Interview: ‘Christians and Muslims share same fate in Syria’

Here’s my interview on the plight of the Christian minority inside Syria today, conducted by Mediamax’s Narine Daneghyan in Armenia. I get asked about Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions all the time, and have argued that this is a vastly exaggerated Western storyline that seeks to keep conflict on the front boiler in the Mideast. Here is a chance to see how another minority – Christians – is faring in Syria, and where they stand on the great divide in the country.

Below is an unedited version of the English-language interview that appears in Mediamax. Those interested in an Armenian version can read that here.

– Sharmine Narwani

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Mediamax: Information about extremists who attacked and killed Christians (Armenians) in Syria was on the internet again in the past weeks. It was said that Christians, mostly Armenians, were beheaded and two families were forced to accept Islam. Do you have information about whether this is true?

Narwani: 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.

Mediamax: Can this already be called the start of a “religious war” in the whole Middle East?

Narwani: 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.

No. 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.

Mediamax: Today we are witnessing Islamist extremists fighting each other in Syria. What caused this rivalry between rebel groups that were focused before on fighting against the Assad regime?

Narwani: 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.

Islamist extremists have shown that they are no less opportunistic than others. You have the ideologically-similar Jabhat al Nusra and ISIL competing heavily on one hand and then the newly formed, multi-militia, 50,000-strong “Islamic Front” trying to “differentiate” themselves through sophisticated “re-branding” efforts. The West has tried to piggyback this new incarnation, so desperate are they for any strong non-Al Qaeda “opposition” that can give them leverage with the Syrian government, Iranians, Russians…but it is doomed to fail. The Islamic Front are Salafist militants – their language is sectarian, they embrace jihadism and they seek to establish Sharia law in their version of an Islamic empire. Furthermore, there is very little likelihood that they will remain cohesive once they begin to attain power.

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.”

Mediamax: Does the Christian population become the main and only target between the struggle of the extremist groups?

Narwani: 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.

Mother Agnes Mariam, a Palestinian-Lebanese nun who has worked in Syria for two decades told me that, until recently, even the Vatican downplayed “a sectarian dimension because we viewed this as artificial.” She explains: “Christians have shared the same fate as Muslims in Syria – everybody faced the same violence.”

But when I interviewed her last November, Mother Agnes – whose reconciliation work inside Syria has put her in contact with many rebel militias, including Jabhat al Nusra – pointed out that the Vatican was starting to be more outspoken about attacks on Christians. She says this is mainly because “now there is too much targeting of Christians now in Maaloula, Sadad, Qara, Deir Atieh, Nabek and other places. Every day Christian buses, schools are being targeted. In Bab Touma, Bab Sharqi, Jaramana, Kasa’a, Malki…”

This is true, but attacks on other minority groups also continue unabated across Syria, so Christians are hardly the main targets of political violence. One thing I think makes Christians more vulnerable is that they lack the quality of “defense militias” other minorities – Alawites, Druze, Kurds, for instance – have assembled for protection. Small units do exist in pockets of the country where attacks against Christians have escalated, and just last month we heard reports that Assyrian Christians in al-Hasakah Governorate (near the Turkish and Iraqi borders) are starting to form armed youth groups.

They have also lost the “protection” they used to enjoy from the West: Americans and Europeans are loathe to highlight the fact that Syrian Christians have overwhelmingly supported the government of President Bashar al-Assad – or have, at least, rejected the US-backed armed opposition.

Ironically, today, one of the few countries actively raising the alarm about the plight of Syrian Christians is Russia – culminating in a recent meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Pope.

Mediamax: 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?

Narwani: 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.

Mediamax: What is your opinion about the future of Christians still living in Syria? And what is the solution?

Narwani: 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) 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. On August 14, eleven Christians were brutally murdered by Islamist militants who have taken over 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 intact. 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 further 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.