In Depth

Why some Christians pray for Assad to keep power in Syria

Ahead of Geneva II, a growing number of Lebanese Christians see Syria's leader as their best defence

venetia.jpg

BEIRUT - “When is the war coming?” is one of Madame’s favourite questions to ask of her occasional foreign visitors, especially journalists, who she assumes get some sort of secret bulletin about security developments.

“Who is winning in Syria?” comes a close second, followed by, “What will become of Lebanon?”

Ensconced in a large, old-fashioned flat in east Beirut’s well-to-do Gemmayzeh neighbourhood, Madame’s concerns are shared by many other elderly Christians who live in Lebanon: they have been through one war, and have no desire to see another one.

It’s a fear held by nearly all Lebanese regardless of sect or age, especially as the so-called 'Syria spillover' effect continues. But a growing number of Lebanon’s Christians feel, rightly or wrongly, that if a full-scale conflict erupted, they would be particularly at risk.

Attacks on Christian churches and priests across the region, despite occurring alongside many more attacks on various Muslim symbols and institutions, further fuel suspicions.

“Look at what is happening in Iraq, in Egypt, in Syria,” Madame says with a grimace, one manicured hand clutching a Vogue cigarette.

“And now al-Qaeda is here,” she adds, a red nail jabbing the L’Orient du Jour’s front-page coverage of the recent bombings of Beirut’s Iranian Embassy. “They want us to leave, but we will not go.”

Whether al-Qaeda really does have a foothold in Lebanon is almost irrelevant – for many Christian Lebanese, the evidence of a growing pan-regional Islamist movement hostile to their community is indisputable.

Nowhere does this seem truer than in neighbouring Syria. Names of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups such as Jahbat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) have become familiar media fodder, and claims that the mainstream opposition will be able to protect the country’s minorities appear increasingly hollow.

“I’ll tell you something,” Madame says. “God knows I hated [Bashar] Assad. God knows we all did. He was no friend to Lebanon, and when Syria left [in 2005], it was good for us.

“But now? Now we see who he really is: strong and decisive, and better than any of the alternatives.”

Once the stance of a select loyalist few, Madame’s opinion – like Assad himself – is gaining ground.

As the Syrian regime battles rebels in Qalamoun, a mountainous strip flanking Lebanon’s northeastern border that would further consolidate the government-controlled corridor between Damascus and Assad’s Alawite heartland, world powers are fighting to ensure the success of Geneva II.

Scheduled for 22 January (fingers crossed), it will be a telling test of the opposition's unity, who are currently unable even to agree on who will attend the talks. Such a fractured and rudderless side, compared to the steely Assad regime, is as much a danger to Syria’s future as the al-Qaeda elements - especially for the region’s religious minorities.

Worse, it is becoming clear that the moderate opposition – many of whom operate out of conference rooms in exile – is no longer the one in control of the outcome of the brutal, sectarian civil war that began as a series of peaceful protests back in 2011. 

“So many heads, too many heads, and yet no head at all,” Madame says with a shake of her head. “Assad can protect us better than them.”

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