Tag Archives: Syria

“The ‘Alawis of Syria: War, Faith and Politics in the Levant” (Kerr & Larkin, eds.)

In November, Oxford University Press will release “The ‘Alawis of Syria: War, Faith and Politics in the Levant” edited by Michael Kerr (King’s College London) and Craig Larkin (King’s College London). The publisher’s description follows:

Throughout the turbulent history of the Levant the ‘Alawis – a secretive, resilient and ancient Muslim sect – have aroused suspicion and animosity, including accusations of religious heresy. More recently they have been tarred with the brush of political separatism and complicity in the excesses of the Assad regime, claims that have gained greater traction since the onset of the Syrian uprising and subsequent devastating civil war.

The contributors to this book provide a complex and nuanced reading of Syria’s ‘Alawi communities -from loyalist gangs (Shabiha) to outspoken critics of the regime. Drawing upon wide-ranging research that examines the historic, political and social dynamics of the ‘Alawi and the Syrian state, the current tensions are scrutinised and fresh insights offered. Among the themes addressed are religious practice, social identities, and relations to the Ba’ath party, the Syrian state and the military apparatus. The analysis also extends to Lebanon with a focus on the embattled ‘Alawi community of Jabal Mohsen in Tripoli and state relations with Hizballah amid the current crisis.

Atwan, “Islamic State”

In September, the University of California Press will release “Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate,” by Abdel Bari Atwan (editor of the Rai al-Youm news website).  The publisher’s description follows: 

Islamic State stunned the world when it overran an area the size of Great Britain on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border in a matter of weeks and proclaimed the birth of a new Caliphate. In this timely and important book, Abdel Bari Atwan draws on his unrivaled knowledge of the global jihadi movement and Middle Eastern geopolitics to reveal the origins and modus operandi of Islamic State.

Based on extensive field research and exclusive interviews with IS insiders, Islamic State outlines the group’s leadership structure, as well as its strategies, tactics, and diverse methods of recruitment. Atwan traces the Salafi-jihadi lineage of IS, its ideological differences with al Qaeda and the deadly rivalry that has emerged between their leaders. He also shows how the group’s rapid growth has been facilitated by its masterful command of social media platforms, the “dark web,” Hollywood blockbuster-style videos, and even jihadi computer games, producing a powerful paradox where the ambitions of the Middle Ages have reemerged in cyberspace.

As Islamic State continues to dominate the world’s media headlines with horrific acts of ruthless violence, Atwan considers the movement’s chances of survival and expansion and offers indispensable insights on potential government responses to contain the IS threat.

The NYT on the End of Mideast Christianity

Egyptian Copts, one holding a Coptic Christian cross, demonstrate against the overnight sectarian violence, in downtown Cairo, Egypt Sunday, May 8, 2011. Christians and Muslims throwing rocks clashed in downtown Cairo on Sunday, hours after ultraconservative Muslim mobs set fire overnight to a church and a Christian-owned apartment building in a frenzy of violence that killed 12 people and injured more than 200. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

 Photo from Christianity Today

Eliza Griswold’s major piece on Mideast Christians in the New York Times Magazine this past weekend is getting lots of well-deserved attention. The Times, more than almost any other media publication, can place items on the national agenda, and both it and Griswold deserve credit for covering the crisis facing Christianity in Syria and Iraq. Griswold makes a couple of mistakes in the article–she incorrectly describes the beliefs of Oriental Orthodox Christians and ascribes the Armenian Genocide to “nationalism, not religion,” when in fact the genocide resulted from both–but, on the whole, it’s a very impressive piece, and well worth reading.

As an American, I was particularly struck by Griswold’s description of how the United States has abandoned Mideast Christians. Really, we are doing next to nothing to help these poor people. “Wait a minute,” someone might object. “How has the US abandoned them? And why do we have to do anything? We’re not responsible for righting every wrong that occurs in the world, and anyway we were in Iraq, trying to help, for years. It didn’t work. Let Iraqis and other local populations settle this for themselves. It’s not worth more American lives.”

I understand the appeal of this objection, but it depends on not a little willful amnesia. Of course, the parties who bear principal responsibility for the persecution of Christians are local Islamists like ISIS. But the US itself bears indirect responsibility. The US invasion in 2003 led to this situation, by creating anarchy and unleashing long-repressed sectarian resentments. And by abruptly leaving Iraq, we have allowed the crisis to intensify. A Catholic bishop Griswold quotes says it well. “Americans and the West were telling us they came to bring democracy, freedom and prosperity. What we are living is anarchy, war, death and the plight of three million refugees.’’ Having helped to create this crisis, the US has a moral obligation to do something to help. We can’t simply abandon these people–and Griswold makes clear that both the Bush and Obama Administrations deserve blame in this–as though we had nothing to do with exposing them to danger in the first place.

As of now, Griswold reports, the US has done very little. (This morning’s announcement of a potential US-Turkish alliance to fight ISIS in northern Syria seems driven largely by Turkey’s desire to preempt Kurdish gains; I doubt most of the region’s Christians hope for much out of it). The US is doing nothing to speed up immigration applications from Mideast Christians, notwithstanding the obvious persecution they are suffering. Even humanitarian assistance has been lacking.

Griswold correctly diagnoses the problem. Mideast Christians have few allies in American politics. Conservatives don’t feel much affinity for Mideast Christians, who often favor Palestine in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and liberals have a hard time seeing any Christians as sympathetic victims. As someone once observed, Mideast Christians have the misfortune to be too foreign for the Right and too Christian for the Left.

I hope Griswold’s timely piece can do something to help change America’s response. You can read her whole essay here.

Mideast Christians and Authoritarian Regimes

2000px-Coptic_cross.svgLast week’s ruling in Obergefell took up a lot of attention, but I’ve been meaning to link a couple of good articles about Mideast Christians, specifically, their relationship with authoritarian regimes. Outsiders often criticize Mideast Christians for coming to terms with such regimes. But the regimes are often the best alternative in a terrible situation.

First, at Crux, John Allen has been writing a series on Egypt’s Copts, who are going through one of the worst periods of persecution in their long history. Yesterday, he posted an interesting piece on relations between Copts and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. El-Sisi has made a number of high-profile gestures of solidarity with Copts, including attending a Christmas Liturgy, and the vast majority view him very favorably. The Coptic Church is solidly behind him, and for most Christians, Allen writes, “it’s axiomatic that el-Sisi is the best thing that’s happened in a long time.”

But there are dissenting views. Allen interviews a few Copts who say El-Sisi’s warmth is just for show, and that his regime continues to oppress Copts, just as the Mubarak and Morsi governments did. Crimes against Copts continue to go unpunished, and there is still  “forced displacement, harassment under the country’s anti-blasphemy laws, kidnappings and physical assaults.” Indeed, one commentator reports that, “in virtually every category… the number of incidents today is going up rather than down.” Perhaps Christians’ support for el-Sisi is misplaced–or perhaps, as most Copts argue, el-Sisi is doing all he can to change traditional Egyptian attitudes, and is the best option in a very imperfect situation. My sense, from reading Western news accounts, is that the latter is the case. But I’ll admit Allen’s reporting makes me wonder a bit.

The second is this wide-ranging interview from La Stampa’s “Vatican Insider” with Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II. Aphrem–who previously served as his church’s archbishop in America, incidentally–discusses a number of topics, including Christians’ relations with the Assad regime. Here’s a snippet:

Some Western circles accuse the Christians of the East of submitting to authoritarian regimes.

“We have not submitted ourselves to Assad and the so-called authoritarian governments. We simply recognise legitimate governments. The majority of Syrian citizens support Assad’s government and have always supported it. We recognise legitimate rulers and pray for them, as the New Testament teaches us. We also see that on the other side there is no democratic opposition, only extremist groups. Above all, we see that in the past few years, these groups have been basing their actions on an ideology that comes from the outside, brought here by preachers of hatred who have come from and are backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt. These groups receive arms through Turkey too, as the media have shown us.”

You have to read between the lines here. What he’s saying, it seems to me, is not that Assad is wonderful, but that the alternative for Christians is incomparably worse. Aphrem makes other allegations that seem dubious, for example, that the West is arming terrorist groups that are massacring Christians. I guess he’s referring to Turkey’s alleged links with ISIS. Anyway, it’s hard to argue with his basic point that the West should not judge Syria’s Christians for the choices they have to make. Like the Allen piece on Copts, the La Stampa interview is worth reading for a sense of the pressures Mideast Christians face every day.

Conversations: Christian Sahner

From 2008 to 2010, young scholar Christian Sahner (left) lived in Syria, studying Arabic. He learned a great deal about the country. particularly the relations among the different religious groups that made up Syrian society–including Christians, who accounted for perhaps 10% of the population. Last fall, he published an engaging account of his time in Syria, Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present (Oxford). In the book, Sahner describes life in Syria before the Arab Spring. Notwithstanding a surface calm, he writes, sectarian tensions existed just below the surface.

This week, Sahner–who received a PhD in History this month from Princeton, and who will start a research fellowship at Cambridge in the fall–kindly answers some questions about his work. Our conversation covers topics such as the history of Christians in Syria, their experience under the Assad regime, the failure of the Arab Spring, and prospects for the future.

Christian, let’s start with some background. Your book is a reflection on the years you spent in Syria (2008-2010) and Lebanon (2011-2013). Why did you decide to live in these countries? What were you doing there?

Sahner: I first came to Syria for language study. Before the tumult of the Arab Spring, it was common wisdom among students that Cairo and Damascus were the best places to master Arabic. It was more or less dumb luck that led me to Syria and not to Egypt, and in hindsight, I’m immensely grateful the cards fell the way they did. By the beginning of 2011, Syria was no longer a safe place for an American student. Therefore, it was to Beirut that I relocated to carry on my language work and research. I’ve been returning to Lebanon ever since.

A main theme in your book is the power of sectarianism, which you define as the “activation of religious identity as one of the main principles of social and political life.” You believe this is a key fact of Syrian and Lebanese societies. What do you think explains it?

Sahner: Among the different countries of the Arab and Muslim world, Syria and Lebanon stand out for the terrific variety of peoples who live there, and always have. This includes not just Sunni Muslims, who form an absolute majority between the two countries, but also smaller Muslim sects, such as Shi‘is, Alawis, Isma‘ilis, and Druze, along with non-Muslims, including numerous Christian denominations, and until recently, large populations of Jews. The existence of religious diversity does not in and of itself entail the existence of sectarianism. And yet, I think it’s safe to say that sectarianism depends on and cannot exist without a sense of religious difference in a society. In the Levant, we face a world in which, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, political systems emerged that explicitly assigned power on the basis of sect (as in Lebanon), or which saw informal imbalances of power arise among sects (as in Syria). Because these systems thrust religious identity into the center of political life in this way, they tended to stoke resentments between communities, and under certain circumstances, spark violence.

You have a great interest in the Christian communities of Syria. Many Westerners are very unfamiliar with these communities. Could you give us a brief description of them? Who are they, what are their numbers?

Sahner: We tend to think of Syria as a Muslim-majority country, but for centuries after the rise of Islam, its population was majority Christian. The roots of these Christian communities are very ancient. In fact, as the Acts of the Apostles tells us, it was in the Syrian city of Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” Over the centuries, Syrian Christianity became splintered into different denominations, which were divided over Continue reading

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.