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Syria's Christians, Caught in the Middle of Worsening Chaos

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Several months ago, I expressed (here and here) several important concerns related to Syria's sizeable Christian minority, particularly regarding its uniquely vulnerable position between the brutal tactics of a failing, unscrupulous regime and a fractured, unpredictable myriad of opposition forces. At least some of those concerns are now moving from speculation into reality. Members of Syria's diverse Christian communities are finding themselves engulfed in the fog of war and increasingly targeted, both as pawns of the regime and armed rebels as well as by the rising (if still limited) presence of al Qaeda-linked and other foreign militants in the conflict.

In addition to the Syrian forces' indiscriminate brutality toward villages and cities which have joined the uprising, with Aleppo currently in its crosshairs, the gravest danger to Syria's Christian minority remains its precarious position formed by long-standing dependence on the Assad regime. On one side, the government has successfully stoked Christians' fears of an Islamist takeover of the country, just as it has consistently attempted to portray the uprising as a foreign terrorist conspiracy. There are now reports in the regional press that the regime has recently begun more actively attempting to press Christian leaders in and around Damascus to take up arms against the opposition. So far they've steered clear of this move that would define them as regime combatants rather than as its passive and wary associates.

There have also been more direct consequences of the tacit, long-standing alliance between the secular, Alawite-dominated regime and other religious minorities, particularly Christians. In the village of Qusayr, not far from the city of Homs and an in area with a high proportion of Christians, the last several months have seen a wave of violence directed specifically against local Christians with regime connections- or simply those who, because of their minority identity, were assumed to have had them. According to reliable sources among humanitarian workers serving along the Lebanese-Syrian border, there is also some anecdotal evidence that many of the Christians who left the city of Homs earlier this year did so (along with local Alawites) at the behest of Free Syrian Army members- less because of the residents' religious affiliation than their perceived regime sympathies. The same sources have also indicated that some factions within the FSA have attempted to draw regime fire into Christian neighborhoods during urban battles in the north, in hopes of turning those communities against the regime. These accounts need further documentation and elaboration, but they are cause for serious concern. They certainly lend credence to fears of violent retribution against perceived regime sympathizers when Assad and his government come tumbling down.

Finally, it is clear that foreign terrorist groups, and likely a scattered number of Syrian jihadis, are now taking on an increasingly visible role in the conflict. This is to the detriment of the entire uprising, of course: Syrians need neither the stain of association with such groups, nor the violent intolerance they will bring to the eventual aftermath of the regime's collapse. But again, some communities are more vulnerable than others. Many of these jihadi fighters cut their teeth in Iraq, where their fellow extremists have massacred local Christians over the last nine years, resulting in the displacement and flight of somewhere between one half and two-thirds of that ancient community's population. Libyan, Tunisian, Egyptian, and Iraqi jihadi fighters, of course, have no personal stake in Syria, no neighbors "on the other side" with which to sympathize, and no need to temper their bigotries. Christians who have fled into Lebanon, for example, report that a group of Libyan militants have taken over the Crusader-era fortress known as Burj Safita (Chastel Blanc), and have been harassing a nearby Christian-majority village. We have known from the beginning of this uprising that al-Qaeda and its ilk would do their best to engage in this conflict, and recent reporting from the front lines has demonstrated that their presence is steadily growing and are thought to now number at least 200 individuals. They will not extend mercy to any communities in Syria that continue to assume a neutral stance toward the uprising.

Don't misunderstand me: the regime's days are rightfully numbered, and the uprising continues to deserve cautious support. The future of the nation's Christian and other religious and ethnic minorities does not lie with a murderous regime but with the opposition. Hopefully that future will belong to those within the opposition ranks who are yet striving for a free, pluralistic, democratic Syria- and there are many of them. But what and who will remain when the dust settles in Syria- especially if the worse-case scenario of unfettered sectarian bloodshed materializes? The nation's Sunni majority will eventually be empowered in what is still an unforeseeable future; however, its Christian and other religious minorities, many of which have thrived for generations and all of which enrich Syria's vibrant society, may very well survive only as mere shells of their former populations.

External intervention appears to remain a theoretical debate for now, even as time grows short for Syria while the body count rises (now past 18,000) and a severe refugee crisis expands. Perhaps, then, the only way this worst-case outcome may be prevented is for the United States, European Union, Turkey, and allies in the region to push anyone who will listen within the Syrian opposition, as well as the Gulf governments who materially support the Free Syrian Army, that foreign jihadi fighters must not be tolerated among their ranks- even if it means a loss of their rifles and "experience." Every effort must be immediately made to anticipate the potential for post-Assad retaliation against civilians such as Alawites, Christians, and other minorities associated with the regime (or who simply stayed out of the fight)- and to form a real and workable strategy to prevent it, or to stop it if all hell begins to break loose.