Editor's note: This article was originally published July 3, 2013.
On June 23, Francois Murad, a Franciscan priest, and two of his assistants were beheaded by Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. The killings took place less than two weeks after members of the Syrian Free Army, the main opposition force in that country’s civil war, massacred dozens of Christians in a village near Deir el-Zour.
Both atrocities coincided with reports that, after resisting pressure to do so, President Obama had decided to arm Syrian rebels. We’ve said on BreakPoint why this is a bad idea. Sadly, our leaders – both liberals and conservatives – have not gotten the message.
To understand why this is a bad idea, a short history lesson is in order. Syria, like its neighbors Lebanon and Iraq, was created by French and British diplomats from the remains of the Ottoman Empire. The borders were more influenced by how much diplomats had to drink than by demographic and religious facts on the ground.
Thus, countries like Syria and Lebanon became condominiums of sorts, containing many different religious and ethnic groups who had little in common and even less desire to share a nation.
Syria, for instance, is 74 percent Sunni, and 13 percent Shia – most of whom are Alawites, an esoteric sect whom most Sunnis don’t regard as real Muslims. That leaves 10 percent Christian, and 3 percent Druze, a group even more esoteric than the Alawites.
Then there’s ethnicity. Ten percent of Syrians are non-Arabs: Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians and Turks.
Since independence, Syria has been held together by a series of proverbial “strongmen,” nearly all of whom were the products of its military and who were secular in their orientation. The most important of these “strongmen” was Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, Bashar al-Assad.
It was Assad who elevated the minority Alawites to their outsized position of influence. Not coincidentally, it was Assad who declared war on Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Given Syria’s history, it was almost inevitable that any large-scale uprising against al-Assad would eventually take the form of sectarian conflict, just as occurred in Lebanon and Iraq. The 13 percent cannot rule the 74 percent indefinitely without creating some resentment, especially when many of the 74 percent regard their rulers as heretics.
Equally inevitable was that Christians, as a relatively small and unarmed minority, would be targeted.
Given these facts, American intervention should be, if nothing else, guided by the maxim “First, do no harm.” Arming the side that massacres Christians doesn’t meet that standard.
Pretending that we can somehow keep Islamist ideology from playing an outsized role in the Syrian opposition is culpable fantasy. Since 1979, Islamism has been just about the only alternative to the rule of strongmen in the Middle East. Even when non-Islamists have taken power, such as in Tunisia and even Iraq, sectarian concerns have dominated the debate.
This debate leaves little, if any, room for the region’s Christians. Why anyone expects Syria to be different is beyond my comprehension.
Fortunately, there is still time to tell our leaders that we want no part in Syria’s sectarian conflict. We can urge them to be generous with humanitarian assistance but to refrain from making matters worse. Let’s pray that they get the message this time.
Please come to BreakPoint.org for more on this critically important topic.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Publication date: July 3, 2013