Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Syria Comment on Christian Militias in Syria

Read the entire, very detailed article by Ayman Jawad al-Tamimi here.


Christian militia and political dynamics in Syria are by no means as simple as notions that all Christians side with the regime or look to the regime as their protector. As we have seen, sect affiliation and geography matter here, and divisions in alignments are particularly sharp in northeastern Syria.

However, one common thread is apparent: the rebel forces on the ground have overwhelmingly failed to attract Christian support for their cause, however many Christians may be in the opposition-in-exile. Christians on the ground look to the regime, Kurds or have formed their own independent groupings generally working with the latter while opposed to the regime, but they have not joined the various FSA-banner formations or other main rebel groupings in significant numbers. One of the biggest failings of the rebels in this regard is the degree to which they have allowed jihadi groups to grow, particularly Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS.

Of these two groups, the former is still the subject of much praise from rebels of all kinds in light of the fighting between ISIS and other rebel groups. Though Jabhat al-Nusra has been hailed as somehow magnanimous towards Christians because it protected the churches in Raqqa following the fall of the city to rebels in March 2013, this narrative is deeply flawed.

As al-Qa’ida envisions it, preventing Christian places of worship from being harmed is to be expected provided Christians accept second-class dhimmi status as accorded by Qur’an 9:29. Even once ISIS came into being in Raqqa, the churches were not harmed for some months. That they were eventually taken over by ISIS and converted into da’wah offices is simply the culmination of the dwindling of the Christian community in the city to negligible size. Indicative of the importance of dhimmi status is the case of Tel Abyad, which saw its Armenian church desecrated by ISIS on the grounds of violation of dhimmi conditions.

Elsewhere, al-Qa’ida’s ideals have not always translated into reality. In Tabqa, the situation was somewhat different, as desecration and looting of Christian property, with the destruction of local churches, began in earnest once rebels including Jabhat al-Nusra took over the city. This happened, it should be noted, before the announcement of ISIS. In any event, Jabhat al-Nusra was also a participant in the Sadad massacre of Christians, and is accused by the Syriac Military Council of being behind the burning down a specific church in Qamishli countryside. Simply blaming any abuses that happen against Christians on ISIS- typically characterized as a foreign-dominated group- is a distortion of the record that diverts attention from the rebels who abetted the rise of the jihadi groups.

Linked to the point on the growth of jihadi groups is another key rebel failing: namely, the obsession with the YPG [i.e., the main Kurdish militia in Northeast Syria, the Syrian military wing of the PKK] as a supposed agent of the regime and the desire to take over its areas of control. Whatever the supposed rights or wrongs of the YPG, strategically for the rebels, fighting with the YPG has proven to be merely a waste of resources, particularly on the Hasakah front. Even now, the fighting with the YPG produces an odd cognitive dissonance in the discourse of rebels and pro-FSA-banner activists in particular: namely, despite the fact that ISIS-widely accused by FSA-banner rebels and their supporters of being a regime agent- dominates the rebel front in Hasakah province, there is nonetheless condemnation of the YPG as it makes advances against ISIS, with accusations of the YPG being a regime agent.

Thus did prominent pro-FSA Twitter activist “Jad Bantha” decry the “pro-Assad YPG Kurdish militias” for a supposed “massacre in Tal Barek [Tel Barak].” Unless one wants to suppose an elaborate game devised by the regime to set its agents off against each other, one wonders how it can be claimed, as Bantha constantly tries to insinuate, that ISIS is a regime agent if it is fighting the YPG, a supposed agent of Assad (and indeed, unlike ISIS, the YPG does have a de facto though nebulous territorial accommodation with the regime in Qamishli). Yet this hostility to the YPG extends beyond the realms of social media: one should note the opposition-in-exile’s condemnation of the YPG for the takeover of the border town of Yaroubiya despite the fact that the takeover involved the expulsion of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.

The point is that this enduring rebel hostility to the YPG- when considered along with the growth of the jihadi groups- has prevented the reaching of any kind of cordial understanding with the YPG and the PYD, which in turn might have been able to persuade more Christians in the east of Syria of the validity of the rebel cause. Instead, all that has happened is the boosting of the PYD’s and regime’s status as protectors of Christians.

Thus far, the current attempts in opposition circles to try to counter the regime’s narrative of its being protector of Christians consist of pointing to incidents of regime bombing that have struck Christian areas and led to damage of churches. One example is the bombing of Tel Nasri in Hasakah province in November 2012, which damaged the village church. However, the opposition counter-narrative is ultimately unconvincing and hardly equates to a supposed persecution campaign against Christians by the regime, for the incidents in question are exceptional in nature, and merely reveal that the regime has scant regard for civilian casualties or historical heritage sites when it bombards areas in attempts to flush out rebels. One should compare with the regime’s willingness to bombard the Krek des Chevaliers area to rid it of Jamaat Jund ash-Sham, which uses the site as a base.

Of course there would still be Christians supporting the regime- particularly among the senior clergymen- regardless of whether the rebels strike an accord with the PYD, but to state it more generally, the most sensible policy for rebel groups to pursue would be simply to leave Christian areas alone (just as they should leave Druze areas alone), though given the overall lack of rebel unity and the prominence of jihadi groups, it seems doubtful whether such an approach can be implemented at this stage.

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