Dr. W. Andrew Terrill
The Syrian civil war is widely understood to have a strong sectarian component. In this conflict, Bashar Assad’s Alawite–dominated regime is seeking to crush an uprising led by majority Sunni Arabs. The Alawites are a branch of Shi’ite Islam and have been supported by Shi’ite allies including Iran, the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shi’ite militias. Various Sunni Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, support different branches of the rebels. Yet, Syria is also a country of numerous ethnic and religious minorities, and the Syrian civil war is traumatic for them as well. Syria, unlike a number of other Arab states, has a large and significant Christian population of around 2.2 million (including internal and external refugees). Some Christians in western Syria have joined the war against Assad, but these people are in the minority within their community. Rather, Syrian Christians are, in most cases, sympathetic to the secular minority Assad regime which traditionally has given them security, although not democracy. The problem for these Christians is that most of them would prefer the Assad regime over Islamic radicals like the al-Qaeda linked Al Nusra Front, but they do not wish to move so close to Assad that they inevitably would be punished to the same extent as pro-Assad Alawites if the Islamist rebels eventually manage to win the civil war.
The Assad regime is directing a great deal of propaganda toward all Syrian minorities, predicting that they will suffer greatly if rebel forces win the war. Regime leaders routinely suggest that Christians will be slaughtered by Islamists in territory that they control. Assad also portrays himself as the protector of Christians. The Syrian propaganda machine claims that regime military forces have made a special effort to protect churches in contested areas, maintaining that they would otherwise be burned by the “terrorists” fighting the regime. Some of this propaganda is crudely melodramatic, but it may have some impact, especially when Syrian Christians consider the fate of their co-religionists in post-Saddam Iraq. The Christian community in Iraq was estimated to be between 800,000 and 1,500,000 in 2003, but subsequently declined to between 450,000 and 600,000 after a campaign of intense harassment by Islamic extremists who emerged as an important force in Iraq after 2003 and forced many Christians to emigrate.
Sadly, mistreatment of Syria Christians by Islamic extremists is not simply Assad propaganda. In areas of Syria controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, an al-Qaeda spinoff that no longer takes direction from al-Qaeda central), the group has imposed the 7th century status of “dhimmi” on Christians under their control. This status requires the Christians to pay a special tax (the jizyah) in order to live under ISIL rule. They are not required to live under ISIL’s harsh form of Islamic law (except for modesty codes) but cannot worship outside of churches, cannot display the cross, and cannot build new churches. They also cannot refurbish or repair existing churches and monasteries, although some of these have been very badly damaged in the civil war. Those Christians who are unwilling to accept these provisions have to leave the area or face execution.
Unfortunately, dhimmi status is probably the best treatment that Syrian Christians can expect from radical Islamists like ISIL and the Al Nusra Front. Worse alternatives are possible. Unverified but plausible reports from the Christian town of Massloula maintain that extremists have told Christians that they can either convert or be beheaded. A better documented incident occurred in June 2013 when Father Francis Murad, a Catholic priest was beheaded by Al Nusra jihadists for supposedly cooperating with the Syrian military. The jihadists documented this murder with grainy footage posted on the Internet, and the Vatican confirmed Father Murad’s identity. Later, in August 2013, around 40 Christian men in the pro-Assad stronghold of of Wadi al-Nassara were reported massacred by jihadists, but the details here are also difficult to verify. It might also be noted that none of these acts are out of character for the radical extremists of the Islamic resistance. In one November 2013 instance, ISIL fighters found rebel combatant Mohamed Fares Marroush in a hospital and mistakenly assumed he was a Shi’ite. Marroush was then dragged in a half conscious state out of the hospital and beheaded. ISIL later apologized for this act when it was discovered the Marroush was a member of Ahrar al-Sham, a rebel group that was at that time fighting beside ISIL. ISIL minimized the incident, claimed an honest mistake, and suggested that forgiveness was the appropriate response. Ahrar al-Sham remained outraged.
The problems faced by Syrian Christians are therefore quite compelling. Unfortunately, these problems are only a small subset of the overall tragedy of Syria, where the United States is often unable to understand, let alone positively influence, the ongoing civil war. The Lebanese civil war lasted 15 years, and there is no reason to believe that the Syrian civil war will be shorter. The fate of all Syrian minorities may therefore remain a complicating factor for Western policy toward Syria for some time to come. Assad strongly asserts that his government is better for the minorities than Islamist alternatives, and his propagandists constantly seek to amplify this claim. But Assad is also a monster whose forces kill civilians with indiscriminate bombing and artillery fire. He is also willing to use starvation as a weapon. It is beyond the ability of outside powers to suppress these ancient hatreds, but the World must not forget minorities such as the Christians in Syria. One proposal that deserves study is the appointment of a special U.S. envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East and South Asia. Also, the United States is one of the largest suppliers of nonlethal aid to the moderate Syrian opposition and must continue to insist that forces receiving our aid have no involvement with Islamist radicals. The United States also needs to emphasize our commitment to minority rights to our close Arab allies who are supplying the non-jihadist Islamic resistance. Finally, the United States must denounce fiercely any anti-minority and anti-Christian violence against civilians, no matter who engages in it.