King's Evangelical Divinity School

5 June 2013

Syria, Israel, Islamists and Christians

The Syrian civil war rages on, increasingly brutal and with no end in sight. This morning's news that the Assad regime claims to have re-taken the town of Qusair merely confirms that Syrians are in for a long haul, that this bloody and merciless conflict will not be settled any time soon.

The situation is made worse by Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon siding with the Assad regime to whom it existentially depends. If Assad falls, Hezbollah is severely weakened, losing a key ally and military supplier. Thus the recent news reports detailing thousands of Hezbollah fighters now in Syria fighting for Assad against Syrian opposition groups. To the outsider it must seem somewhat ironic for Hezbollah Islamists to side with a secular leader against a Syrian rebellion that contains a strong Islamist element (the Muslim Brotherhood). Of course, they both represent different expressions of Islam - Shia and Sunni - and the historic rivalry between provides and added dimension of complexity to the current conflict.

Because of increasing Hezbollah involvement in the Syrian civil war, Syrian rebels are now targeting Hezbollah within Lebanon itself. Rockets were recently fired at Hezbollah districts in Lebanon, while today the BBC is reporting a senior Syrian rebel leader' claims that they have every right, given Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, to take the war to Lebanon and fight Hezbollah in their own country. 

There have also been attempts to drag Israel into the fray in the Golan region, presumably to unite Arabs against a common foe. The danger of a regional war are therefore very real. The Syrian regime's use (now confirmed) of chemical weapons against its own people could spell disastrous consequences in such a war. Right now the Israeli government is spending a third of a billion dollars to ensure every resident has a gas mask. 

Though Israel has not allowed itself to become dragged in to a local conflict, the Jewish state has made clear it will not allow a dying Assad regime to pass on high-tech military hardware to Hezbollah (Hezbollah, of course, initiated the 2006 war with Israel on her northern border). Thus Israel has targeted and destroyed several consignments of weapons destined to Hezbollah. Israel has also warned Russia not to supply Syria with advanced weaponry to defend itself, weapons that might one day be turned upon Israel. It is ironic that Western countries, far removed from the conflict, seem keen to arm rebels, while Israel has avoided becoming involved in a conflict in its back yard, save to take weaponry out of the equation. I understand why Western governments want to back the rebels - I think there is genuine anguish about sitting back while unspeakable atrocities are committed, while perhaps more pragmatically their hope is that by arming the secular, non-Islamist rebels (rather than the Muslim Brotherhood) they will become the dominant force in Syria's opposition. But it's a risky strategy that could backfire (not least because of the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition), with the danger of weapons falling into the wrong hands.  

The losers in all this are the Christians. In Iraq a bitter conflict involving Sunni and Shia resulted in Christians being targeted and decimated (the number of Christians who fled Iraq following the war is colossal; in a cruel twist of irony many fled to Syria). Now many Christians in Syria are likewise being targeted and suffering, partly because they are Christian but also because they are seen as allies of the Assad regime, which granted them near normal conditions. 

Because of this, some Christians, both in Syrian and in the West, support the stabilisation of the Assad regime in order to assure the safety of Christians. But this raises a hugely problematic moral question, namely, how can any Christian support a regime which has visited unspeakable horrors and atrocities upon its own people? The sheer scale of violence and death aimed at civilians is unimaginable. Meanwhile, Christian support for Assad arguably exacerbates the targeting of Syria's Christians by Syrian rebels. 

Yet the likely  alternative - the Muslim Brotherhood capturing control of Syria - is no better for Christians in the region. One need only look at Egypt's recent political history to see what the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood has meant for Christians in that country. Frankly the whole situation is a complete and utter mess which only promises to get worse. 

In the meantime, Christians in the Middle East will continue to flee their Islamist oppressors, ending up in the West, for example in places like Detroit where many Iraqi Christians are now based (I met many on my trip there last year). At least they will probably find a greater welcome there.

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1 comment:

James said...

great post once again Calvin