Syria has been in the news almost daily for the last 17 months. Over 18,000 people have lost their lives. And recent developments -- including the defection of the prime minister and the bombing deaths of both the country’s defense minister and President Assad’s brother-in-law, the deputy defense minister -- have caused the situation to deteriorate even further.
So what do we need to know about what is happening in Syria and why?
To understand the present, we must look at history. Christians have a special tie to Syria -- it was just outside Damascus that (then) Saul of Tarsus had his miraculous encounter with the risen Jesus and was subsequently converted from Christian persecutor to one of the most dynamic Christian evangelists who has ever lived. And it was on Straight Street in Damascus (which can still be seen today), that Paul’s sight was restored, he was baptized and he began to preach for the first time. Damascus -- first mentioned in Genesis and called the oldest capital city in the world -- has been continuously inhabited since around 2500 B.C.
Damascus is 'Holy Land' for Christians
Even today, between 10 and 20 percent of the people in Syria are Christians. But since the uprising is primarily a conflict regarding Muslim control of the country, many Christians in the Western world don’t understand the relevance to their own lives.
Father Nadim Nassar is the first and only Episcopal priest of Syrian descent in the Church of England. He is also the founder and director of The Awareness Foundation in London -- a Christian education agency seeking to help Christians be more confident in their own faith and still remain open to their neighbors of differing faiths in order to peacefully co-exist. Because of his nationality and his work, he has a unique perspective on the situation in Syria and recently spoke with me about why the outcome is so critical -- not only to the Arab world, but also to Christians and to the West.
He outlined several things that will help us to better understand:
1. First, Syria is a very diverse population of Christians, Jews and Muslims -- it is a mosaic of religious, cultural and ethnicities with dynamics that are as mixed as the country itself. And the Muslim sects are themselves quite diverse. Syria is home to a majority of Sunnis, but has been ruled by the minority Alawites since1970. The Alawites -- a mystical sect with closely guarded beliefs that seem to incorporate pagan and even some Christian traditions -- are not even considered to be Muslim by some Sunni clerics. That’s how deep the divide between them is.
2. The incredibly tumultuous past of Syria has brought the country to this point in history. Previously Christian, but ruled by the Ottoman Turks from 1516 to 1916, the country had 21 different governments in the 24 years prior to 1970 when French-trained Air Force general Hafiz al-Assad seized power after a series of coup d’etats. The current president, Bashar al-Assad, is his son.
3. This uprising is indicative of great unrest in the Middle East and is a continuation of the dissatisfaction represented by the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco and others. (For an interactive timeline of the protests, see "The path of protest" from The Guardian, Jan. 2012.)
4. Syria’s geographic location is crucial. Sandwiched between Turkey to the north, Iraq on the east, Jordan and Israel to the south, Lebanon to the west, and sharing the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea, Syria is prime real estate. The situation in Syria is very delicate because it shares a large border with Israel. What happens here affects relations in not only the Middle East, but also reverberates all around the world.
5. The outcome of this conflict is uncertain and less than ideal on either side.
• The current regime is corrupt and guilty of torture, oppression, killing, etc. This has caused both the desire and the need, for change.
• However, the opposition is fragmented, divided, and doesn’t have a clear political agenda or solid leadership that the people can embrace as representing them. (The U.S. State Department and the Pentagon are already in talks about how to stabilize the region when President Assad’s regime is overthrown.)
6. The Western world is now backing the liberation forces, but we shouldn’t forget that we once backed Assad, Mubarak, Khadafi, Ben Ali and other totalitarian leaderships. Our relationship with the Middle East is precarious and we need to maintain our ties there for economic, political and security reasons.
7. The Syrian conflict is a result of the dissatisfaction of its citizens and represents justifiable and legitimate requests. The citizens of Syria are influenced by:
• the corruption of the current regime
• a lack of freedom and liberty
• a lack of civil rights
• a lack of political life and activities
• the successful overthrow of other regimes in surrounding countries.
8. The climate of dissatisfaction in Syria is happening all around the world on many different levels.
For the United States, we need look no further than our own country to see similar, even frightening trends occurring:
1. Father Nassar told me that ego is destroying Syria. The regime is willing to burn down the country rather than give up their power. The opposition forces are fighting so hard to oust them that they haven’t tackled the question of how they will govern. Individuals are already jockeying for positions of power in the new government even though they don’t yet know what that will look like. Neither side is asking the most important question: “What is best for Syria and how do we implement that?”
Aren’t we currently having a national discussion about the role ego plays in Washington, Wall Street and Main Street? Don’t we complain that the Democrats and Republicans are more concerned about their political agendas than they are about what is best for the nation and the people they serve?
2. The demonstrations first began peaceable in Syria and were then met with violence. The citizens of Syria were promised reforms but they didn’t get them. This asking for change then turned to asking for a change in regime.
The presidential election in 2008 was won because of a promise of hope and change. After almost four years without positive changes, a large number of people are now asking for a change in the White House. We are pitting the Occupy movement against the Tea Party movement and this has resulted in incidents of violence in our own country.
3. Father Nassar believes that what is missing in Syria is dialogue -- dialogue between the regime and the protestors and dialogue between Syria and the world leadership at large. World leaders met in June to discuss the situation, but did not include representatives from Syria at the table. Nassar is calling for an international roundtable discussion that includes Syria.
Conflicts and differences of opinion in the United States are becoming increasingly more aggressive and personal. We saw this just recently in the response to Dan Cathy’s comments that Chick-fil-A supports traditional marriage. This didn’t spark a healthy discussion and dialogue -- it sparked an outrage on both sides. People are feeling oppressed and are reacting negatively. They feel that they are either losing their civil rights, or haven’t been granted them in the first place.
This intolerance and hypersensitivity lay the foundation for more aggressive actions -- even violence. And violence simply breeds more violence. Father Nassar warns us that the environment of violence is dangerous for another reason -- it encourages the popularity of Islamic fundamentalists. When people are fed up and desperate, they will turn to anything to stop it -- even violence. And the fundamentalists and militants are in the best position to exploit the situation. Al Qaeda has already joined the liberation forces, and a recent New York Times article quoted an al Qaeda operative: “Our big hope is to form a Syrian-Iraqi Islamic state for all Muslims, and then announce our war against Iran and Israel, and free Palestine.” Nassar cautions us, “Every day the bloodshed continues -- we are further jeopardizing world peace and safety.”
So What Can the Average Citizen Do?
Father Nassar gives this advice:
1. Remind our politicians that dialogue is always better than guns: “Bullets are never the right language.”
2. Prayer and faith -- when people come together with God in wisdom, love and forgiveness, we can peacefully solve our conflicts. “Look at the end of Apartheid in South Africa,” he said. There was violence leading up to the abolishment of Apartheid, but it was Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk’s willingness to work together for a peaceful transition that finally allowed the first free multi-racial elections to be held and formally ended these segregationist laws.
3. Remember that it’s okay to be different. The problem comes when we try to “cancel” someone else or force him or her to accept our beliefs or our position.
4. Don’t forget that every country and every person is precious in the eyes of God.
We think that what is happening in Syria couldn’t happen here. But we are already seeing the groundswell of dissatisfaction and intolerance for others who don’t believe as we do. Couple that with a fragile economy and we ourselves are sitting on a powder keg. Thankfully, we can use the power of the polls to change our leadership when we aren’t satisfied with their performance. But we are going to have to use the powers of both understanding and introspection to change our attitudes towards others.
Let us take a lesson from what is happening in other countries and be a positive force for peace and acceptance -- starting with our own lives, our own relationships and within our own communities. We should be a leader in peaceful change rather than resorting to the negativity and aggression that others are using to achieve their goals. America was founded by people fleeing oppression -- let us not become the oppressors ourselves.
There is an excellent article from February 1993 by Robert D. Kaplan published in Atlantic Monthly that gives more detail on the historical events in Syria and a commentary on its future that certainly seems to be coming true today. Read Syria: Identity Crisis for a deeper look into the factors that have contributed to the situation in Syria.
Deborah J. Thompson is a writer, speaker, artist, Stephen Minister and Stephen Leader whose articles are published by Crosswalk.com and The Fish family of Christian radio station websites around the country. She shares "Reflections" on Life, Relationships and Family on her website, www.inspiredreflections.info. And she is working on her first book, Your Life, Your Choice -- 5 Steps to Peace. Join her on Twitter and Facebook for daily devotions. She is also available for speaking engagements. Call or email for details and visit her Speaker's Page for references and bio.
Publication date: August 8, 2012