Thousands of Syrians are fleeing into neighboring Lebanon — not entirely due to fear of the Assad regime. The country’s minority Christian population is suffering under attacks waged by rebel troops. In the Beqaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, Christian families are finding temporary refuge, but they are still terrified.
In the past year and a half, since the beginning of the uprising against Syria’s authoritarian President Bashar Assad, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled their homes and sought safe haven abroad. Inside the country, the United Nations estimates that 1 million people have left their homes to escape violence and are now internally displaced. The majority are likely to have fled to escape the brutality of Assad’s troops. Indeed, as was the case at the start of the Syrian civil war, most of the violence is still being perpetrated by the army, the secret services and groups of thugs steered by the state.
With fighting ongoing, however, the rebels have also committed excesses. And some factions within the patchwork of disparate groups that together comprise the Free Syrian Army have radicalized at a very rapid clip in recent months. A few are even being influenced by foreign jihadists who have traveled to Syria to advise them.
Earlier this month, reports came from the Syrian city of Qusayr of an ominous warning to the town’s Christians: Either join the Sunni-led opposition against Bashar al-Assad or leave. Soon after, thousands of Christians fled the town.
After decades of protection by a secular-leaning dictatorship, the Qusayr ultimatum warned of a dark future for Syria’s Christian community.
Throughout the years, Christians, like many other minorities in the region, have lent their support to those regimes that have guaranteed their security and religious freedom. In Iraq, Christians rose to the highest levels of society under Saddam Hussein’s regime, while in Egypt, Coptic Christians were protected from ultraconservative Salafists under Hosni Mubarak. As secular leaders from the secretive Alawite sect, the Assad dynasty largely preserved Christian life, protecting Syria’s minorities from what was perceived as a collective threat from the country’s Sunni majority.
Watching their once-shielding dictators fall like dominos across the region, Christians have suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of history. Faced by a rising tide of radical Sunni Islam, Christians in Iraq and Egypt have fled by the thousands.
As the 15-month conflict rages with no end in sight, Syria’s many minorities have come face to face with the emerging threat posed by radical Sunni Islamists. These elements have established themselves as a key factor in Syria’s future, backed by immense political and economic support from the Arab world and indifference from the West.
In an interview with Der Spiegel, women refugees, who have found shelter and asylum in Qa, a small market town in northeastern Lebanon, which is located only 12 kilometers away from the Syrian border, described what happened to their husbands, brothers and nephews back in their hometown of Qusayr. “They were killed by Syrian rebel fighters,” the women said, “murdered because they were Christians, people who in the eyes of radical Islamist freedom fighters have no place in the new Syria.”
“Despite the fact that many of our husbands had jobs in the civil service, we still got along well with the rebels during the first months of the insurgency.” The rebels left the Christians alone. The Christians, meanwhile, were keen to preserve their neutrality in the escalating power struggle. But the situation began deteriorating last summer.
“Last summer Salafists came to Qusayr– foreigners. They stirred the local rebels against us,” she says. Soon, an outright campaign against the Christians in Qusayr took shape. “They sermonized on Fridays in the mosques that it was a sacred duty to drive us away,” she says. “We were constantly accused of working for the regime. And Christians had to pay bribes to the jihadists repeatedly in order to avoid getting killed.”
This March, months before the Qusayr ultimatum, Islamist militants from the opposition’s Faruq Brigade had gone door to door in Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan neighborhoods of Homs, expelling local Christians. Following the raids, some 90 percent of Christians reportedly fled the city for government-controlled areas, neighboring countries or a stretch of land near the Lebanese border called the Valley of Christians (Wadi al-Nasarah). Of the more than 80,000 Christians who lived in Homs prior to the uprising, approximately 400 remain today.
The cleansing of Homs’ Christian neighborhoods occurred as the Syrian military bombarded the Sunni opposition stronghold of Baba Amr, naturally focusing the international media on stories of children maimed by Assad’s artillery shells and sniper bullets. At the United Nations, Assad’s opponents could not afford to highlight Christian persecution in Homs, as they risked catering to a Russian-led campaign to preserve the dictator’s rule by de-legitimizing the Syrian rebels for their atrocities.
For the newest generation of Sunni jihadists, Syria has become the latest front in the struggle to wrest control of the region from rival religious sects and foreign occupation. Many of these fighters hail from the vast reaches of North Africa and the Gulf, arriving in Syria with weapons, funds and a radical ideology.
Inside Syria, the reluctance of the international community to thwart Assad’s onslaught has left the Sunni population with feelings of isolation and abandonment, driving large swathes of youth into the arms of radical clerics. This uncompromising ideology leaves little place in Syria’s future for the country’s many minorities — including Christians.
Saving Syria’s Christian community is coherent with Western strategic interests. If the experiences of Iraq and Egypt are any indication, religious intolerance breeds insecurity and volatility. The Syrian case is no different.
Several expert commentators are calling into question the narrative being spread by Western media about the nature of the unrest in Syria. They argue that it is not merely an internal conflict between the government and the rebels but has become an international battle for the balance of power in the Middle East.
Assad’s opponents on both sides of the Atlantic must prevent radical Islamists from embedding themselves in the Syrian opposition and should adopt a firm stance against their patrons in the Gulf. The ousting of the Assad regime has become a global moral obligation, but so has the duty to ensure that Syria’s future holds a place for all minorities.