More than a year has elapsed since the United States aligned itself with Syria’s Sunni-dominated opposition and the Middle East’s Sunni powers to overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad. While the United States pursues this goal in the name of the Syrian people, it is clear that its ultimate strategic objective is to render Syria, Shiite Iran’s most important regional ally, useless in its struggle for mastery of the Middle East.
To achieve its goal, the United States is employing economic sanctions, political backing for the Syrian opposition and lethal military support to the Free Syrian Army and other Sunni-dominated armed groups, channeled through Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey — all American allies with considerable democratic deficits, especially in the realm of religious and ethnic minority rights.
As the Syrian state has degraded, the people of Syria have experienced an upsurge of death, displacement and destruction. The United States’ active support for regime change in Syria has signaled an anarchic scramble for power and influence, as neighboring states and terrorist groups such as al Qaeda vie for a share of the collapsing state. The Syrian civil war has become, in the words of Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, “a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control.”
During Syria’s slow-motion descent into chaos, the State Department has vigorously publicized and condemned atrocities committed by forces loyal to President Assad. But Syrian opposition forces increasingly match the Assad regime’s disdain for the lives and liberty of the Syrian people, especially Christians and other non-Sunnis, who constitute about 25 percent of Syria’s population.
Human rights monitors and church officials have reported cases of the armed opposition kidnapping, torturing, displacing, murdering and using civilians as human shields. Such crimes often are accompanied by cries of “Allahu Akbar,” “Death to unbelievers” and other expressions of Islamic jihad.
Before the outbreak of anti-government violence in the spring of 2011, the strain of Sunni supremacism within the opposition was evident. “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the coffin,” became a refrain at public protests. (The Alawites belong an offshoot sect of Islam and are seen as heretics by most Sunnis. The Assad family and most of its top lieutenants are Alawite.) Within a year, Islamist rebels had religiously cleansed 90 percent of the Christians from Homs, and they reportedly are holding 200 as hostages. This month, the Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo expressed fear that the same fate awaits the Christian community in his besieged see and in Damascus.
A July 31 article in The Washington Times told the story of a Syrian Alawite man who attempted to join a rebel group in Lattakia, only to be rebuffed by rebels who said, “We don’t need Alawi pigs with us.”
The United Nations secretary-general’s special advisers on the prevention of genocide and on the responsibility to protect warned last month that with “deepening sectarian tensions [in Syria], the risk of further mass atrocity crimes is high.”
In January 2011, former President Amine Gemayel of Lebanon broke a taboo of the international community when he declared that Islamic extremists were committing “genocide” against the Christians of the Middle East. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France soon followed suit by describing this genocide process as “religious cleansing.” Syria has surpassed Iraq as the epicenter of this regional catastrophe.
In President Obama’s May 2011 address on the Arab uprisings, he pledged to defend “universal rights” in the Middle East — including religious freedom — with “all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.” The United States must lose no more time translating those fine words into a concrete, implementable policy.
Mr. Obama should call on the Syrian opposition and its foreign supporters — especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey — to declare support for minority rights, religious liberty and religiously neutral government and to condemn all forms of religious supremacism. He furthermore should unveil without delay a policy response to the U.N. secretary-general’s special advisers’ appeal for “immediate, decisive action” to “protect populations at risk of further atrocity crimes in Syria.”
Washington must not sacrifice the religious minorities of Syria in its efforts to build a Sunni Islamist bloc against the regional ambitions of Shiite Iran. Failure of the United States and its allies to guarantee the human rights of religious minorities will only cause these communities to cling tighter to the Assad regime for protection and thereby deepen and prolong the civil war.
John Eibner is CEO of Christian Solidarity International.