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Between a rock and a hard place: the dilemma of Syrian minorities

It is now safe to say that the West has failed Syria

Syrian refugees have saddled Europe with one of its worst ever migrant crises. The men, women and children flooding Europe everyday are fleeing broken lives and a broken country. The perils they face on the journey there are, to them, worth it if only they can escape the evils they flee.

The Syrian War, now headed to the seventh month of its fifth year, has debilitated a country that was once one of the most prosperous in the Middle East. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that as many as 330,000 people have died since the conflict began in March 2011.

More than 7.6 million are internally displaced persons and more than 4 million have fled the country. Many of these reside now in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, from where some of them attempt the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.

The civil war, which started as an offshoot of the Arab Spring, now pits a complex web of combatants looking to control and/or reclaim parts or all of the country. The Assad regime finds itself beset in the East by the Islamic State (IS) — which owes its rise largely to the instability the war spawned. In the north, Kurds, who are also fighting IS, have also clashed with the government.

From the West, the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council, which is an umbrella to a number of rebel groups, and a number of jihadist groups, including the Al Nusra front, are attempting to take the central strip of the country controlled by the government.

The rebels are supported by America and other western powers, which see in them agents for the dethroning of the Assad regime. For them, and for the countries that support them, there is no end to the civil war without an end to the Assad regime.

Russia has now waded into the conflict, with the pretext of combating IS, which the West also wants to defeat. But it is open knowledge that Russia is actually also fighting the rebels supported by the West. America and other western powers have ruled out cooperating with Russia in the fight against IS for this reason.

It is not the purpose of this article to determine whether what Russia is doing is right or wrong. But it is now safe to say that the West has failed Syria. And it has especially failed the minority groups in Syria, especially Christians, who now find themselves harassed and with limited options, none of which bodes any good.

Under the Assads, who are from the Alawite sect, a Shia Muslim group, the minorities in Syria were largely sheltered from the evils to which they have been subjected in other majority Muslim countries.

Now, if they stay, they are targeted by the Sunni Muslim rebels, who shell their neighbourhoods and churches, and carry out summary executions. It is highly likely the rebels aim at cleansing Christians and other minorities, including Druze, Kurds, Ismailis and even Alawites.

In this regard, the rebels are no better than IS, which they also seek to overthrow, and which has committed revolting atrocities against Christians and other minorities. The only difference is that they have Western backing.

Many Syrian cities have been emptied, or are being emptied, of their ancient Christian populations. Homs lost its 50000 strong Christian community. Aleppo, in the North, now has a quarter of its original 200,000.

In total, over 600,000 Syrian Christians have either left the country or are internally displaced. The scale of the crimes being committed against them is better appreciated in light of the fact that they originally constituted about 10% of Syria’s population, around 2 million.

Fleeing the country, for any Syrian refugee, is fraught with many dangers. But it is even worse for Christian refugees, who are insulted, threatened, blackmailed and discriminated against in refugee camps and shelters dominated by Sunni Muslim refugees.

No special attention is paid to Christians in resettlement efforts, as their circumstance would warrant. The situation is so bad that Christians are afraid to go into camps run by the UN for Syrian refugees in Turkey and Lebanon. Many don’t even register with the UNHCR as refugees, and if they do, they fake their religious identities to avoid being targeted.

Syrian bishops from a number of denominations have repeatedly appealed to the West for respite, and called attention to the looming elimination of Christianity in the country. The reaction has been largely apathetic, if not downright oppositional, with the Western countries, which would be expected to do something for the minorities, supporting the very forces that seek to harm them.

The excuse is that Assad has to be eliminated for Syria to return to peace. This is an illusion. The elimination of Muammar Gaddafi didn’t make Libya a better place. Nor did the execution of Saddam Hussein bring peace to Iraq. If anything, these only made matters worse for the two countries, which are now ravaged by IS and rebels.

The killings of the two dictators were the result of an American view of the world coloured in black and white, where there are only good and bad people, and the good can only be safe when the bad are eliminated.

This is a particularly dangerous way to look at the world, and America should know this better than most, because it has been the victim of terrorists with an identical mind-set. Pope Francis also warned against this tendency to divide the world into two in his recent speech to the American congress. It simplifies the world, but it doesn’t give a lasting solution to its problems.

The Syrian crisis, in particular, is too complex to be viewed through such a lens. America’s indifference to the suffering of the minorities belies its efforts to bring the civil war to a peaceful end.

America is adjusting its strategy against IS after the colossal failure of the original 500 million dollar plan to train and build up a new rebel force to combat the group, which turned up only 8 trainees.

Whether the new strategy it formulates works or doesn’t remains to be seen. But it has to know that a rebel victory in Syria will not be the end of the conflict and, worse, it will probably signal the beginning of some of the worst atrocities against minorities in the Middle East, and maybe the end of Christianity in the country.

Feature image: Photo by Talha Nair on Unsplash.

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