The Fate of Syria's Christian Minority

Four years ago, Israeli "dove" Avi Primor cooed over the prospects for a comprehensive peace settlement in the Mideast.  The "key" to peace, wrote Israel's former ambassador to Germany, lies in Damascus.  Amb. Primor wrote that if Israel would only agree to give up the Golan Heights she had captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, Syria might yet come around to accepting the existence of the Jewish state and break its dependence on the mullahs in Iran.  Hope soared on the wings of a dove.

Negotiations between Israel and Syria, although conducted through a Turkish intermediary, seemed promising.  The incoming Obama administration, buoyed by the president's Nobel Peace Prize, celebrated the new direction in world geopolitics by sending an ambassador to Damascus.  No more refusals to talk.  Now, we would see action on a peace agenda.

Hollywood doves Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie shared the hopeful mood and flew into Damascus for a visit to refugees from Iraq.  They were, of course, roundly criticized for their photo shoot with the dictator's fashionable wife, Asma al-Assad.  Still, it's worth noting that Angelina is a U.N. representative for refugees.  The couple was at least urging the world not to forget the thousands of Iraqis who had fled that war-torn country to find a precarious haven in Syria.

Tragically, the doves have flown from Damascus.  In the last 14 months, as Western journalists celebrated an "Arab Spring" elsewhere, a full-scale revolt against the Assad regime has broken out in Syria.  Bashar al-Assad clings to power as his troops engage in "execution-style" killings of scores of women and children in Houla.

The New York Times recently reported on the endangered status of those refugees from Iraq as well as Syria's other minorities.  All are threatened with being caught in the middle of a civil war.

But the region's minorities increasingly risk becoming expendable collateral damage in the open-ended civil war in Syria. Many of Syria's ruling Alawites - and their Kurd, Assyrian, Maronite Christian, Greek Catholic and Orthodox fellow minorities, indeed even the prudent Druze - feel caught in a vicious zero-sum game. 

The minorities listed -- fittingly -- in the middle of that group (Assyrian, Maronite Christian, Greek Catholic, and Orthodox) are all Christians.  And their plight points up the fact that Christians are being ethnically cleansed throughout the Middle East.

If the Western democracies succeed in toppling Assad -- as they seem to intend -- what will be the fate of these Christians?  Have any of our State Department policymakers given any thought to this question?

Will these Christians sheltered under Assad's shaky regime be considered collaborators in his tortures and killings when he is toppled?  Past experience suggests that this is exactly what will be their fate.  The Copts in Egypt survived on the edge during thirty years of Mubarak's authoritarian rule.  Today, their churches are burned, and they are shot down in the flames.

The Muslim Brotherhood is rising in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and throughout the Bloody Crescent.  Boko Haram has taken jihad to Africa's richest and most populous country, Nigeria. 

Will the Muslim Brotherhood come to dominate the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime, as well?  They will doubtless remember the 1982 massacre of their brethren by Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad.  In the Syrian city of Hama that year, resistance to the regime was crushed.  Estimates of that horror vary from 10,000 to as high as 30,000 killed by Assad's brutal crackdown.

Human rights defenders stress that today, unlike that 1982 atrocity, cell phones and video cameras will not permit Arab dictators to slaughter their own people with impunity.  Let us hope so.

Still, the flight of doves from Damascus raises the most serious questions about U.S. foreign policy.  Both Afghanistan and Iraq have constitutions with so-called repugnancy clauses.  These clauses say that notwithstanding any other provision, nothing shall be done by this government that is repugnant to Islam.  These clauses were insisted upon by State Department advisers in those countries eager to check the box marked "constitution drafted."

Incorporating such clauses in the constitutions of fragile states only assures the continuation of sectarian violence.  Who may determine what is repugnant to Islam?  The clerics do, of course.  Which ones?  The clerics with more guns, doubtless.  

In Kuwait, liberated in 1991 by American blood and treasure, it is now a death penalty offense to "blaspheme" against Islam.  Blaspheming against Islam can include saying "Jesus is Lord."

The Obama administration once celebrated sending a U.S. Ambassador to Damascus.  Now, they ask us to applaud as they withdraw the same ambassador from that war-torn city from which the doves have flown.  Assad will fall, probably, but what then becomes of the Christian refugees and other minorities in that cobbled-together country?  Does any of this look like a foreign policy Americans can support?

Ken Blackwell is a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

Four years ago, Israeli "dove" Avi Primor cooed over the prospects for a comprehensive peace settlement in the Mideast.  The "key" to peace, wrote Israel's former ambassador to Germany, lies in Damascus.  Amb. Primor wrote that if Israel would only agree to give up the Golan Heights she had captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, Syria might yet come around to accepting the existence of the Jewish state and break its dependence on the mullahs in Iran.  Hope soared on the wings of a dove.

Negotiations between Israel and Syria, although conducted through a Turkish intermediary, seemed promising.  The incoming Obama administration, buoyed by the president's Nobel Peace Prize, celebrated the new direction in world geopolitics by sending an ambassador to Damascus.  No more refusals to talk.  Now, we would see action on a peace agenda.

Hollywood doves Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie shared the hopeful mood and flew into Damascus for a visit to refugees from Iraq.  They were, of course, roundly criticized for their photo shoot with the dictator's fashionable wife, Asma al-Assad.  Still, it's worth noting that Angelina is a U.N. representative for refugees.  The couple was at least urging the world not to forget the thousands of Iraqis who had fled that war-torn country to find a precarious haven in Syria.

Tragically, the doves have flown from Damascus.  In the last 14 months, as Western journalists celebrated an "Arab Spring" elsewhere, a full-scale revolt against the Assad regime has broken out in Syria.  Bashar al-Assad clings to power as his troops engage in "execution-style" killings of scores of women and children in Houla.

The New York Times recently reported on the endangered status of those refugees from Iraq as well as Syria's other minorities.  All are threatened with being caught in the middle of a civil war.

But the region's minorities increasingly risk becoming expendable collateral damage in the open-ended civil war in Syria. Many of Syria's ruling Alawites - and their Kurd, Assyrian, Maronite Christian, Greek Catholic and Orthodox fellow minorities, indeed even the prudent Druze - feel caught in a vicious zero-sum game. 

The minorities listed -- fittingly -- in the middle of that group (Assyrian, Maronite Christian, Greek Catholic, and Orthodox) are all Christians.  And their plight points up the fact that Christians are being ethnically cleansed throughout the Middle East.

If the Western democracies succeed in toppling Assad -- as they seem to intend -- what will be the fate of these Christians?  Have any of our State Department policymakers given any thought to this question?

Will these Christians sheltered under Assad's shaky regime be considered collaborators in his tortures and killings when he is toppled?  Past experience suggests that this is exactly what will be their fate.  The Copts in Egypt survived on the edge during thirty years of Mubarak's authoritarian rule.  Today, their churches are burned, and they are shot down in the flames.

The Muslim Brotherhood is rising in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and throughout the Bloody Crescent.  Boko Haram has taken jihad to Africa's richest and most populous country, Nigeria. 

Will the Muslim Brotherhood come to dominate the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime, as well?  They will doubtless remember the 1982 massacre of their brethren by Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad.  In the Syrian city of Hama that year, resistance to the regime was crushed.  Estimates of that horror vary from 10,000 to as high as 30,000 killed by Assad's brutal crackdown.

Human rights defenders stress that today, unlike that 1982 atrocity, cell phones and video cameras will not permit Arab dictators to slaughter their own people with impunity.  Let us hope so.

Still, the flight of doves from Damascus raises the most serious questions about U.S. foreign policy.  Both Afghanistan and Iraq have constitutions with so-called repugnancy clauses.  These clauses say that notwithstanding any other provision, nothing shall be done by this government that is repugnant to Islam.  These clauses were insisted upon by State Department advisers in those countries eager to check the box marked "constitution drafted."

Incorporating such clauses in the constitutions of fragile states only assures the continuation of sectarian violence.  Who may determine what is repugnant to Islam?  The clerics do, of course.  Which ones?  The clerics with more guns, doubtless.  

In Kuwait, liberated in 1991 by American blood and treasure, it is now a death penalty offense to "blaspheme" against Islam.  Blaspheming against Islam can include saying "Jesus is Lord."

The Obama administration once celebrated sending a U.S. Ambassador to Damascus.  Now, they ask us to applaud as they withdraw the same ambassador from that war-torn city from which the doves have flown.  Assad will fall, probably, but what then becomes of the Christian refugees and other minorities in that cobbled-together country?  Does any of this look like a foreign policy Americans can support?

Ken Blackwell is a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission.