If Assad falls, is Britain ready to rescue Syria's Christians?

The tolerance shown towards Christians in Syria is unlikely to survive Assad's overthrow by Sunnis

Column LAST UPDATED AT 07:35 ON Tue 31 Jul 2012

THE fighters in Aleppo and other parts of Syria trying to rid their country of President Assad and his ruling clique are to be admired. It must require great courage to take on a professional army with improvised tactics and equipment.
 
All of us in the United Kingdom owe our democratic political settlement to similar men from the time of the English Civil War. The political aspirations of the Long Parliament did not bring an end to absolute monarchy. It required the military muscle of commanders like Oliver Cromwell and countless other men and women who followed them, enduring danger, disease and death on behalf of the parliamentary cause.

We should be grateful for hard men prepared to take on entrenched regimes. But generally, as was true in Cromwell's New Model Army, the hard men throughout history tend to be driven by belief and ideology. And the driving ideology behind the Syrian rebellion is Sunni Islam in both its austere mainstream and violent Salafist forms.

We should be in no doubt that the insurgency against Assad is a Sunni affair financed by Sunni money from Saudi Arabia with all the traditional hatred and disdain for the infidel, including the Shia Alawite sect that the Assads belong to - and Christianity.

In many ways the Assad regime despite its brutality has been the protector of minorities - not just fellow Alawites, but Druze, Kurds, even a small Jewish community and Christians. There are 1.5 million Christians in Syria - ten per cent of the population - many of whom live in the Aleppo area with its 47 churches and cathedrals of various types.

Christians are fully integrated into Syrian life. Christian civil servants, for instance, are allowed Sunday mornings off to attend divine service – it's a working day in Syria. Whatever happens this tolerance seems unlikely to survive Assad's demise.

The Russians have repeatedly been portrayed as the villains of the piece in the Western press, vetoing UN Resolutions designed to put pressure on Assad. Russia has national interests to protect in Syria – arms selling and its naval and intelligence facilities on the coast at Tartous. But part of their anxiety at the prospect of civil war in Syria is a concern at the fate of its largely Orthodox and Armenian Christian communities.
   
The precedents are not encouraging. When law and order broke down in the aftermath of the 2003 US/UK invasion of Iraq some of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East were ethnically cleansed – murdered or forced to move to the few remaining Christian enclaves. Originally converted by St Thomas the Apostle (the one who doubted Jesus's Resurrection) their language and liturgy is in Aramaic – Jesus's own tongue.

The anti-Christian rhetoric has already begun in Syria. "Christians to Beirut" has been the cry of some in the Free Syrian Army.

What will we do if Syrian Christians are subject to ethnic cleansing – or worse, massacre?  A large-scale Western military intervention seems unlikely.  Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, in London for the Olympics, made clear in an interview in The Times on Monday that Russia would never countenance this. But an operation to protect and then evacuate Christians under threat from Salafists or general disorder might well be acceptable to and assisted by the Russian government.

For many years we kept plans on the military books for large-scale evacuations from Zimbabwe in case the Mugabe regime descended from mere savagery to genocide. Evacuating Christians and others from Syria would be a military and logistic doddle by comparison.
    
The nearest safe territory is Cyprus with its British Sovereign military bases providing ideal staging grounds for emigration to the West. The RAF airfield at Akrotiri is less than an hour's flying time from Aleppo.

In any case, should we not be more generous to Christian refugees than we have been in the past? Things are grim for the Copts in Egypt. Currently only in Jordan and Israel proper are Christians free from the threat of persecution and random violence.
 
Only 10,000 Iraqi Christians currently live in the UK – their Archbishop Athanasios's calls on the government to admit more Christian refugees have so far fallen on deaf ears – despite the fact that the last government and the current coalition government both operate effectively open border policies.

The arguments for admitting Christian refugees from the Middle East are strong and should appeal across the political spectrum. The multiculturalists and those who celebrate 'diversity' should rejoice at the arrival in these islands of a rich social and religious tradition with two thousand years of history.

Those averse to further immigration, particularly from the so-called 'Third World', should be able to take comfort from the fact that the new arrivals would be likely to integrate and contribute quickly. They are most unlikely to sympathise with extremism of any kind and, like their Ugandan Asian predecessors from the 1970s, most have respect for authority coupled with high educational and entrepreneurial aspirations. · 

Disqus - noscript

This fighting in Syria is not quite so much like the English Civil War, it is more like the Irish Troubles. Do you really think that, faced with the IRA and their violent campaign, the British Government should have ceded to every demand and given Northern Ireland up? The IRA were terrorists. So are the antigovernment forces in Syria. Assad should have every support in stamping them out.

I don't particularly think the rebels are brave or noble. They are fighting for power.....not necesarily for the good of the whole nation.
Nor do I believe Western powers have the slightest interest in the plight of Christians. They only have empty rhetoric (even contempt) for them. Apart from Russia, China and Israel....everyone seems to be willing on the Islamists.

We should not be sticking our nose in the business at all! We are over our heads in debt and we could only pay for such interference by further borrowing. As the debt is so huge that it is our children that will be landed with the repayment, our government do not have the moral authority to incur further debt that has to be paid for by our children! Our government should be told that their responsibility is to the people who elected them and to stop this constant interference in foreign affairs. There are far too many needs that have to be attended to in the UK without our taxes being squandered in foreign places to make our government minister feel important!!

Dear Sir, I am a Sunni Muslim Syrian and I can assure you that your article, like many foreign articles, is exacerbating fears. There are Salafists and extremist Sunni rebels on the loose and these rebels are not integrated fully into the Free Syrian Army, and even if they were, the Free Syrian Army lacks coordination and someone in command. These Salafists and extremists are tacking advantage of the power vacuum that remains in the country and are trying to use it to their own advantage. Once Assad's regime is gone and a transitional government is in power these people will be judged and such actions will not be allowed. I have gone back to Syria numerous times and I can assure you that Christians are not just 'tolerated' because of Assad, but because they are considered Syrians above everything. The word 'tolerated' should not even be used. Syrian citizens are entitled to Syria even if they were Muslim, Christian, Arab, or non-Arab. I wish everyone would stop acting like a Syria expert!

taking*

"
The anti-Christian rhetoric has already begun in Syria. "Christians to Beirut" has been the cry of some in the Free Syrian Army."

This is not true. This chant, which doesn't rhyme in Arabic, is an invention of the regime and used to tar the opposition well before the FSA was invented. It hasn't been raised in a banner or protest since the beginning of the revolution.

The FSA could have attacked Christian villages and torched churches all over the country but they haven't, even though the church paints everyone who opposes dictatorship as terrorist fundamentalist muslims, including those Christians like George Sabra and Michel Kilo who have joined the revolution.

Could I congratulate Mr Black? He obviously knows more about Syria, and and the situation there, than anyone actually living there does....

In reality, his statement that "We should be in no doubt that the insurgency against Assad is a Sunni affair financed by Sunni money from Saudi Arabia with all the traditional hatred and disdain for the infidel, including the Shia Alawite sect that the Assads belong to - and Christianity" is merely an ideologically driven, and rather pathetic, attempt to shoehorn the current chaotic and fast changing situation in Syria into the prism through which he views the world.

If, as he asserts, the whole civil war in Syria, which began over a year ago, is "a Sunni affair financed by Sunni money from Saudi Arabia", where is all this cash? It is not evident in the current ramshackle and disorganised nature of the 'Free Syrian Army', nor its pathetically asymmetrical level of weaponry. The most striking thing about this uprising/civil war is that it is characterised by a blindingly obvious LACK of money. The whole thing is being run on spit and shoelaces....

Likewise, his assertion that "..the driving ideology behind the Syrian rebellion is Sunni Islam in both its austere mainstream and violent Salafist forms" is not borne out by either any evidence offered by him, or by the situation on the ground.

In reality, the situation in Syria is not remotely as tidy and ideologically pure as he paints it. Different groups, mostly driven by the urge to join the Arab spring, and a refusal to tolerate the poverty and repression inflicted on them by two generations of the same family, have risen against the Assad regime. The Kurds sat on the side lines for a long time, and have now joined in. The Sunni population of Syria is not a monolithic unit. Most of them have no interest in, or affinity with, the extreme Wahabi version of Islam practiced Saudi Arabia.

In any case, Mr Black's statement that "..this tolerance seems unlikely to survive Assad's demise" is an exercise in fortune-telling, nothing more. The Christians are about 10%, the Alawite are close to 13%, other Shi'a account for another 2/3%, while the Druze make up 3%. So, the total so far is running at 28-9%. Add the Kurds to the mix, another 9%, and suddenly the situation is not the black and white image presented by Mr Black.

Another factor is that the religious minorities are concentrated geographically. The Druze mostly live in their mountains(Jebel-al-Druze), nearly 90% of Alawite are in one province, and the Christians are almost exclusively urban, basically in Damascus and Aleppo. The same geographical concentration is true of the other Shi'a groups(Twelver and Niner Shi'a).

It would be very difficult for any future government of Syria to stage any kind of effective ethnic or religious cleansing, not to mention the fact that any such future administration will have a lot of other issues to think about.

Mr Black's silly apocalyptic vision is highly unlikely to happen....

Only Christians of Syria can protect their interests! I think they should side with the people of Syria not with the Assad's Military. If they continue to assist the Assad. I think these individual should face the consequent. I think the Christian leaders in Syria are forced to help the regime. it is so obvious.

The blatant and unashamed racism of this article left me physically sick. Obviously, Black is willing to undertake an intervention to save Syrian Christians, but his generosity apparently does not extend to the 15,000 Syrian dead and hundreds of thousands non Christians who are already refugees or displaced in their own country. Disgraceful.

Christians have existed in Syria for countless centuries, before Assad ever came to power and in harmony & prosperity alongside Muslims.

And by the way, the word Infidel describes idol worshipers, its strictly forbidden to call both Christians & Jews infidels, as they are known in the Quran as people of the Book, and followers of the word of God.
Assad regime is a fascist and barbaric regime that doesn't value life and the sanctity of life, whether that life is a Christian or a Muslim.

If Syria's Muslims are so 'intolerant' of their Christian brethren, then how would you explain the existence of a vast, thriving and patriotic Christian community in Syria far before the Baath regime of Assad took over power in Syria?!
Christians have thrived in Syria for centuries before Assad. The fact of the matter is Assad is using minorities, Christians & Alawites in particular; to turn Syrians on each others in order to justify his brutal & fascist methods of ruling with an iron fist!

This war is not about democracy. its about Sunni overthrowing Assad backed by Wahhabi. what will follow is more Islam, more fundamentalism, intolerance, terrorism and ethnic cleansing of minority groups.
The other arab countries should serve as an example:
Iraq after Saddam-ethnic cleansing of Assyria and daily terror.
Libya after Gaddafi- genocide on black population.
Egypt after Mubarak- Coptic Christians under siege from Muslim brotherhood.