-Information about extremists who started to attack and kill Christians in Syria, was again spread in web in January. What information do you have about these attacks?
-I don’t have any further information on the alleged execution of the two Syrian-Armenian men from Aleppo. Sadly, at this point in the conflict in Syria, this kind of news is no longer surprising. It takes more than a mere ‘beheading’ or a chopped off body part to make the headlines today.
We are, however, increasingly hearing about forced conversions, particularly in the past six months as Islamist militants have taken control of the armed rebellion. I think it was last September – when Al Qaeda-linked groups seized the ancient Christian town of Maaloula – that the media first shone a spotlight on forced conversions. Local civilians later spoke of rebels using terms like “Crusader” to underline the sectarian nature of the attack – only serving to frighten Christian communities across Syria further.
The news earlier this month of the forced conversion of two Armenian families by the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was followed by reports of the executions of Wanis and Minas Livonian, who had allegedly accepted conversions. I’m not sure we can ever know the truth of that story. But this information comes on the heels of 13 nuns being kidnapped from Maaloula in December, so I think the tendency is to accept the worst.
– Having in mind the attacks that you have mentioned, and lots of other simliar examples, can this already be considered as the start of a “religious war” in the whole Middle East?
-I don’t think it is right to extrapolate from the actions of a few thousand extremists and plunge straight into a war-of-civilizations discourse. There is a real danger of exacerbating conflict by ‘framing’ the narrative in sectarian terms.
Let’s be honest here. Is there really a Christian versus Muslim conflict in the Mideast? Is there really a Sunni versus Shia conflict in the region? I don’t think so and neither do the majority of Arabs polled.
The conflict is not between sects – it is between “sectarians” and “non-sectarians.” There are Christians and Muslims and Shia and Sunni on both sides of that divide. And fortunately, those who are “sectarian” represent a miniscule population – they just happen to be louder, more zealous and more determined to sow discord among communities.
What is disturbing today is the staggering amount of financial assistance flowing to sectarian groups and individuals, both in and out of the Middle East. Part of this comes from the «politics of polarization» – what you might find in an Iranophobic Saudi Arabia or a Shia-hating Pakistani donor. But the real shocker is how far countries like the United States, Great Britain and France have been willing to go to isolate, marginalize, destabilize and destroy adversaries (Syria, Iran, Hezbollah) – even if it has meant investing heavily in sectarianism to make those gains. These three western powers – so influential in global media – have clung to divisive and sectarian narratives to describe events in the region, even going so far as to downplay violence against Christians to serve broader political agendas.
There is no ‘religious war’ in the Middle East. There is no popular support for any such thing. On the contrary, the horror of sectarian violence like beheadings and castrations has made a lot of Arabs disconnect from “sect” and adopt a more unifying “national” identity. Hence the rise in support for national armies in states like Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.
-Are the fears, that the Christian population becomes the main and only target of the extremist groups, true?
-No. I don’t think the Christian population has been singled out in this conflict. As rebels radicalized, all dissenters have been hit hard, regardless of sect, religion or anything else – this includes Sunni populations as well. Extremist groups are intolerant by nature and demand conformity, so anyone outside their framework is going to be a target.
I read somewhere that 65 Armenians have been killed since the crisis began – I don’t know what the number is for Christians in total. But out of a figure of more than 100,000 dead, that number is negligible.
– Today we are witnesses of Islamist extremists fighting against each other in Syria. What caused this rivalry between rebel groups who were focused only on fighting against the Assad regime in past?
-The so-called Syrian “Revolution” has been a turf war for power and control from the start. Disparate interests within, and competing interests from foreign backers, have ensured that there will never be a unified “opposition” in Syria. It was easy enough to pretend they were one fighting force in the early days, but as the various militias gained territory and assets, the competition for dominance accelerated.
The recent confrontations that have reportedly killed more than 2,000 rebels are mainly between the ISIL and other rebel factions that have organized themselves into new coalitions for this fight. At the heart of these clashes is a turf war, but the ISIL, which is viewed as a non-Syrian group, has alienated many rebel militias by attacking other fighters and refusing to cooperate on many levels.
Ideologically, there isn’t an awful lot of difference between the various Salafist militant groups, and the ones being re-packaged as “moderates” these days are simply the ones smart enough to publically defer all talk of “Islamic Empire” until they have assumed power.
I anticipate continued rebel infighting because, as we enter a new phase in the Syrian conflict where compromises, negotiations and military confrontation will produce winners and losers, the stakes increase and it will be “each militia for itself.”
– Do you think that western powers who were demanding the resignation of Assad before, now have a huge problem dealing with this new big Extremist threat?
-Absolutely. The West calculated that Assad would fall shortly after protests broke out in 2011. At various intervals they have tried to escalate the conflict, believing wrongly that one more “big push” would do the job. Instead, they helped push Syria into a situation of dangerous instability and chaos – producing the kind of environment in which Al Qaeda and like-minded radical groups thrive.
Washington has certainly recognized its error, and has taken recent bold steps to shift course. It is the only reason why the US bypassed its traditional allies Saudi Arabia and Israel and struck a nuclear deal with Iran in Geneva. The West now needs help from inside the Middle East to thwart extremism. And they know that Iran is one of the only countries that can do this – the Islamic Republic is a major target of Saudi-backed Salafist extremism and is therefore existentially motivated to thwart it. So now Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq and Syria are going to be at the forefront of a real War on Terror, fought and led from inside the region. Neighboring states like Turkey and Jordan will eventually participate, and Russia, China, India and other key states will lend significant support.
-If summarizing recent developments, what is the future of Christians still living in Syria?
-A lot of Christians have fled Syria at this point. Those who could afford it left early, mainly to keep their spouses and children out of harm’s way. The decision to leave has weighed heavily on all the Christians I have spoken with: they are torn between love for their country and concern for their families. Most resolve to return when the worst is over.
Christians and Armenians also feel a profound sense of responsibility to ensure the continuity, after thousands of years, of their presence in Syria – and to maintain their heritage sites and treasures. Extremists have destroyed so many churches, monasteries and places of worship that this aspect, at least, seems bleak for now.
Resolve to remain in Syria is put to the test often. An acquaintance from Homs tells me of the massive exodus of more than 50,000 Christians from the city since late 2011. Most of the Homs Christians didn’t leave Syria – they relocated first to Wadi al Nasarah (also known as Valley of the Christians) (closer to the Lebanese border) and set up checkpoints and protection patrols in their neighborhoods. Just opposite this area you have the Krak de Chevaliers, the famous Crusader fortress which is now entirely occupied by armed Islamist militias – this is a strategic point between Lebanon and Syria, well-travelled by fighters and weapons. But on August 14, eleven Christians were brutally murdered by Islamist militias from the nearby town of Amar al Hosn, prompting another wave of Christians to leave or send their children out of Syria.
It is a hard choice Christians face today. The Levant is all the richer for its diversity, and Christians play a huge part in that. This may be a fragile community, but there is a real determination to preserve heritage and history, both. Right now the future may not look too rosy, but I don’t see Syria without its Christian community.
The international community is now taking Islamist extremism in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq very seriously, and I anticipate some significant military and political efforts to turn the tide in Syria. Christians remaining in the country will participate in these efforts, particularly as Salafist attacks become more sectarian and brutal. It will be important, during this time, to coalition-build with other communities and enhance defensive security measures Christians can’t afford not to be proactive any longer. I also think this finally means the plight of Christians and other Syrian minorities will be highlighted in the global media with more regularity – and less bias – than in the past.