Theirs is not a political calculation but a determination of God’s will. They must honor the king: Does Assad still qualify or is the conflict sufficiently ‘civil war’ to deny them a proper object of honor? Furthermore, does Assad’s behavior deny this categorically?
The sect must pay attention to repercussions. If the rebels win will they harbor an anti-Christian agenda? Will they exact sectarian revenge? Will they enact an Islamist agenda that limits their citizenship?
But the community should be less concerned with these issues. They must be wise, of course, but the primary importance is to do what is right. Then, if they must suffer for their choices, they do so in firm conviction God has allowed it to establish their testimony.
Ah, but what is right? This is an estimation we must leave in their hands. We can only pray they have wisdom to decide from the position of their community, and less from the position of their sect.
Egypt’s revolution, however noble and good, has been fraught with propaganda, manipulation, and conspiracy. Deciphering truth from falsehood is a near impossible task; distinguishing the ‘good guys’ from the ‘bad guys’ is a landscape of shifting sand.
At least Egypt is not Syria. There as well these complications exist, but with new reports of killing every day. If I were there I’d be pulling my hair out. On the other hand, if I were there it might be easier to identify ‘bad guys’, at the least.
I will not attempt to sort through Syria’s issues here, but I discovered an interesting document issued by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. As they compose a substantial part of the opposition to the Assad regime, it is useful to see their vision for a free Syria, here translated into English by the group on Facebook.
Whether it is true or simply further propaganda is anyone’s guess, however worthy of analysis. If I ever have clarity I’ll be sure to share.
In the name of God the Merciful
Covenant and charter
For a free country, free life for every citizen. In this crucial stage of the history of Syria, where the dawn is born from the womb of suffering and pain, on the hands of the Syrian heroes, men and women, children, youth and old men, in a national overwhelming revolution, with the participation of all components of the Syrian people, for all the Syrians.
We, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria – from Islam’s religion true principles, based on freedom, justice, tolerance and openness – we present this covenant and charter, to all of our people, committed to it in the letter and spirit, a covenant which safeguards rights, and a charter which dispels fears as a source of reassurance and satisfaction.
This covenant and charter represents a national vision, common denominators, adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, and introduced as a new social contract, establishing a modern and safe national relationship, among the Syrian society components, with its all religious and ethnic factions, and all current intellectual and political currents.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is committed to Syria in the future to be:
1- A civil modern state with a civil constitution, coming from the will of the Syrian people, based on national harmony, written by a freely and impartially elected constituent assembly, protecting the fundamental rights of individuals and groups from any abuse or override, ensuring an equitable representation to all components of society.
2- A democratic pluralistic deliberative country according to the finest modern thoughts of humanity; a representative republic, in which people choose those who govern and represent through the ballot box, in an impartial free transparent election.
3- A state of citizenship and equality, in which all people are equal, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, ideology, or orientation, going by citizenship principles which are the basis of rights and duties, in which all citizens are allowed to reach the highest positions, based on the rule of elections and efficiency.
4- A country that respects human rights – as approved by God’s laws and international charters – of dignity and equality, freedom of thought and expression, of belief and worship, of media, political participation, equality of opportunities, social justice and providing the basis needed for a decent living. In which no citizen is oppressed in his belief or worship, or restricted in a private or general matter. A country that refuses discrimination, prevents torture, and criminalizes it.
5- A country based on dialogue and participation, not on exclusivity, exclusion, or transcendence, all its people participate equally, in building and protecting it, enjoying its wealth and goods, committing to respecting all its ethnic, religious, and sectarian component, and the privacy of those components, with all their civilizational, cultural, and social dimensions, and the expression of these components, considering this diversity an enriching factor, an extension to a long history of co-existence, in a generous frame of human tolerance.
6- A state in which people govern themselves, choose their way, determine their future, with no guardianship of any autocratic ruler or one party system, and be their own decision makers.
7- A country with respect for institutions, based on the separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial powers, where the officials are in the service of people, and their permissions and following mechanisms are specified in the constitution, and the military and security departments responsibility is protecting homeland and people not protecting authority and regime, and do not interfere in the political competition between parties and national groups.
8- A country that renounces terrorism and fights it, and respects international covenants, charters, treaties and conventions, as a factor of security and stability in its regional and international perimeter. Establishes the best equal relations with its friends, in the forefront its neighbor Lebanon, for its people suffered – as the Syrian people – from the scourge of the system of corruption and tyranny, and works on achieving its people’s strategic interest and restoring its occupied land in all legal means, and supporting the legal demands of the Palestinian brotherly people.
9- A state of justice and law, where there is no room for hatred, revenge, or retaliation. Even those whose hands are contaminated with people’s blood, of any part, it is their right to have a fair trial, before an impartial and independent tribunal.
10- A country of intimacy and love, between the sons of the big Syrian family, in the light of a massive reconciliation, [forsaking] all false pretexts adopted by the system of corruption and tyranny, to intimidate the citizens of one nation of each, to prolong his rule and to sustain its control on everyone.
This is our vision and aspiration for our desired future, our covenant in front of God, and our people, and in front of all people. A vision that we assure today, after a history full of national working for decades, since the founding of the brotherhood, by the hands of Dr. Mustafa Assiba’ey, God’s mercy be upon him, in 1945.
We presented its features clearly and ambiguously, in the National Honor Charter in 2001, and in our political project in 2004, and in the official papers approved by the Brotherhood, on various social and national issues. And these are our hearts opened, our hands outstretched to all our brothers and partners in our beloved homeland, for it to take its decent position between the civilized human societies.
“Help one another in virtue, righteousness and piety, and do not sin or commit aggression.”
Muslim Brotherhood Movement in Syria
(I edited here and there for clarity, but left the structure of the document as is.)
Much of the world has been aghast at news coming out of Syria, as the demonstrations now common in much of the Arab world have been brutally suppressed. Government sources, however, claim they are fighting an armed insurgency. Media, notably, has been blocked from the country, lending credibility to the idea that the government has something to hide.
We have been in Jordan for a short visit, and while here I was able to meet with a Syrian Christian resident in Amman. She is originally from Allepo, and was able to provide some of her perspective on the matter. It is only one opinion, of course, but provides a local perspective that goes beyond claims and counter-claims. For a good journalistic account of Syria, here is a link from The Economist. Here is another account from Christianity Today, focusing on the Syrian Christian perspective. It will resemble much of what follows.
The source, who preferred not to be named, will be called Samiya. She did not believe she was under any suspicion, but was planning a trip to Syria to take care of some administrative matters, and thought best to keep her name out of the news.
In short, Samiya believed both accounts to be true. The Syrian people have been steadfast in their peaceful protest for national reform. The government has been countering this group with violent repression, but as in protests elsewhere, they carry on.
At the same time, certain groups within Syria have undertaken violent militia action against the regime, and have mixed in with the protestors. These have been putting certain villages under pressure, and the Syrian army has had several bloody encounters with them. Samiya believed Jisr al-Sughur, on the Turkey border not far from Aleppo, fell into this category.
Within this struggle, she believed, lies were being told on both sides. Certainly the government is not being honest concerning its suppression of peaceful protest, using the militias as an excuse for further crackdown. Yet the tales of horror have also been exaggerated by the reform party. Several weeks ago a terrible tale spread on the internet about a boy who had died in the hands of security, revealing severe torture and mutilation of his body. Samiya, however, heard statements from relatives in the boy’s family, stating that while the boy did die at the hands of security, the torture marks were administered after he was handed over to his family. They (or those within the violent opposition) desecrated him in an effort to rally more of the population against the regime.
Samiya believed these militia groups, and the families associated with them, were hardline Sunni/Salafi parties funded and encouraged by Saudi Arabia. Knowing Syria to be a key ally of Iran, Saudi Arabia would greatly wish to see the fall of the regime. In the aftermath, the minority Shia Alawite autocratic rule would give way to some sort of Sunni governance. This would also likely lead to an end of funding of the Hizbollah party in Lebanon; interestingly, the head of Hizbollah is among the only personalities to rally to the defense of the regime.
Though they have not rallied to the defense, Samiya understands Israel, oddly enough, to quietly resist the fall of the regime. Though Syrian political rhetoric is strongly anti-Israeli, there has been almost no conflict on Israel’s northern border during the Bashar al-Assad presidency. While Syria does support Hizbollah, Samiya claimed this was to create a resistance force on the border against possible Israeli expansion. Lebanon is a weak government, and Hizbollah makes difficult any future advance into Beirut – which Israel has attacked before. From there, it is only a few dozen kilometers to Damascus. In any case, while Israel considers Hizbollah a thorn in its side, it fears more greatly the chaos which might prevail should the regime fall. As with worries in Egypt, better the enemy you know, than the one you don’t.
Samiya believed that one of the reasons for Western hesitation in Syria reflects the above difference in perspective. Many believe that politics in the Middle East is orchestrated around the US-Saudi Arabia-Israel alliance. Within this set-up, Egypt is largely a pawn (though possibly now seeking more independent foreign policy), Turkey is an emerging player, and Iran is the enemy. During the Egyptian revolution the US was quick to call for the fall of Mubarak, trusting that Egypt would remain within this overall structure.
Yet with Syria, the United States finds itself between two allies. Saudi Arabia would like the Iranian ally to fall, while Israel is reticent. American equivocation can be explained by its middle position between the two. It may well be the future of Syria lies mainly in the hands of the Assad family and the protestors against it. But it also may be the future will be shaped by the direction the United States eventually leans.
As for the actual interaction between the Assad family and the protestors, Samiya believed that Bashar was not naturally a butcher, and was not the prime mover behind the repression. Rather, she believed that however he may desire to reform (though he has had several years to do so previously), family military and business forces cannot contemplate losing the primary role the Alawites maintain in society. In this repression, then, Bashar is complicit, but also too weak to do anything otherwise.
Finally, Samiya spoke of the Christian participation in the demonstrations. They have been present, but many Christians have been reluctant to speak against the regime. The Alawite minority has ruled Syria by co-opting other minority groups, including Christians, and backing the dominant Sunni upper-to-middle class. Some fear there could be sectarian war against Alawites, Christians, and Druze, should chaos grip the state while a power vacuum sorts itself out.
Samiya played down this possibility, but did state her personal preference for the regime to stay while carrying out significant reforms that would change the system over time, though democratic participation. The regime is brutal, and Samiya could not understand why more Christians, on humanitarian grounds, did not enroll in greater numbers within the peaceful demonstrations. Reform is absolutely necessary, but many Christians are standing on the sidelines.
To repeat the earlier warning, it should be understood that Samiya is only a source – outside of the country at that – and does not fully understand what is happening within Syria. Her perspective, however, helps put together information that come through piecemeal in the headlines. In truth, a jigsaw puzzle has only one correct solution, but until all pieces are collected, multiple constructed realities are possible.
May God grant peace to the Syrian people and bring about a just resolution with as little bloodshed as possible. As it is already too late, may forgiveness and grace characterize all parties in the days to come.