Christians in Syria fear civil war and regime change

Report from Church Times on 17 February 2011.

CHRISTIANS worldwide should pray for comprehensive dialogue as the only way of ending the violence in Syria, said the Revd Nadim Nassar, the Syrian-born director of the Awareness Foundation in London. “All the parties involved in the crisis there need to come to their senses and find a way out of the deadlock,” he said. 

Mr Nassar was speaking on Monday, as reports from Syria spoke of further clashes between the army and opponents of the regime — some now carrying arms — with the focus on the town of Homs. On Wednesday morning, when Homs was under attack for the 13th successive day, Syrian government forces extended their offensive to Hama. Tanks shelled a number of civilian neighbour­hoods, including one where dissident groups from the army, now siding with the opposition, had gathered.

 More than 7000 people — includ­ing an estimated 2000 members of the security forces — have been killed since the unrest began nearly a year ago. Despite the fevered diplomatic activity at the Arab League and the United Nations, there is no indication of how the crisis will be resolved.

 “I feel passionately that the killing will end only when people start to talk to each other,” Mr Nassar said. Lebanon and Northern Ireland were two examples that bear this out, he believed: “When I hear statesmen like Obama and Hague speaking, I find it shocking to see that dialogue is not on the agenda. People must talk to their enemies. These statesmen should be putting pressure on the Syrian opposition and telling them to sit down with the regime in a neutral place, put all their cards on the table, and try to find a solution.”

Mr Nassar was not optimistic about the likely success of the current measures being taken and contem­plated against Syria. “I don’t believe that sanctions will work,” he said. “Sanctions hurt only normal people on the street, not the regimes. We saw this clearly in Libya.” Nor did he see any hope in the idea of a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping force, “because such a force could only enter Syria with the consent of the government, and that will never be forthcoming.”

Throughout the Middle East, there is a growing fear that heavy-handed Arab diplomacy, led by Qatar and other Gulf states, looking out for their own particular interests, is pushing Syria expeditiously into civil war.  

In the absence of Egypt, which is still in the throes of the aftermath of its revolution, the diplomatic hub of the Arab world has shifted to the Gulf. But this region lacks Cairo’s experience of regional diplomacy — as the faltering Gulf initiative in Syria has shown. The single-minded desire of the Gulf states to bring about regime-change in Syria, and thus break the Iranian/Shia arc of influence through the region, has blinded them to other possible consequences.  

At the same time, the international community, with the EU and the US at the fore, has backed the Arab League (read: Gulf) plans for Syria because it has been unable to formulate its own version of how to stop the violence there and end President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.  

The Arab League’s efforts thus far have not been impressive. The initial dispatch of observers to Syria was carried out without the preparation needed — either to clarify the terms of reference with Damascus, or to give the appointees an adequate brief of what they were supposed to achieve.  

The fact that their presence failed to curb the violence was no surprise. Nor was it surprising that the Gulf-dominated Arab League chose to ignore sections of the observers’ reports detailing violence carried out by armed groups against government targets. Those sections did not match the Gulf’s agenda. 

While the unrest in Syria was undoubtedly sparked a year ago by peaceful public protest, demanding an end to corruption and political reform — inspired by the Arab Spring — the agenda has since changed beyond recognition.  

Usamah Qadi, a member of the Syrian National Council opposition group, says that the armed campaign against the Assad regime has entered a “more decisive stage”: people are now volunteering to join the Free Syrian Army. The bloodshed has “strengthened in their souls the vision of what was happening as tantamount to liberation from colonialism”. He said that “the Syrian regime’s brutality has surpassed that of any colonialist.”  

As members of the opposition are speaking in such terms, and the Gulf states are withdrawing their ambassadors from Damascus and expelling Syrian envoys, it is now clear that the Arabs consider the diplomatic path to be closing fast, leaving civil war as the most likely — although not the most favoured — option. 

Syrian Christians, like the majority of their Muslim compatriots, are meanwhile left helpless to await their fate. “Fear is rising very high among Christians and other minorities,” Mr Nassar said. “They are wondering what will happen next. They see an Islamic fundamentalist current gain­ing more ground, and this makes them worried. Al-Qaeda has now thrown its weight behind the opposition, and this is more worrying still.”  

While accepting that minority communities have enjoyed protection under the Assad dictatorship, Mr Nassar said: “It would be wrong for me as a Christian to hide behind the regime because it is protecting me. I should be protected by society as a whole in my capacity as a Syrian citizen, regardless of my religion. It’s the uncertainty over whether any new regime will guarantee this that’s contributing to the fear.”