U.S. policy towards Syria is bafflingly inconsistent. If U.S. leaders are so concerned about regimes slaughtering thousands of their own people, did they notice what just happened in Egypt? If they are so exercised over about weapons of mass destruction, are they aware that Israel has two hundred nuclear warheads, with delivery systems? Will American warships in the region be making those other stops on their liberating mission?
Most puzzling of all, though, is why the United States seems so determined to eradicate Christianity in one of its oldest heartlands, at such an agonizingly sensitive historical moment.
Syria has always been a complex place religiously. Although the country has a substantial Sunni Muslim majority, it also has large minority communities—Christians, Alawites, and others—who together make up over a quarter of the population. Those communities have survived very successfully in Syria for centuries, but the present revolution is a threat to their continued existence.
Sadly, Westerners tend to assume that Arabs are, necessarily, Muslims, and moreover, that Muslims are a homogeneous bunch. Actually, 10 percent of Syrians are Alawites, members of a notionally Islamic sect that actually draws heavily from Christian and even Gnostic roots: they even celebrate Christmas. Locally, they were long known as Nusayris, “Little Christians.” Syria is also home to several hundred thousand Druze, who are even further removed from Sunni orthodoxy.
And then there are the Christians. If Christianity began in Galilee and Judea, it very soon made its cultural and intellectual home in Syria. St. Paul famously visited Damascus, and for centuries Antioch was one of the world’s greatest Christian centers. (The city today stands just over the Turkish border.) A sizable Christian population flourished under Islamic rule, and continued under the Ottomans. Muslim and Christian populations always interacted closely here. A shrine in Damascus’s Great Mosque claims to be the location of John the Baptist’s head.
Christian numbers fluctuated dramatically over time. A hundred years ago, “Syria,” broadly defined, was home to a large and diverse Christian population, including Catholics, Orthodox, and Maronites. In the 1920s, the French arbitrarily carved out the country’s most Christian sections and designated that region “Lebanon,” with its capital at Beirut.
In theory, that partition should have drawn a clear line between Christian Lebanon and non-Christian Syria. But Syria itself was changing in the aftermath of the catastrophic events of the First World War. The year 1915 marked the beginning of the horrendous genocide of perhaps 1.5 million Armenians, as well as hundreds of thousands of Assyrians, Maronites, and other Christian groups. After the war, Christians increasingly concentrated in Syria, where they benefited from French protection.
Arab Christians, though, were anything but imperial puppets. Determined to avoid a repetition of the horrors of 1915, Christians struggled to create a new political order in which they could play a full role. This meant advocating fervent Arab nationalism, a thoroughly secular order in which Christians and other minorities could avoid being overwhelmed by the juggernaut power of Sunni Islam. All Arab peoples, regardless of faith, would join in a shared passion for secular modernity and pan-Arab patriotism, in stark contrast to reactionary Islamism. The pioneering theorist of modern Arab nationalism was Damascus-born Orthodox Christian Constantine Zureiq. Another Orthodox son of Damascus was Michel Aflaq, co-founder of the Ba’ath (Renaissance) Party that played such a pivotal role in the modern history of both Iraq and Syria.
Since the 1960s, Syria has been a Ba’athist state, which in practice has meant the hegemony of the religious minorities who dominate the country’s military and intelligence apparatus. Hafez al-Assad (President from 1971 through 2000) was of course an Alawite, but by the 1990s, five of his seven closest advisers were Christian. His son Bashar is the current president, and America’s nemesis in the region.
Quite apart from their political influence, Christians have done very well indeed in modern Syria. Although they try to avoid drawing too much attention, it is no secret that Aleppo (for instance) has a highly active Christian population. Christian numbers have even grown significantly since the 1990s, as Iraqis fled the growing chaos in that country. Officially, Christians today make up around 10 percent of Syria’s people, but that is a serious underestimate, as it omits so many refugees, not to mention thinly disguised crypto-believers. A plausible Christian figure is at least 15 percent, or three million people.
To describe the Ba’athist state’s tolerance is not, of course, to justify its brutality, or its involvement in state-sanctioned crime and international terrorism. But for all that, it has sustained a genuine refuge for religious minorities, of a kind that has been snuffed out elsewhere in the region. Although many Syrian Christians favor democratic reforms, they know all too well that a successful revolution would almost certainly put in place a rigidly Islamist or Salafist regime that would abruptly end the era of tolerant diversity. Already, Christians have suffered terrible persecution in rebel-controlled areas, with countless reports of murder, rape, and extortion.
Under its new Sunni rulers, minorities would likely face a fate like that in neighboring Iraq, where the Christian share of population fell from 8 percent in the 1980s to perhaps 1 percent today. In Iraq, though, persecuted believers had a place to which they could escape, namely Syria. Where would Syrian refugees go?
A month ago, that question was moot, as the Assad government was gaining the upper hand over the rebels. At worst, it seemed, the regime could hold on to a rump state in Syria’s west, a refuge for Alawites, Christians, and others. And then came the alleged gas attack, and the overheated U.S. response.
So here is the nightmare. If the U.S., France, and some miscellaneous allies strike at the regime, they could conceivably so weaken it that it would collapse. Out of the ruins would emerge a radically anti-Western regime, which would kill or expel several million Christians and Alawites. This would be a political, religious, and humanitarian catastrophe unparalleled since the Armenian genocide almost exactly a century ago.
Around the world, scholars and intellectual leaders are debating how to commemorate the approaching centennial of that cataclysm in 2015. Through its utter lack of historical awareness, the United States government may be pushing towards not a commemoration of the genocide but a faithful re-enactment.
Even at this late moment, can they yet be brought to see reason?
Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and serves as Co-Director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.