In the spring of 2012, a State Department consultant sat at a bar on Capitol Hill watching a baseball game. Across the bar, a young, boisterous American woman solicited funds, so she claimed, for the rebels in Syria. The consultant had served in USAID under the Bush Administration and had been to Syria just before revolution swept the Arab world. When she finally got round to him, he spoke deliberately: “I don’t think you’ve been to Syria. I don’t think you know that there are Christians there. And I don’t think you understand what’s going on there.” A year later, the calls for intervention are not limited to dilettantes on the Hill, as pundits and policymakers proffer unsubstantiated and flimsy pretexts for intervention in yet another Middle Eastern conflict beyond America’s control.
The situation in Syria has grown considerably more complicated since the rebellion began in 2011. The soldiers of Iran and Hezbollah now take up arms on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which is backed by Russia; Salafi and al-Qaeda affiliates fight alongside the rebels, who are reinforced by oil-rich Sunni Gulf states and America. Syria’s Alawi minority clings to Damascus and other urban enclaves with the support of some upper-class Sunnis, Christians, and other groups. Some observers speculate that the country will continue to divide along sectarian lines. America’s foreign policy establishment seems unwilling to come to terms with its own inability to control events in the Middle East, a pattern that has emerged in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere.
Many have likened Syria’s civil war to Lebanon of the 1970s and 80s. Others have noted the similarities to the Spanish Civil War, which eight decades ago raged on the other side of the Mediterranean. All analogies ultimately limp, of course, but the similarities with Spain are numerous. The Spanish civil war simmered for many years beneath the socio-political surface and was a generally popular uprising against an entrenched, reactionary regime. As with Spain, throngs of foreigners have joined in the fight to overthrow Assad. Coming from as far as France and Chechnya, these outsiders constitute a kind of Islamist International Brigade. As with Spain, the great powers have divided along cultural and civilizational lines, but have thus far resisted direct involvement, instead opting to advance perceived interests by proxy. As with Spain, reports of cruelty and barbarism are rampant, though the atrocities of the regime tend to be more widely reported than atrocities perpetrated by rebels. As with Spain’s civil war, many of the rebels are animated by a visceral hatred for Christians and have undertaken a campaign to purge religious minorities. And, as with Spain, the rebel factions are certain to turn on one another. (Rebel factions funded and equipped from the outside are now reportedly pressured by western intelligence operatives to fight al-Qaeda’s affiliate al-Nusra before focusing on the overthrow of Assad.)
In several instances, the militant Islamists in Syria have, like the communists in Spain, chosen the most visible representatives of Christianity, the clergy, as the object of their campaign. As of this writing, two Orthodox bishops remain in captivity. They were captured by rebels while trying to negotiate the release of two kidnapped priests, one Armenian Catholic and one Greek Orthodox. These events followed the abduction and murder of Fr. Jamil Haddad, who was trying to negotiate the release of a kidnapped parishioner. According to one report, Fr. Haddad was “tortured, his eyes gouged out.” This campaign of annihilation is not new to the Arab world. In the preceding decade, the Christian clergy of Iraq were targeted and slaughtered. These attacks tend to be led by those ideologically linked to al-Qaeda and Wahhabi-Salafi extremism, most of whom are not Syrian, just as the murder of 5,000 priests and nuns in Spain was often linked to hard line communist troops from outside Spain. The tendency of Christians to be identified with the ancien régime has invariably exacerbated their plight, not only in Spain and Syria, but in Egypt and elsewhere.
Catholic leaders have voiced concern over human rights abuses generally and advocated a negotiated settlement, while the Orthodox Church has been more forthright in its support for the Alawi regime. As Walter Russell Mead noted last year, Putin went to Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev in early 2012 with a pledge of millions of dollars for the Church outside Russia. Alfeyev refused Putin’s offer, looked Putin in the eye, and told him that all he wanted was for Russia to protect the Middle East’s (predominantly Orthodox) Christians. Putin responded, “So it will be.” Thus Russia’s involvement in Syria is not merely realpolitik but also the reassertion of Russia as a protector of the Near East’s Orthodox Christians—a posture reminiscent of Tsarist Russia.
Alfeyev continues to be an outspoken advocate for the protection of Christians in the Middle East, and Syria in particular. In a recent interview, he commented on the trends that have emerged with respect to religious tolerance amid the sectarian violence, stating that the regions controlled by the Assad regime continue to permit religious pluralism, whereas in “the places where rebels take power, for example in the city of Homs, we see that immediately the Iraqi scenario is being put in practice. We see that Christians are in grave danger.”
“The Iraqi scenario”, of course, refers to the persecution of Iraq’s Christian community that commenced after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is not a term in common usage among U.S. policymakers, though perhaps it should be. The systematic campaign of church bombings, kidnappings, rapes and murders resulted in the eradication of two-thirds of Iraq’s Christians. Priests were singled out as targets and were abducted, tortured and murdered, including an archbishop in 2008. As I recently wrote, the U.S. was repeatedly made aware of this and did nothing to protect them.
One Catholic prelate familiar with the region privately said that if Syria should fall, the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, one of the last havens for Christians in the Arab world, will follow. The ancient Arab Christian communities of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt have seen millions depart in recent decades. In Iraq, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, America has opted for policy that has supported the overthrow of secular, if ruthless, regimes, often at the cost of pluralism and religious freedom. The apparent logic is that democracy will inevitably lead to greater liberty. Thus far, it has not.
While President Obama has resisted the prospect of direct intervention in Syria despite pressure from his cabinet, the United States continues to support the rebels covertly and indirectly. According to the Associated Press and other sources, the United States is now, at a minimum, “coordinating” the distribution of weapons to rebels in Syria in what is being called “a carefully prepared covert operation.” In other words, the U.S. is distributing weapons to al-Qaeda allies—a fact that should give all advocates of intervention in Syria serious pause, especially as al-Qaeda increasingly plays a more significant role among the rebels. If these arms do find their way into the hands of al-Qaeda, then the Administration would be answerable for the consequences. This almost certainly accounts for President Obama’s reluctance. These extremists are committed to toppling secular regimes precisely because they want to establish totalitarian Islamist societies and eliminate pluralism.
As retired diplomat and Georgetown professor Tom Farr has argued, the United States fails to act in its own interests when it ignores fundamental human rights issues, including religious freedom. At the outset of the Arab revolts in 2011, he wrote, ““If democracy is to be stable, especially in the highly religious societies of the Middle East, it must entail a commitment in law and culture to fundamental human rights, especially religious freedom.” In Syria, Iraq and Egypt, the Obama Administration and the State Department have not only failed to lead on religious freedom and the rights of religious minorities, but in many instances have unwittingly collaborated with Islamists by arming and funding them or doing nothing to stop their persecution of religious minorities. As Brian Grimm, a senior researcher at The Pew Forum, noted in 2008, “[W]herever religious freedom is high, there tends to be fewer incidents of armed conflict, better health outcomes, higher levels of earned income, and better educational opportunities for women.”
In light of the intolerance and violence that have accompanied the Arab revolutions, the United States must fundamentally reassess its approaches, especially where fundamental human rights, such as religious freedom, are concerned. It might also reconsider the efficacy of sending arms to the region under any circumstances. Until this sobering reassessment occurs, the United States will continue to blunder through the Middle East.
Following the Spanish Civil War, English author Malcolm Muggeridge befriended George Orwell, a fellow disillusioned socialist, after Orwell returned from fighting the Nationalists. Orwell became highly critical of communist policy in Catalonia while fighting in Spain, and later authored satirical and dystopian novels that significantly undermined communism worldwide. In his autobiography, Muggeridge recalled that he and Orwell “often discussed how difficult it is, in an ideologically polarised society like ours, to take up any position without being automatically assumed to hold all the views and attitudes associated with it. . . . Thus to attack the Soviet or the Spanish Republican regime was automatically to support their Fascist or Nazi opponents.”
To resist intervention in Syria is not to justify the crimes of the Assad regime. It is, rather, to acknowledge the reality of unintended consequences that have haunted America’s Middle East foreign policy for decades. It is to acknowledge that the United States has no business, in the words of Thomas Macaulay, “busying ourselves about matters which we do not understand and cannot efficiently control.”