The Christian Perspective on the War in Syria
We are living through the second coldest spring in American history but in the Middle East the Arab Spring is only getting hotter. Some 70,000 people have been killed, many of them civilians, in the past two years of fighting in Syria. Bloodshed in Iraq is on the upswing again, and fears are rising that the country is sliding back into war. Iran continues to defy western pressure as it works its way to nuclear capabilities the Obama administration has said will not be tolerated. Iran supplies the Syrian government with much of its weapons and equipment, much of which, it appears, passes through the territory of its ally Iraq, the country for whom so many Americans lost their lives and to which America devoted so many billions of dollars. In addition, consider the festering failure of US and Afghan forces to establish a peaceful stability in Afghanistan, or the fact that the one Muslim country in the region that already possesses nuclear weapons – Pakistan – has terrorists and their prominent sympathizers holding important posts in the government.
The consequences for Christians have been abysmal. Large minority communities with centuries of tradition and history have been tragically shattered amid the chaos and the resulting surge of Islamist forces across the region. For these Christians times were certainly better under Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, and Bashar al-Assad than they are under the forces and regimes supported by the United States.
The Bush administration is to blame for much of this mess, of course, including the chaos ricocheting out of Iraq. But one virtue of the Bush administration was that it sought to explain to the American people what is at stake in various conflicts to which American troops are committed. Under President Bush, Americans could be confident that their government was not afraid to make the hard decisions necessary to secure our national security interests in the region.
Under President Obama, on the other hand, there hasn’t been much of a message to Americans at all. When has the president addressed the war in Afghanistan, or the now “ended” war in Iraq, in terms that would prepare the American public for the sacrifices expected of them? Even worse, the signals radiating from the White House in the Middle East since Bush left office have amounted to a lot of hard talk backed by little of substance.
The obvious example, of course, is Iran. President Obama has made it clear that the United States will not tolerate Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon. Military force would be used if necessary. But there is no evidence that Iran has slowed its progress, or changed its intentions at all. The president has been right to put off war up to this point. Even if it would be just to go to war against Iran over its nuclear program, such would obviously only be the case as a last resort. In the meantime, however, it is imperative that the United States communicate strength in the region, a willingness to back up its talk with power, lest Iran doubt that President Obama means what he says. One way to do that is to make sure that when the United States draws a red line and threatens consequences once that line has been crossed, it is not an empty bluff.
For months now the President has been saying that if Assad used chemical weapons it would be a “game-changer,” there would be clear consequences. Now Israel, Britain, France, and the United States (the latter with less official “certainty”) have concluded that Assad has used such weapons, probably in just the degree that suggests he is testing the president’s mettle. Yet the United States has dithered. The White House claims that certainty needs to be established, especially given what happened in Iraq last decade. Fair enough. But the stakes are high. If the United States, whether intentionally or unintentionally, somehow communicates to Iran that it does not mean what it says when it talks about red lines, war in the region will be far more likely, not less likely.
Most Americans, of course, understandably want nothing to do with another war in the Middle East. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan have ended well. Even Libya seems to have had consequences more negative than positive. Will intervention in Syria really achieve anything more than taking a big problem and making it a big American problem? On the other hand, interventionists like Senator John McCain argue that all the terrible things non-interventionists said would happen if we went into Syria have happened anyway. The conflict is spilling over into Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. Chemical weapons have been used. The radical contingent of the rebel forces is growing in strength, and Syria increasingly looks like yet another excellent training ground for Islamist terrorism. Isolationists might imagine that the United States could just walk away from all of this, but such optimism is based more on dreams than on a careful analysis of the situation in view. If the last four years are any indication, a weakening U.S. presence in the region is likely to make matters worse rather than better.
What is the Christian perspective on all of this? Approximately ten percent of the population of Syria is Christian, a total of some 2.3 million persons. As in Iraq and Egypt, the Christian population in Syria has often been identified with the old tyrannical regime, a regime that was politically repressive but that permitted meaningful religious liberty. Today Christians in Syria certainly worry that the fall of Assad would lead to tragic consequences for their own communities. Many (probably some 300,000) have already fled the country.
Christians occupy prominent political and military posts within the Assad regime. According to the British newspaper The Guardian, “Bishop Khouri, who is known as an ultra-loyalist, accused western countries of betraying their own religious heritage by backing the rebels.” There is also something to be said for the Christian aversion to insurrection and rebellion, in line with both the spirit and the letter of New Testament teaching.
Other Christians in Syria, however, rightly point out that the Assad regime has lost all credibility or ability to govern. They claim that the government has intentionally characterized the rebel opposition as radical Islamist in order to prevent U.S. intervention. As The Guardian reports, “The Syrian National Coalition, the main western-backed anti-Assad grouping, has tried to avoid any whiff of sectarianism … Its current leader, the respected George Sabra, is a Christian.”
Although it increasingly looks like the battle lines in the Middle East are being drawn between Shiites (Iran, Iraq, the Assad regime) and Sunnis, Christians are caught in the middle. Perhaps the view of most Syrian Christians is best represented by the Syrian taxi driver Abu Jean.
Christians should be neutral. But this is not our business. I will not let my son join the [government] popular committees or the national defence army – or the armed opposition either.”
But it’s not easy to remain uninvolved. These people are Syrians, as well as Christians. Syria is their country. It’s government clearly has to go. Yet while many reject the heavy-handedness of a regime that is now using chemical weapons against its own people, they are also wary of the consequences of a more democratic Syria, given what has taken place in Egypt and Iraq.
What a mess.