Tag Archives: Syria

Kobani, Then and Now


Kobani, Syria, Last Weekend

For the past several weeks, the world has been watching Kobani (in Kurdish, Kobanê), a small city on the Syrian-Turkish border. In September, militants from ISIS, the Sunni Islamist group that has declared a restored caliphate in the Middle East, laid siege to the city, which is mostly Kurdish and currently in the hands of the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish group that opposes the Assad government. Kobani’s strategic significance is debatable, but the city has symbolic importance, and its fall would be a huge morale boost for ISIS. Consequently, the US has instituted a bombing campaign to push ISIS back. As of this weekend, the siege was at a standstill.

A bewildering set of parties is involved. In addition to the two main antagonists, ISIS and the YPG, there are the Iraqi Kurds – who, unlike the YPG, do not have good relations with the PKK, the Kurdish militants who seek to establish a homeland in Turkey – the Free Syrian Army, part of the “moderate” secular opposition to Assad; the Assad regime itself; the Iraqi government; regional powers like Turkey and Iran; and the international anti-ISIS coalition, led by the US. Each of these parties has its own interests to protect, which makes cooperation very difficult. Most observers think the city will fall unless outsiders supply substantial ground troops. That seems unlikely. Although Turkey last week said it would open its border and allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters, as well as members of the Free Syrian Army, to reinforce Kobani, it’s not clear whether that will occur.

One group that does not have a significant representation in Kobani is Christians. This is ironic, because Kobani was in fact founded by Christians during the last great wave of persecution in the region, about 100 years ago. In the wake of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, an ethnic-cleansing campaign that killed millions of Armenians and other Christians in the Ottoman Empire, Armenian refugees established a village near a recently-built train station on the Baghdad Railway, at a place called Ayn al-Arab in the Aleppo Province. The Kurds came later and called the village “Kobani,” apparently after the German company that had built the railway.

The Turks pushed many of Kobani’s Armenians further south. Those who avoided deportation built churches and schools in Kobani, but most eventually decided to move on, to other cities in Syria or to Soviet Armenia. Doubtless, many of them wished to leave a place with so many bad memories. According to political scientist Cengiz Aktar of the Istanbul Policy Center, the area surrounding Kobani is known as “‘the Armenian cemetery’ because of the thousands of Armenians who died there during the deportations. It was a terrible place when the Armenians arrived back then, and the area has a tragic history. It is being repeated now.”

Hardly anyone today remembers the Christian presence in Kobani. I didn’t know the story, myself, until a friend said his grandfather, one of the refugees, once had a shop there. The churches are gone. New humanitarian disasters succeed the ones of 100 years ago; history moves on. Still, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the great suffering that led to Kobani’s foundation, and the great suffering that continues there now. It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood.

Photo from CNN

Is ISIS Ready to Move on Aleppo?

This is very disturbing news. Walter Russell Mead reports that ISIS, last seen expelling the Christians of Mosul, Iraq, from their ancestral homeland, may be readying an attack on Aleppo in Syria:

A Syrian army officer interviewed by al-Monitor is entirely certain that this fight is coming. Maybe not tomorrow, but “very soon,” he says—and the regime is preparing itself.

The fall of Aleppo would have strong symbolic resonance across the Middle East. If ISIS were to capture Aleppo, it will have two of the oldest cities in the Middle East in its pocket. Mosul is the fabled city of Nineveh while Aleppo is the ancient city of Halab, and no one power has held both strongholds since the Ottoman Empire. While this may not seem like a big deal to Western observers, history is experienced very differently especially in that part of the world. And jihadists love a winner: The possession of two storied cities would be a big selling point in ISIS’ recruitment drive.

The Assad regime would offer a much tougher opponent than the hapless Maliki government in Iraq, Mead notes. And Assad “has at least the reluctant backing of Syria’s minorities, who fear that ISIS will conduct the same sort of ethnic cleansing in Syria as it has in Iraq.” Still, as Syria’s financial center, Aleppo would be a great prize, and ISIS will be sorely tempted to keep up the momentum. Stay tuned.

Report: Obama Administration to Increase Aid to Syrian Rebels



Holy Mother of God Armenian Apostolic Church in Kessab

The Wall Street Journal reports today that President Obama’s national security advisers have agreed on a proposal to increase US aid to “moderate” Syrian rebels. Although the advisers disagree on the advisability of more aggressive military intervention, they have apparently coalesced around a plan for US Special Forces to train and equip the moderates. This is in line with a report on Walter Russell Mead’s blog that Obama agreed during a recent visit to Saudi Arabia to supply the rebels with shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, or “manpads.”

One can understand the Administration’s frustration. Two-and-a-half years after Obama said that Assad would have to go, and several months after the President’s about-face on chemical weapons, the Assad regime seems more secure than it has for a long time. But two factors counsel strongly against more aggressive assistance to the rebels. First, as Patrick Brennan writes, “for months and months now, it’s been obvious that the effective parts of the Syrian opposition are militant Islamists” like the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Pro-Western moderate rebels, the sort the Administration likes to promote, are more or less “powerless.” If the opposition were to succeed in overthrowing Assad, it’s quite possible that the Islamists would overwhelm their secular allies–perhaps through a democratic election, as in Egypt in 2012–and transform Syria into an Islamist state. How would that advance America’s interests? 

Second, assistance to the rebels would almost certainly worsen the already dire situation of Syria’s Christians. Just in the last two weeks, the Nusra Front attacked the Armenian town of Kessab, displacing thousands of Christians. Fortunately, first reports of a massacre seem to have been unfounded. Indeed, the rebels are conducting a PR offensive to assure Kessab–and the world community–that they mean no harm. Christians are skeptical, and with good reason. ISIL recently imposed the centuries-old dhimma in a different Christian town, Raqqa, and, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon observed this morning, “gross human rights violations undeniably continue.” Islamists have kidnapped nuns and bishops and murdered clergy. Only today, masked gunmen, presumably Islamist rebels, murdered a Catholic priest in a rebel-controlled district in the city of Homs. For these reasons, Syria’s Christians mostly support the Assad regime, usually quietly, sometimes vocally.

At this writing, it’s not clear whether the plan to equip and train the Syrian rebels will be adopted. In the words of the Journal report, “It isn’t clear where Mr. Obama stands.”

Two Updates on Syria’s Christians

Holy Mother of God Armenian Apostolic Church in Kessab, Syria

Two updates on last week’s post about the persecution of Christians in Syria, one hopeful, one much less so.

First the hopeful one. As I wrote last week, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting with Syrian opposition, has succeeded in capturing the town of Raqqa and imposing the classical dhimma on the town’s Christian inhabitants. The dhimma is a notional contract that Christians make with the Islamic community; it offers Christians protection and some autonomy in exchange for their agreement to pay a poll tax called the jizya and to accept restrictions on their dress, movement, construction of churches, etc. Although the historical origins are obscure, the dhimma was a standard concept in classical Islamic law. The Ottomans abandoned the concept only in the 19th century. Its revival now, even in this limited way, is a very worrying sign.

In a response to my post, a post at Andrew Sullivan’s blog points to comments condemning ISIL by a scholar at Egypt’s al-Azhar University, the leading center of Sunni Islamic learning. The scholar, Sheikh Abdul Zahir Shehata, maintains that Islamic law makes imposition of the dhimma illegal in these circumstances. ISIL’s collection of the jizya , he says, is “a form of theft that uses religion as a cover.”

It’s gratifying to see someone from al-Azhar making the point. But there is a certain ambiguity in Shehata’s remarks. If you read them closely, you see that he is not necessarily condemning the jizya as such, only its collection by a renegade group:

“ISIL contradicts itself,” Shehata said. “On the one hand they say they are implementing the provisions of Islamic sharia, including the ‘jizya’, however the Islamic state must be a full-fledged state and recognised by its citizens and subjects, which is not the case in the areas where ISIL is imposing its control by force and bloodshed.”

Maybe it’s a problem with the translation, or perhaps one has to read the whole interview to understand Shehata’s point. But it’s important to focus on the nuances. Perhaps Shehata’s real point is that only a true Islamic law state, not a band of rebels acting outside government authority, may impose the jizya–in which case, Syria’s Christians may find his rejection of ISIL’s actions less reassuring than first appears.

The less hopeful update: over the weekend, fighters with a different al-Qaeda offshoot in the opposition, a rival of ISIL known as the Nusra Front, captured the Armenian Christian town of Kessab. The fighters crossed the border from Turkey, where their bases are located, and attacked the town on Friday. By Sunday, it had fallen. Thousands of Kessab’s Christians–some of whom had sought refuge from Raqqa–have fled to the nearby city of Latakia, where they receiving assistance from the local community, the Red Cross, and Red Crescent. Eyewitnesses report that the Nusra Front has looted Christian homes and stores and desecrated churches in Kessab.

Many Armenian Christians in Kessab descend from refugees who fled the last great persecution of Christians in the region, the Armenian Genocide of 1915–itself a byproduct, in part, of a jihad the Ottoman Empire declared against Christians during World War I. The sad ironies will not escape any of the Christians in Syria today.

Reinstating the Dhimma in Syria

This month, the conflict in Syria enters its fourth year. The latest news is that the government has recaptured the border town of Yabrud, an important opposition stronghold. In fact, Yabrud is where the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate in the opposition, had been holding hostage a group of Greek Orthodox nuns. The Front released the nuns only last week, reportedly in return for a government promise to allow the Front to leave the city.

Yabrud’s fall will be welcome news to Syria’s Christians. Although they have tried to avoid getting too mixed up in the conflict, it’s no secret that most of them quietly support the Assad government. Some Americans express dismay at this fact. Earlier this year, in fact, Senator John McCain reportedly stormed out of a private meeting with Syrian Christian leaders who had traveled to Washington to warn about Islamist elements in the opposition. Presumably, Senator McCain thinks these warnings reflect badly on non-Islamist elements in the anti-Assad coalition, whom he favors supplying with arms.

It’s easy to support moderate rebels and hope for the best when one lives in the United States. Syria’s Christians do not have that luxury. They favor Assad because he represents the lesser of two evils. A member of a minority religion himself–he is an Alawite–Assad has been reasonably tolerant of other minorities, including Christians. Better to take your chances with him, even if he is a dictator, than risk life under jihadists who kidnap nuns and hold them for ransom.

Actually, for an al Qaeda affiliate, the hostage-taking Nusra Front is relatively tolerant. The opposition contains worse. Take, for example, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), another al Qaeda offshoot that fights with the opposition. ISIL has taken the eastern town of Raqqa and reinstated the centuries-old dhimma, the notional contract that governs relations with Christians in classical Islamic law. According to the dhimma, Christians may live in an Islamic society as long as they pay a poll tax called the jizya, accept restrictions on their activities–for example, they may not engage in public religious displays, affect equality with Muslims, or carry weapons–and refrain from cooperating with Islam’s enemies. If they break the terms of the contract, Christians forfeit the protection of Islamic society and become subject to retaliation.

ISIL has updated the dhimma for Raqqa’s several thousand Christians. For example, Haaretz reports,

According to the 12 clauses in the accord, the Christians will commit to pay a twice-yearly poll tax of “four gold dinars” – which at today’s rate, comes to about $500 per person – with the exception that members of the middle class will pay half this amount, and the poor will pay a quarter of it, on condition they do not conceal their true financial situation.

The Raqqa dhimma also requires Christians to turn over persons ISIL believes to be working against it. Interestingly, this might include other jihadists. At the moment, ISIL is quarreling with the Nusra Front, whose members have demanded that ISIL leave the country and allow the Front to represent al Qaeda’s interests in Syria.

The Ottomans formally abolished the dhimma in the nineteenth century, an act that led at the time to a widespread anti-Christian backlash. Since the founding of the modern Middle East, no Islamist group has seriously sought to reinstate it. Even the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, for example, did not propose that Christians formally comply with the old dhimmi restrictions. It’s no surprise that Syria’s Christians look at developments in places like Raqqa and decide that Assad, rather than the opposition, offers them a more secure future.

Law, Religion, and Putin’s Times Op-Ed

Law and religion is not at the very forefront of the rapidly changeable geo-political situation regarding Syria (though, as we have noted here, it is certainly in the immediate background). But somehow, some way, law and religion managed to make its way into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s New York Times editorial (which the Times decided to title, “A Plea for Caution From Russia“), printed on no less exceptional a date than September 11. After condemning “the language of force” (at least when used by the United States) and praising the newly emergent “growing trust” that marks his “working and personal relationship with President Obama,” Putin saw fit to throw a final rhetorical body-blow against American exceptionalism by deploying the language of law and religion:

I carefully studied [Obama’s] address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

Christians, American and Syrian

President Obama’s astonishing decision to reverse course and seek congressional authorization for military action in Syria has given Americans an opportunity to think about the situation a bit more. One important consideration is the fate of Syria’s Christians. This group, which numbers in the millions, has consistently opposed outside military action against Assad. Not only do Christians deplore the suffering an American missile strike would bring, they also worry about anything that would tend to benefit Islamists in the opposition. Assad is a brutal dictator, but most Syrian Christians would rather take their chances with him than risk Islamist government. A dictator, as Samuel Tadros wrote recently, can sometimes be bought off. With the Islamists, there’s no chance.

Yet the debate taking place in the United States this week virtually ignores the impact an American campaign would have on Syria’s Christians. A couple of commentators, like Philip Jenkins and Rod Dreher, have raised the issue, as has Senator Rand Paul. But most politicians and pundits apparently don’t care to address the subject. The fate of millions of people doesn’t figure in the national conversation. Why is that?

There are two reasons. First, it’s a matter of realpolitik. A small and shrinking minority, Mideast Christians can do little to advance American interests. So the American foreign policy establishment ignores them. This is hardly new; the US declined to accept a mandate for Armenian Christians 100 years ago, and the Bush Administration seemed largely indifferent to the fate of Iraq’s Christians during the recent occupation. Besides, American foreign policy elites are quite secular and uncomfortable with religious identity. Seeing Christians as sympathetic victims doesn’t come naturally to them.

Second, Mideast Christians lack a powerful lobby in the US. American Christians could form such a lobby, of course, but they tend not to identify with their co-religionists in the Mideast. Although Christianity was born in the Middle East—in Syria, Christianity dates to biblical times –to most American Christians, Mideast Christians seem quite foreign, theologically and culturally. An Evangelical in Minnesota probably feels he has more in common culturally with a secular Jew from Tel Aviv than a Syriac Orthodox Christian from Tur Abdin. And, indeed, American Christians are much more likely to view Israelis as their proxies in the Middle East. Just yesterday, a congressman from a conservative Georgia district told constituents that he would oppose an American campaign in Syria unless he believed the Assad regime posed a threat to Israel.

Moreover—and I confess have no way to prove this, it’s just a hunch—even those American Christians who do feel an affinity for Mideast Christians might be uncomfortable lobbying for them as Christians. For some of these American Christians, it’s a matter of religious conviction: Christianity means that one should not favor one’s own. “We don’t help people because they’re Christians,” someone once told me, “but because we’re Christians.” For others, it’s a matter of civic loyalty. Some American Christians may feel it’s illegitimate to take a public policy position on the basis of a shared religious identity. These Christians might believe that, as Americans, they shouldn’t oppose a war because of the possible effect on their “favorites” in the target country. American interests should take priority.

These are complicated questions, and I probably shouldn’t address them in a short post, but here goes. In my view, neither of these concerns should discourage American Christians from speaking out on behalf of their co-religionists in Syria. From a Christian perspective, Christians do owe special duties to other Christians, at least in some circumstances. The church, St. Paul said, is one body; Christians are supposed to be in communion with each other, as well as with God. I don’t mean that charity is limited to Christians or that the church should always put Christians first; of course not. The parable of the Good Samaritan strongly suggests the contrary. But Christians surely can show special care for other Christians who are in very serious trouble. And Syria’s Christians—like Egypt’s Christians—are in very serious trouble.

As to the second concern, the vaguely Rawlsian idea that people should put aside religious commitments when they take a position on a potential military strike—well, there are many responses, but I’ll just give two. First, it’s not at all clear that a military strike, which likely will benefit Islamists in the opposition, is in America’s interest. Second, the Rawlsian objection reflects an entirely unrealistic understanding of how the world works. In a pluralistic society, people have multiple commitments–religious, ethnic, ideological, familial—that cut across national borders. Everyone knows these commitments influence people’s decisions about foreign policy. African-Americans cared deeply about US policy with respect to South African apartheid in the 1980s and care deeply about US policy in Africa today; Americans Jews care deeply about US policy toward Israel; American Muslims care deeply about US policy toward Palestine; and so on. Should Christians alone check their commitments at the door? Should they alone be embarrassed to raise the dire situation of co-religionists in other countries? Where’s the sense in that?

At this writing, it’s unclear what Congress and the President will decide about a military strike in Syria. The dire situation of Syria’s Christians should be a factor in the decision.

The Economist on Christian Sorrows

Photo from The Economist

The Economist has a couple of interesting stories this week on the continuing plight of Christians in the Middle East. First, from the magazine’s valuable religion blog, Erasmus, is this story about the continued disappearance of two bishops in Syria. One hundred days ago, Islamists in the Syrian opposition kidnapped the two clerics, one from the Greek Orthodox and the other from the Syriac Orthodox Church. Their whereabouts have not been revealed; some reports say they have already been murdered, though that is very unclear.  A Jesuit priest from Italy, who has been working in Syria for 20 years, has also gone missing recently. Meanwhile, the magazine reports that a court in Trabzon, Turkey, has agreed with Turkey’s ruling AKP party that the Byzantine Church of the Holy Wisdom (above) in that city should be reconverted to a mosque. The church had been converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in the 15th Century; in the 20th Century, under the Kemalist regime, it became a museum. Turkey’s tiny Greek Orthodox population worries that another Byzantine church by the same name, Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia, may be next.

House Hearing on Religious Minorities in Syria

CLR Forum reader Anahid Ugurlayan kindly points us to an important joint subcommittee hearing yesterday at the US House of Representatives, Religious Minorities in Syria: Caught in the Middle. Co-sponsored by the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations and the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, the hearing heard from four witnesses, including USCIRF Commissioner Zuhdi Jasser. The hearing extensively addressed the plight of Syria’s Christians.

The whole hearing is worthwhile, but the testimony of the Hudson Institute’s Nina Shea is particularly useful. Shea concedes that “no religious community has been spared suffering” in Syria’s civil war. But “Syria’s ancient Christian minority” faces an existential threat:

Christians, however, are not simply caught in the middle, as collateral damage. They are the targets of a more focused shadow war, one that is taking place alongside the larger conflict between the Shiite-backed Baathist Assad regime and the largely Sunni rebel militias. Christians are the targets of an ethno-religious cleansing by Islamist militants and courts. In addition, they have lost the protection of the Assad government, making them easy prey for criminals and fighters, whose affiliations are not always clear.

Shea documents anti-Christian incidents, some of them quite harrowing. She recommends, among other things, that the US Government direct aid to institutions caring for Christian refugees (who often fear going to refugee camps); expedite immigration applications from Syrian Christians; and ensure that none of its assistance to the Syrian opposition finds its way into the hands of Islamist groups responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Christians.

Is the US Selling Out the Middle East’s Christians?

Elizabeth Prodromou, a former Vice Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, has some harsh words for the commission’s annual report, issued last month. Prodromou sharply criticizes USCIRF and the entire US foreign policy team for ignoring human rights violations endured by Orthodox Christians in the Middle East.

For example, Prodromou complains that neither the US Administration nor USCIRF (an independent agency) has issued a statement about the kidnapping in Syria last month, most likely by Islamists in the opposition, of two Orthodox bishops. The kidnapping of two bishops sends an ominous message to Syria’s Christians, and Prodromou is outraged that the US did not see fit to introduce a Security Council resolution condemning the kidnapping. Russia, she notes, did introduce such a resolution.

I share Prodromou’s outrage about what is happening to Christians in Syria, most of whom are Orthodox, and her frustration at the West’s lack of attention to the problem. (This lack of attention is nothing new; the last US administration seemed more or less indifferent to the plight of Iraq’s Christians). But I’m not sure that official American statements would help the situation. Perversely, official expressions of concern from the outside often increase the danger for Christians in the Middle East. When Pope Benedict spoke about the obvious mistreatment of Copts a while ago, for example, Egypt withdrew its Vatican ambassador in protest. Things have not improved for the Copts since.

Moreover, it’s not plain how much credibility US government statements have in Syria at the moment. The US has worked itself into a situation in which neither of the major players in the conflict, neither Assad nor the Islamists who dominate the opposition, have an incentive to listen to what the US says. I’m not suggesting the US and the West should ignore the plight of Syria’s Christians and leave them to their fate; not at all. I mean only that official statements, without the wherewithal to back them up, do little, and often backfire.

Prodromou is on firmer ground when she criticizes the USCIRF report’s about-face on Turkey. Last year’s USCIRF report declared Turkey a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, a designation that signified that Turkey had an especially problematic record on religious freedom. This year’s report upgrades Turkey’s status from a CPC to a country that merely warrants monitoring. But, Prodromou notes, there hasn’t been any appreciable improvement of the situation for Orthodox Christians (and other religious minorities) in Turkey over the last year:

By the USCIRF’s own report in 2013, Halki [a famous Greek Orthodox seminary] remains shuttered 42 years after its closing and 10-plus years into the Erdogan era; there has been no overhaul of the property rights regime used to economically disenfranchise the country’s Orthodox Christian citizens and strip Orthodox foundations of their lands, so that the USCIRF characterized random returns of property, as in the case of forest lands around Halki returned to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as “commendable” but “not codified by law.”  The 2013 USCIRF report also cited rising fear amongst Armenian Orthodox citizens of Turkey, because of hate crimes committed against members of their community, the most grotesquely emblematic case being that of an 84-year-old Armenian woman who was murdered in her Istanbul home with a cross carved into her chest.  The Commission obliquely commented that the “Turkish local police promptly launched investigations into three cases, but it is not known if any arrests have been made connected to any of these incidents.”

It does seem very strange that a country could go from being a “country of particular concern” to one merely “worth watching” in the space of a year, especially a country with Turkey’s spotty religious-freedom record. In fact, four commissioners dissented from USCIRF’s decision. USCIRF shouldn’t have named Turkey as a CPC in the first place, the dissenters wrote, but, having made that decision, USCIRF is now making the opposite mistake. “We believe that Turkey has not shown nearly enough improvement in addressing religious freedom violations over the past year to justify its promotion to the status of a country that is merely being monitored,” they explained. The dissenters would have placed Turkey in an intermediate category–among “Tier 2″ religious freedom violators, in the parlance of USCIRF.

You can read Prodromou’s entire post here.