Two months ago, this columnist, while on a visit to Damascus, was asked by the Patriarch of Antioch why the Christian world had “forgotten their co-religionists in Syria”. The Patriarchate of Antioch is the oldest church in Christendom, antedating the Church of Rome by more than two centuries. The Patriarch’s worry was that the “freedom fighters” who were being vociferously backed by NATO and the GCC were increasingly targeting Christians. Why was nobody in the US or in Europe raising their voices against the growing persecution of Christians in Syria? Members of Christian families, who had lost their loved ones to “freedom fighter” excesses, spoke of gangs of fanatics who spoke of driving out of Syria any individual who committed such crimes as drinking wine or consuming pork, as also the wearing of dresses by women that revealed a tad more of the body than they covered. Such habits are being excoriated by the “freedom fighters” as the “work of the devil”, which the “freedom fighters” hope to soon undo. These men are pinning their faith in Hillary Clinton, David Cameron and Francois Hollande enforcing a “no fly zone” over Syria, that would not only cripple the airpower of the Assad regime, but indicate to members of the armed forces that the end was near, thereby spurring them to defect in such numbers that the insurgents would take over, the way their counterparts did in Libya.
Although such an outcome would be welcomed in London, Paris and Washington, it is seen with dread by Syria’s Alawites and Christians (11% and 10% of the population), besides moderate Sunnis and other ethnic groups such as Kurds and Druze, a community that believes in re-incarnation, despite being Muslim. Indeed, it is this diversity of theological opinion in Syria that has motivated those with a far more rigid interpretation of a great faith towards acts of violence designed to unseat not simply Bashar Assad but secularism. In so doing, they are forming part of a trend in the “modern” world for extreme and exclusivist solutions. The creation of ethnicity-based barriers to human migration by the European Union in the 1990s appears to have set off a chain reaction across the globe, of groups demanding that others follow their highway, or step onto the highway, hopefully directly in the path of a speeding vehicle. There is no daylight between the way women are regarded by Pramod Mutalik’s Sri Ram Sene and those who follow Wahhabi preachers. For both, the rights of minorities are inexistent. The country recently saw a fusion of reactionary worldviews in Baghpat, where a “khap panchayat” comprising members of India’s two most populous communities came together to place restrictions on women that resemble conditions in the Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, those who have a vested interest in backwardness, out of fear that a more enlightened populace would vote them out of office, refuse to intervene when a section of women are sought to be denied rights that have been assured to them by the Constitution of India.
Coming back to Syria, while it is a fact that Alawites (the group to which the Assads belong) have a privileged position in some branches of the government, such as the security services, yet Syria is very far from certain other states in the region that deny rights to citizens of a creed different from that followed by the ruling family. Sunnis are present in strength throughout the administration as are Christians, including the just-assassinated Defence Minister. To run Syria as though minorities did not exist would be wrong. And yet, that seems to be the direction where the “freedom fighters” given backing by NATO wish to take the country. Although there are a tiny sprinkling of minority elements within the anti-Assad brigades (which these days have access to far more cash and resources than the official Syrian military), yet these are overwhelmingly comprised of the country’s majority community, and are increasingly being led by Salafist elements within this segment. As a consequence, attacks on Christians and their marginalisation in locations where anti-Assad “freedom fighters” have wrested control are on the rise. Logically, such persecution of Christians ought to have roused a measure of protest from the US and its European partners. However, all that the Christians of Syria witness in their travail is silence. Clearly, a decision has been taken that they are acceptable as collateral damage in the ongoing crusade against Iran, whose only (independent) ally in the region is Syria. Getting rid of Assad will be the semi-final. The final will be played out in Tehran.