Syria’s Christians are unlikely to find much comfort in the Islamists-ridden opposition. Over the last two years, the country has become a hotspot for jihadists from all over the world and especially the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. Former partner organisations like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have imposed a Sharia reign of terror upon the areas they control. In recent weeks the treatment of civilians by ISIS has become so horrendous that even AQ has kept its distance and forsaken the relationship. While they mercilessly slay everyone who gets in their way, religious minorities are often hit the hardest. Gut-wrenching reports ranging from mass-beheadings to the destruction of entire neighbourhoods are reaching us on a daily basis. Out of the 4,000 inhabitants of the Christian village of Ghassanieh, no more than ten people remain.
There is yet another layer to take into consideration. Evidence indicates that, in the old fashioned way of “divide and rule”, the Assad regime is deliberately targeting civilians, including Christians, in an attempt to draw away attention from its own crimes and present itself to the West as an insurance policy against Islamists. Some reports even go as far as to suggest that Assad secretly boosts al-Qaeda to rally international support behind his regime, preying on the logic of “better the devil you know” and Arab intelligence asserts that ISIS is in fact an Assad asset. While somewhat incredulous and potentially in the face of conventional thought, it is yet another eye-opening indication that Assad can no longer be entrusted with the protection of Christians, as he appears to happily sacrifice them on the altar of extremists to foster and protect his own interests.
There is less and less room for the forces of moderation in Syria. We have to accept that the Christian community in Syria is caught between Sunni radicals and an embattled regime supported by Shia extremists. Both present an existential threat to the remaining Christians in the country. If we are serious about protecting them – and civilians of all different religious and ethnic backgrounds – our public policies must continue to shift from limited engagement to a proactive approach. What Syria needs more than anything is hope for a future that will neither be spearheaded by al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists nor the disgraced Assad regime. At a minimum, Western allies should begin to more readily support the moderate forces of progress best able to confront and stand in opposition to extremism and repression.
Limited airstrikes on key extremist targets are one method that merits the most serious consideration, as are targeting critical points of regime support with asymmetrical operations. Removing aid and tacit support for the most extreme opposition to the regime provides a mechanism for encouraging more diverse and inclusive forces of moderation. These are methods of increased engagement that do not necessitate large scale mobilisation of American and British troops, yet present a proactive method of shaping internal dynamics in order to more effectively protect persecuted minorities in Syria. Leading the international community to better support the humanitarian crisis with food, aid, and shelter for refugees is simultaneously not only the right thing to do, but an opportunity for our leadership to send clear message to the people of Syria they are neither alone nor forgotten in the struggle for peace.
A free and democratic world based on the rule of law requires the protection of minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Acts of genocide, persecution, and brutality not only represents the worst nightmares of failure in governance and morality, but the very failure of civilised humanity to stand in defence of one another. Regardless of how the on-going conflict turns out, it is increasingly likely that neither the Assad regime nor Sunni plurality will show much care or respect for the storied Christian tradition and people in Syria. President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron have an opportunity to pursue increased engagement and take a stand against tyrannical forces that show little regard for diversity and freedom. Purposeful, unmitigated persecution against peaceful individuals has no place in our world, and it is high time our leadership made it clear that action speaks louder than words, for the consequences of inaction are too great a tragedy to bear.
Julie Lenarz is contactable at: Julie.Lenarz@hscentre.org
Michael Miner is contactable at: Michael.Miner@hscentre.org
Please cite this article as:
Lenarz, J., Michael, M. (2014) ‘Under threat: We must stand up for Syria’s Christians’. Human Security Centre, Religion and Politics, Issue 1, No. 1.