This is what the Lord says:
“For three sins of Damascus, even for four, I will not relent.
Because she threshed Gilead with sledges having iron teeth,
I will send fire on the house of Hazael
that will consume the fortresses of Ben-Hadad.
I will break down the gate of Damascus;
I will destroy the king who is in the Valley of Aven
and the one who holds the scepter in Beth Eden.
The people of Aram will go into exile to Kir,” says the Lord. (Amos 1:3-5)
Thus did Amos declare God’s judgment against Syria and its capital Damascus in about 760 B.C.
Threshing sledges were heavy farming equipment dragged over grain so that rows of sharp iron teeth could cut the grain thus separating the kernel from the husk. A small animal, stray body part, or entire person run over by such a sledge would have been ripped to shreds. While making war, Syria showed itself to be brutal, savage, and pitiless. She ripped the population of Gilead — men, women, and children — to shreds. And God saw it all.
Some things never change.
Through the past week, the Syrian army has been firing artillery, rockets, and mortars into residential neighborhoods in Homs, one of the centers of pro-democracy activism. People don’t dare to go out into the streets any more for fear of snipers who have reportedly killed even pregnant women, children, and Good Samaritans carrying the wounded to safety. According to the Telegraph, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, is “appalled by the Syrian government’s willful assault on Homs” in “what appears to be indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas of the city.”
Meanwhile there are reports that bands of the pro-government militia called “al-Sabiha” — “the ghosts” — have broken into homes to kill entire families. Blair writes:
The Ghantawi family, including a girl of 15 and two boys aged seven and five, lived near al-Firdaos square. The al-Tirkawi family, with seven members, and the al-Zamal family, with eight members, both lived in the al-Nazirheen area of Homs. All were murdered when militiamen raided their homes late on Tuesday [February 6] or in the early hours of yesterday morning [February 7], according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group.
Associated Press reports that the U.N.’s estimate of 5,400 killed since the current uprising against the government began in March 2011 only goes to January. Since then, while the killing goes on apace, “the chaos in the country has made it all but impossible to check the figures.”
Homs and other centers of resistance are being threshed with Damascus’ “sledges having iron teeth,” the result of a situation that Damascus itself created.
Though an independent country since 1946, Syria was wobbly at best until 1970 when then-General Hafiz Al-Assad, a socialist, staged a successful coup. Hafiz Al-Assad made himself president and stabilized the country. After taking power in 2000, his son, Bashar Al-Assad continues his policies of enforcing stability through informants, secret police, and violent repression of political enemies and religious rivals. But that kind of stability, as we can see, never lasts.
The Assads are part of the Alawi sect of Shia Islam. Their fellow Alawis who make up only about twelve percent of the population are the worker bees in the dictatorship. Over against the Alawis are Sunni Muslims who make up two-thirds of Syria’s population.
The heavy-handed rule of a small hated minority (many Sunnis don’t even consider Alawis to be real Muslims) over a large majority is, of course, a recipe for disaster. Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Shah give sage advice about avoiding this recipe in God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics. They write:
Accept that if governments fail to respect the institutional independence of religious [groups], especially through systematic repression, the more these governments will encourage pathological forms of religious politics, including religious-based terrorism and religious-related civil wars.
The Assads’ dictatorial regime couldn’t have created a worse situation if they had tried, and Syria is reaping the whirlwind they’ve sown.
There are three probable outcomes. First, Assad and the Alawi Muslims loyal to him who are accustomed to being in charge successfully crush the popular movement and continue to repress the Sunnis. That’s what happened in 1982 when the Syrian army put down an earlier Sunni uprising by bombardments that killed tens of thousands. Bashar Al-Assad may be thinking that if genocide worked so well for his father, it can work for him too. Russia, China, and Iran seem to be betting on — and abetting — this option. If this is the “fix,” it will only be a temporary one. Forcibly keeping the religious majority out of the civic life will only radicalize it further.
Second, there may be a full-on religious civil war. Toft, Philpott, and Shah in their chapter title about religious civil wars say all that needs to be said: “Nasty, Brutish, and Long.” They note that compared with more secular civil wars, religious ones are more destructive, cause more deaths among combatants and civilians, last longer, and are likely to recur. In this one, Assad and his Alawi followers know that they will be fighting for their lives in the face of Sunni revenge and retribution. It will be ugly, very ugly, with a further destabilizing effect on the region.
Third, Assad may step down and permit some sort of “democracy.” But since the opposition is disorganized, rag-tag, and lacking in credible central leadership, the results might be less than democratic. The cases of Iraq after liberation from Saddam Hussein and Egypt after the Arab Spring make it clear that once a dictator is removed, things are not nearly as simple as we might hope.
There is also a fourth possibility, but it’s something less than a probability. Assad and his government could become the change agents Syria needs. That would require admitting and righting wrongs, atoning for decades of violence and injustice, and bending over backwards to achieve and keep the peace built on a framework of religious and civic freedom. The problem is that nation-states don’t act that way.
St. Augustine pointed out in his City of God that states, which are expressions of what Augustine calls the City of Man, are marked by the libido dominandi, the desire to dominate others. Having established a near monopoly on the use of violence, it is the nature of the state to force its will on its citizens. The Syrian government today is doing just what Augustine would have predicted. The lust for power — getting it, having it, and keeping it — is the overriding concern. And it’s probably an overriding concern across the battle line as well.
The only alternative is the kind of sacrificial love that marks the City of God. It’s the love that we see in the person and work of Jesus Christ. That kind of love is hard enough to find in the church, the expression of the City of God in this world. In politics, governments, and geopolitical hot spots it is rare indeed.
We should pray for peace and work for peace in the entire world. At the same time, keep in mind that peace among nations is an unstable and temporary balancing of the lust for power between the various parties. It is never the peace of the City of God and it never will be.
Meanwhile we need to pray for the church in Syria as well. Native Christians make up about 10 percent of the population. In addition, as Time’s Global Spin blog notes, “One in seven Christians who lived in Iraq in 2003 is now a refugee in Syria.” That adds about 120,000 displaced believers.
To make matters more complex, brutal as he is, Assad has been good to the Christians. A Sunni majority government may not be nearly as accommodating. Again, look at Iraq and Egypt for examples of Christians caught in the middle.
While he would not have used the language, the prophet Amos understood the nature of the City of Man and its abandonment to the lust to dominate. In his prophecy he began with Syria, but didn’t stop there. God will also judge the libido dominandi of Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, Judah (Amos’ home), the secure and complacent northern kingdom of Israel (Amos’ audience), and every other nation then and now.
“Everybody is doing it and always has been” is not an excuse to minimize the horror of what is happening in Syria today. It is, however, a sobering truth to bring to our prayers and work for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and the world, as well as in our communities, churches, and homes.