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December 13, 2011

Assad and the Christian minority

Arthur Kane Scott

In my last article I explored the Alawite/Assad connection.  The question still being asked is how Assad manages to stay in power despite growing Sunna opposition, including defection of some military, as well as the wholesale international rejection including European Union, United States and the Arab League?  Only Russia, China and Iran support his crippled regime.  According to Navi Pilay, UN High Commissioner, at least 4000 Syrian demonstrators have been killed in the cities of Homs, Hams, Daraa, and Damascus with apparently no end in sight as anti-Assad demonstrations and marches intensify demanding Assad’s resignation and departure from Syria (Cf, Nadi Bakri, NY Times, “U.N.Official”Dec.3, 2011). Complicating matters for the Assad regime is that relations with Ankara too have cooled with Turkey acting as a center for Syrian oppositional forces. Yet Assad is able to hold on.

The answer, besides the core support of the Alawites, the military, and the governmental/ commercial elite, is to be found in the Syrian Christian Community which constitutes about 10 percent of the population or 2.5 million people. Major denominations of Christians are Greek Orthodox, Syriacs (Syrian Christians), Catholic and a sprinkling of Protestant groups. Historically Christian communities center in the larger cities of Damascus and Aleppo, the Washington and New York of Syria. Damascus of course is the city of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, who himself was an urbanite, who preached and converted “Gentiles” throughout the key cities of Asia Minor and Greece. Over the centuries Syrian Christians have become major players in commerce, trade, and business, in the medical/dental professions and in engineering.

 Although Syrian Christians are reasonably well off, affluent and politically entrenched as members of Bashir Assad’s inner circle: a Christian heads the Central Bank and another Defense; they are nevertheless well aware of their minority status in Syria, and fear that if Assad goes there will be sectarian bloodbath on a scale greater than what occurred in Iraq between Shiia/Sunna or in Bosnia. Their fear is not groundless, and is based on several critical events that have profoundly shaped their psychology and historical relationship to the Muslim majority.

First was the “Assyrian Christian Massacre” that occurred in 1915 during World War I, and was part of the larger “Young Turk” effort led by Ataturk, father of modern Turkey, to cleanse the Ottoman Empire of non-Turks, especially Armenians who had strong separatist aspirations. An estimated 100,000 Syrian Christians lost their lives then. In Syria this event is called “Sayfo” or “Seyfo.”(Cf, Hannibal Travis, “Native Christians Massacred”/

Second was the purge by President Hafez–al-Assad of the “Muslim Brotherhood” along with countless innocent Sunni in the city of Hama.  It’s estimated that 17-40,000 Syrians were killed there in 1981. The bloodletting at Hama was so horrendous that it is considered the worst crime ever committed by an Arab leader in the twentieth century. (Cf, Robert Fisk, Pity The Nation). Ideologically it was a clash between modernity/tradition, secularism /religion, city/country, Alawite /Sunni. The problem for Christians is that being part of Hafez’s ruling elite makes them guilty by association regarding the Hama massacre.

Third is the Islamic Resurgence that has engulfed the Muslim community in the Middle East since the 1980’s with a strong emphasis on returning to their Islamic roots.  The Islamic Resurgence, though originally cultural and religious soon became increasingly political giving birth to a wide spectrum of Islamic movements including Islamic Fundamentalism and terrorism. Best examples are Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt now known today as the “Freedom and Justice Party”, Hezbollah in Lebanon headed by Hassan Nasrallah, and of course Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Complicating the matter is that extremism occurs both within the Sunni-Shiia branches of Islam and these extremist groups find themselves at odds with one another as in the example of Hezbollah/Al –Qaeda.

Last are the consequences of the “Arab Spring”. The “Arab Spring” is one of those incredible historical movements that to a large extent has gripped the entire Arab World from Tunisia to Egypt in North Africa, to Bahrain/Yemen in the Gulf, and now is knocking at the Syrian door jeopardizing the Assad regime, and by extension the older Gulf Monarchies that are crucial to global oil and to political stabilization in the larger Levant region. The “Arab Spring” represents a grassroots revolution fired by Arab youth, unemployment, technology, sectarianism, and a desire for freedom that puts at risk those communities who identified with the status quo, and in this case Christian minorities. Syrian Christians are particularly bothered by the political marginalization of Lebanese Christians by Hezbollah, and by the Egyptian elections in which Islamist groups, Islamic Brotherhood and Salafis, have emerged as powerful parties in “democratic” Egypt. The Salafis are particularly worrisome for Christians and Liberals in their insistence on returning to Shariah Law and their position on women. Surprisingly they captured 25 % of the Egyptian vote! (Cf, David D. Kirkpatrick, “Muslim Brotherhood”, NYT, Dec.2. 2011).

The fear among Near Eastern Christians has become palpable that an Assad collapse will lead “to a descent into hell” for Christian minorities. This is echoed by Patriarch Rai of Lebanon (Cf, NYT, 9/27/11) and the Catholic Archbishop of Damascus, Gregorious Elias Tabe.  Both aver that without Assad the Christian community would be at risk. According to Archbishop Tabe, as reported by the Italian news agency SIR, “What has been going on in Syria for weeks is a plot hatched by some external force; an attempt at neo-colonialism by Islamic fundamentalists, Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia, from Qatar.”(

In conclusion, only time will determine whether or not the Assad regime will survive during the next twelve months and what consequences its collapse will have on the Christian community. Unfortunately, Syria unlike Egypt lacks a credible military that appeals to all communities, nor does it possess a political tradition in parliamentary procedures and party building. Rather Syrians have been governed by a 45 year Assad/Alawite dictatorship which has been intolerant of any democratic impulses and, has been clever in solidifying its power by playing off different ethnic/religious/sectarian groups against each other, especially Christian/Alawite against Sunna. Making life more dangerous for Christians is the role of the Shabeeha (Arabic for thug or bullies), a paramilitary group reportedly led by Assad relatives who have fired indiscriminately in major Syrian cities and have strained relations between Sunna and Christians.(Cf, Oliver Holmes, Assad’s “Devious, Cruel Plan”, The New Republic, 8/15/2011).

Revolutions tend to follow a pattern of initial moderation, then violence, and a return to some degree of normalcy. The danger for Syria is that without any democratic institutions it can easily plunge into the nightmare of sectarian violence. Let’s hope that this outcome can be avoided by following a proactive, strategic intervention orchestrated by the European Union, the United States, United Nations and the Arab League. That such a Global Consortium could provide resources and guidance to the recently formed Free Syrian Opposition that has emerged as a major player in the anti-Assad movement and has received safe haven in Turkey.

However, as Jeffrey White cautions: “Questions concerning its nature, its potential as an armed force, and the role of Islamists can be resolved through such contact as well as intelligence work. If the results are positive, then the FSA should be assisted wherever outside aid would be both possible and effective. Arms, advice, training, and money could be provided through clandestine channels, if nothing else. These modest steps could help provide the Syrian people with a means of self-defense, give the United States additional influence on the situation, and put further pressure on the regime and its forces, perhaps hastening the conflict's end.”(Cf, Jeffrey White, www.thecutting, 12/05/11).

Arthur Kane Scott is Professor of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the Dominican University of California and Fellow of American Institute of International Studies