As the chapter of US involvement in Syria comes to a close, I think it would be helpful to take a look back and evaluate it with the benefit of hindsight. Nearly all of the opinion I hear about it from those in the church is pro-rebel and anti-Assad. This is wrong. Those in the church should be supporting Assad for so many reasons, which I hope to lay out for you.
A brief history of modern Syria
Syria was under the control of the Ottoman empire from the early 1500’s until 1919, when French troops took power and held it until they were forced out by the British in 1946. On the 17th of April, 1946, Syria gained legal independence from France; although the government in place in Syria was still the one set up during the French mandate. As you might guess, this arrangement can not have lasted long. In fact, it did not: between the period of 1946 and 1956, Syria went through 20 cabinets and 4 different constitutions, each of these transitions bloody. Starting in 1956, the Syrian state aligned itself with the Soviet Union, under the leadership of the Arab-Socialist Ba’athist party. Two years later, they merged states with Egypt; but separated again after it became clear that Egypt would dominate the union.
The 1960’s were another set of fast-paced military coups, as different anti-Israel, pro-Soviet, or pro-Arab parties struggled to obtain and hold majority power. Finally, in 1970, after the destruction of the Syrian Air Force and loss of Golan Heights during the Six Day War three years earlier, support for the Soviet flavored government dropped to an all time low and Minister of Defense Hafez al-Assad took power in a bloodless coup.
Hafez al-Assad’s Syria
Remarkably, Assad was able to keep and hold the peace. He did this by quickly consolidating power into himself, and instituting governmental structures. However, to check those structures, he also declared a state of national emergency, which would last the rest of his rule. That rule would last 30 years and bring Syria out of several attempted uprisings and into on-and-off relationships with the West.
The Hama Massacre
One of the uprisings that were quelled under Assad has come to be known as the Hama Massacre. State troops besieged the Sunni-majority town of Hama, which had been the center of the radical uprising. The insurgent group was the Muslim Brotherhood, the same group whose Jihadi tactics allowed Assad to declare a state of emergency in the first place, 10 years prior. Reports of the death toll of the Hama massacre vary from 2000 all the way up to 40,000. Regardless, the message was sent, and the ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Brotherhood did not make much trouble for more than 20 years. The exception to this is the continual persecution of Christians living in Syria, which sects of the Sunni anti-Assad resistance continued to perpetrate on smaller scales throughout the decades before and after Hama, being met each time with military retribution from Assad.
Intervention in Lebanon
In 1976, Hafez al-Assad sent 20,000 troops to Lebanon to save the Christian Maronites, who were losing a civil war against the Sunni majority. Assad’s effort was successful; the Maronites survived the conflict. However, Assad did not pull out of Lebanon, and remained in the region for the next 30 years.
Compared to the decades before he took power, Hafez al-Assad’s reign was a peaceful time in Syria. This is surprising, since Assad and most of the government that he appointed were all Shia Muslims, whereas the majority population in Syria is Sunni. Protection from Assad allowed Syrian Christians to survive and maintain 12-15% of the population throughout the late 20th century. (This population had been declining from 25% in 1920, but stabilized later in the century). Popular Sunni opinion was very hostile towards Christians, and both Sunni and Shia were hostile toward Israel; but a strong military hand authorized by an emergency state kept all sides in relative peace. During this time, Assad pursued relationships with the West and Turkey, and several times attempted talks with Israel to gain back Golan Heights, all of which failed.
Bashar al-Assad’s Syria
When his father Hafez died in 2000, Bashar took power and resumed the emergency state. His rule has been much like his father’s. Several successful diplomatic outreaches have been made with the west, although tension with Israel have remained the status quo. The years before the Arab Spring in 2011 were mostly peaceful, other than a deteriorating relationship Lebanon, which did not end in armed conflict. During this period, Assad continued to quell the radical Sunni strain, and support Shia and Christian groups in the region.
The Arab Spring: Assad’s response
Initially a liberal hope after his rule-of-law father, Assad fell out of favor in the eyes of the west by showing that he was still unwilling to support democratic governmental structures in Syria, or Sunni opposition parties. But the final blow was his response to the Arab Spring in 2011. Mass Sunni protests were met with violent government force. In response to this countering force, the United States government issued sanctions against Syria. Then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton and President Obama both made public statements pressuring Assad to step aside. At the same time, the United States began a program of arming the Sunni resistance through the CIA.
Due to sanctions and adverse funding from the UN, US, and other western nations, as well as covert support from the CIA, the Sunni rebels were emboldened and had gained enough ground by July 2012 for the International Committee of the Red Cross to declare Syria to be in a state of civil war. Assad called all Syrians living abroad repatriate and join the fight against the rebels, and in 2013 he made a speech in which he said that the civil war was a result of external parties who would “go to hell” and be taught a lesson. Recently de-classified documents defend this position; although in 2011 Obama publicly opposed covert action in Syria, documents show that the CIA was involved later that year.
Rise of ISIS
By early 2014, the major rebel parties had formed, these being ISIS and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The major vein of Western support (CIA training and weapons, money, etc) was funneled through the FSA, but much ended up in the hands of ISIS due to their close coordination (and infrequent infighting). ISIS had many military successes throughout 2014 due to Western support, and Assad lost territory and military bases. In response, Vladimir Putin began to back Assad through money and weaponry, which he publicly announced in 2015.
Use of chemical weapons
There were 80 recorded uses of chemical weaponry during the Syrian civil war, distributed pretty evenly throughout the involved parties. The most publicized of these were the ones that the UN found Assad guilty for; specifically, the Ghouta attack in 2013, with between 281 and 1,729 casualties, and the Kahn Shaykuhn attack in 2017, with around 74 casualties. The Syrian government denies involvement in both of these incidents. Russia claimed that the 2017 attack was a false flag, but the United States found Syria to be responsible and launched 59 cruise missiles to the base that they believed the attack originated from. The missile strikes killed 4; Assad said in a statement that the strikes would have no effect on Syrian policy.
The defeat of ISIS
Despite Western involvement, Syria was able in 2015 to retake significant ground after the losses of 2014, largely due to assistance from Russia. In late 2015 Assad said that his Russian backed forces were able to do more to defeat ISIS in a month than the US-led coalition had done in a year. Toward the end of the year, senior US officials privately admitted that Russia had accomplished its goal of stabilizing Syria, and would continue to be able to do so in the coming year. In late 2016 Assad was able to retake Aleppo, and in 2017, after Donald Trump took office and announced through UN ambassador Nikki Haley that removing Assad was no longer a priority for the United States, ISIS-held territory continued to drop at a rapid rate. Trump’s assumption of the presidency also marked the end of the CIA’s pro-rebel involvement in the region. In late 2018, President Trump announced victory over ISIS and introduced plans to withdraw troops.
In all, it is estimated that 500,000 people were killed in the Syrian civil war. Around 200,000 are estimated to be civilians. At the start of the civil war, over 1.5 million Christians lived in Syria. Currently there are less than 500,000. This has been due to thousands of killings and raids perpetrated by the rebels, and mass exodus in anticipation of Sunni rebel forces taking power.
It is clear to me that the US’ involvement in Syria was incredibly detrimental, and likely sparked a civil war with half a million casualties. It was a clear violation of just war theory to tepidly introduce weapons that elevate the conflict without forcing a regime change through a ground invasion: only fight wars you can win. Without Western involvement, Assad’s ability to crush the rebellion in its early stages would not have been neutered.
But beyond the political analysis, the Church should recognize the long history of protection that the Assad family has given to Christians in the region, allowing them to preach the gospel. In the places that the opposition took power during the civil war, Christians were executed en masse, eventually displacing or killing 1,000,000 of them. Ideologically, too, Assad should have our support over the other power potentials. Sunni muslims and the groups that they form, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS, have shown themselves again and again to be murderous animals who want a European caliphate. Syria’s long resistance to Turkey alone should make them a ready ally. And finally, Christians should not support rebels as a general policy. I cannot say that there are not exceptions to this. But violent uprisings against a legitimate government, especially attempted regime changes in unstable regions rife with religious radicalism, should not be supported. The government is the sword, punishing evil and rewarding good. Assad and his father have done just that in the last 60 years, and their opponents in the now-quelled rebellion would have done the opposite.
I have had a distaste in the past for pastors delving too far into politics. But situations like this make me wonder about it. How else will we know, if all we have to look at is the New York times plastering pictures of gas-attacked children?
Additionally, many in the church seem to have adopted a sort of pro-Israel, pro-democracy leaning as part of their orthodoxy. I do not know how this is to be countered, other than through argumentation. So please, argue away.