Edited Excerpts from an interview
Information about extremists attacking and killing Christians in Syria spread on the Internet again in January. What information do you have about these attacks?
I don’t have much information about the alleged execution of the two Syrian-Armenian men from Aleppo. Sadly, at this point in the Syrian conflict, this kind of news is no longer surprising. It takes more than a mere ‘beheading’ or a chopped-off body part to make the headlines today. We are, however, increasingly hearing about forced conversions, particularly in the past six months as Islamist militants have taken over the armed rebellion. I think, it was past September — when al Qaeda-linked groups seized the ancient Christian town of Maaloula — the media looked into the issue of forced conversions in Syria. Local civilians later spoke of rebels using terms like “crusader” to underline the sectarian nature of the attack — only serving to frighten Christian communities across Syria further. Earlier in January, the news of the forced conversion of two Armenian families by radicals of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was followed by reports of the executions of Wanis and Minas Livonian, who had allegedly converted to Islam. This information came on the heels of 13 nuns being kidnapped from Maaloula in December, so I think the tendency is to accept the worst.
Can this be considered as the beginning of a religious war in West Asia?
I don’t think it is right to extrapolate from the actions of a few thousand extremists and plunge straight into a war-of-civilisations discourse. There is a real danger of exacerbating conflict by framing the narrative in sectarian terms. Let’s be honest here. Is there really a Christian versus Muslim conflict in the region? Is there really a Sunni versus Shia conflict? I don’t think so and neither do the majority of Arabs polled. The conflict is not between sects — it is between sectarians and non-sectarians. There are Christians, Muslims, Shias and Sunnis on both sides of that divide. Fortunately, the sectarians represent a minuscule population — they happen to be louder, zealous and determined to sow discord among communities. What is disturbing today is the staggering amount of financial assistance flowing to such groups and individuals, both in and out of West Asia. The real shocker, however, is how far countries like the United States, Britain and France have been willing to go to isolate, marginalise, destabilise and destroy adversaries — even if it has meant investing heavily in sectarianism to make those gains. These three western powers — so influential in global media — have clung to divisive and sectarian narratives to describe events in the region, even going so far as to downplay violence against Christians to serve broader political agendas. There is no ‘religious war’ in West Asia. There is no popular support for any such thing. On the contrary, the horror of sectarian violence like beheadings and castrations has left a lot of Arabs disconnected and adopt a more unifying national identity. Hence, the rise in support for national armies in countries like Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.
The Christian population has become the main and, perhaps, the only target of extremist groups. Is that true?
No. I don’t think the Christian population has been singled out in this conflict. As rebels turned more radical, all dissenters have been hit hard, regardless of sect or religion — this includes the Sunnis as well. Extremists are intolerant by nature and demand conformity, so anyone outside their framework is going to be a target. I read somewhere that 65 Armenians have been killed since the crisis began — I don’t know what the number is for Christians in total. But out of a figure of more than 100,000 dead, that number is negligible.
Today, we are witnesses of extremists fighting against each other in Syria. What caused this rivalry between rebel groups, which were focussed on fighting Assad in the past?
The so-called Syrian Revolution has been a turf war for power and control from the start. Disparate interests within, and competing interests of foreign backers have ensured that there will never be a unified opposition in Syria. It was easy to pretend that they were one fighting force in the early days, but as the various militias gained territory and assets, the competition for dominance accelerated. The recent confrontations, which have reportedly killed more than 2,000 rebels, are mainly between the ISIL and other rebel factions that have organised themselves into new coalitions for this fight. At the heart of these clashes is a turf war, but the ISIL, which is viewed as a non-Syrian group, has alienated many rebel militias by attacking other fighters and refusing to cooperate on many levels. Ideologically, there isn’t an awful lot of difference between the various Salafist groups, and the ones being repackaged as moderates these days are simply the ones smart enough to publicly defer all talk of “Islamic Empire” until they have assumed power. I anticipate continued rebel infighting because as we enter a new phase in the Syrian conflict where compromises, negotiations and military confrontation will produce winners and losers, the stakes increase and it will be “each militia for itself”.
Do you think that western powers that were demanding Assad’s resignation now have a problem dealing with this extremist threat?
Absolutely. The West calculated that Assad would fall shortly after protests broke out in 2011. At various intervals, they have tried to escalate the conflict, believing wrongly that one more “big push” would do the job. Instead, they helped push Syria into a situation of dangerous instability and chaos — producing the kind of environment in which al Qaeda and like-minded radical groups thrive. Washington has certainly recognised its error, and has taken recent bold steps to shift course. It is the only reason why the US bypassed its traditional allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel and struck a nuclear deal with Iran in Geneva. The West now needs help from inside the West Asia to thwart extremism. And they know that Iran is one of the only countries that can do this — the Islamic Republic is a major target of Saudi-backed Salafist extremism and is, therefore, existentially motivated to thwart it. So now Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq and Syria are going to be at the forefront of a real War on Terror, fought and led from inside the region. Neighbouring states like Turkey and Jordan will eventually participate, and Russia, China, India and other key states will lend significant support.
What is the future of Christians living in Syria?
A lot of Christians have fled Syria at this point. Those who could afford left early, mainly to keep their spouses and children out of harm’s way. The decision to leave has weighed heavily on all the Christians I have spoken with. They are torn between love for their country and concern for their families. Most resolve to return when the worst is over. Christians and Armenians also feel a profound sense of responsibility to ensure the continuity, after thousands of years, of their presence in Syria — and to maintain their heritage sites and treasures. Extremists have destroyed so many churches, monasteries and places of worship that this aspect, at least, seems bleak for now. An acquaintance from Homs tells me of the massive exodus of more than 50,000 Christians from the city since late 2011. Most of the Homs Christians didn’t leave Syria — they relocated first to Wadi al Nasarah (also known as Valley of the Christians) and set up checkpoints and protection patrols in their neighbourhoods. It is a hard choice Christians face today. Right now, their future may not look too rosy, but I don’t see Syria without its Christian community.
The interview was first published online at www.Mediamax.am