Geopolitics

Between Assad And ISIS, Syrian Christians Have Much To Fear

As the conflict between Assad's military and Syrian opposition forces escalates around the southern city of Daraa, religious minorities fear persecution from all sides.

A woman sits in a church in the historic Christian town of Maaloula, north of Damascus
A woman sits in a church in the historic Christian town of Maaloula, north of Damascus
Rana Rizq*

Fighting between the government of Bashar al-Assad and various opposition forces continues to intensify in Daraa province, in southern Syria. For religious minorities, the rising conflict means living in fear of persecution. By either side.

“In my village, Namir, there is no difference between Christians and Muslims,” Nour, 28, who studied English literature and fled with her parents during a regime assault, told Syria Deeply. “We all had to leave.”

Since the emergence of hard-line armed groups such as the Islamic State and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), several minority groups â€" among them Christians, Alawites, Shiites, Druze and others â€" have been targeted in violent and sometimes deadly attacks.

Syria's Christians, who represent around 10% of the country's 22 million people, have endured kidnappings, beheadings and other attacks in various parts of the country.

Nour says that being a Christian in Daraa is “tough” because the community is stuck between Assad’s regime and hard-line rebel groups. “The presence of the Syrian army didn’t make any difference, although they claim to support minorities,” she explained.

According to a fighter from Daraa from the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Southern Front unit, rebels have been working together in the area for the past two years. The Southern Front began advancing on Daraa this spring and successfully overran two of the Assad regime's local military bases.

The Syrian army’s 52nd Brigade’s base is located in the Izraa district and was taken by opposition forces in March, as was the 82nd Brigade’s base in the Daraa area, one of the regime’s largest army bases, according to Basem, a 35-year-old local activist from a Syrian media center based in al-Lajat, a southern town.

As these fighters continue their advance, many Syrian minority groups increasingly fear becoming the targets of violent reprisals due to the widely held belief that they are loyal to the Assad regime.

According to Rami, a 29-year-old opposition activist, Assad “exploits sectarian fears in order to stay in power even as he claims to be the defender of the nation’s religious minorities against foreign Islamic extremists.” Rami also points to the fact that many local religious and ethnic minorities have been displaced during the prolonged conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

With the threat of sectarian reprisals looming, the Christians of Daraa, as in other cities in Syria, are particularly vulnerable.

Umm Michael, 48, said she fears her family will be forced to flee if the rebels take over Daraa. "We have no place to go," she told Syria Deeply. “I can't sleep at night thinking about what will happen. We were living in peace before. I wish we could go back in time.”

Syrian troops are seen near Daraa, in Feb. 2015 â€" Photo: Bassem Tellawi/Xinhua/ZUMA

Umm Michael’s 22-year-old son has already tried three times to flee to Europe, but has thus far been unsuccessful. The family have exhausted their savings trying to get him there, hoping that they could follow him there later.

Many Christians share Umm Michael's fears, but, unlike in other Syrian cities, most have remained in Daraa. They believe that most of the opposition fighters in the region are locals, making the community safer in the face of spreading sectarian violence. However, as the fighting intensifies, it is growing increasingly difficult to feel secure.

“We're trapped here. You can forget about Christians soon,” said Youssef, a 38-year-old shopkeeper who asked Syria Deeply to withhold his full name. “Look at what has happened to the Christians in the Middle East. Everywhere, they have had to flee. This is also my plan, for me and my children.”

Although Christians have historically lived in relative peace beside other religious communities in Daraa, many locals say they have struggled to avoid seeming like they have taken sides.

Khalil Mokhimer, media activist and founder of the Syrian Media Center in Daraa, explained that many Christians were active in the early stages of the anti-regime uprising in the city. “The Christians of Daraa â€" those from the city of Daraa, where the revolution was launched â€" didn’t have any choice but to support the revolution,” he told Syria Deeply. Mokhimer, who returned to Daraa to join the nationwide uprising that started in 2011, recalled the local churches opening their doors to the wounded when demonstrations broke out in the region that year.

Some Christian areas in Daraa, such as the villages of Khabab and Basir, have largely been able to avoid the fighting. They have neither joined the uprising nor thrown their weight behind the Assad regime. An estimated 200,000 displaced Syrians have sought refuge in these villages due to their relative security, according to the Syrian Media Center in Daraa.

Christians are not the only local minority who are fearful for the future in Daraa. According to Sayyed Muhammad al-Jamouseh, leader of the Ibn Mouquem al-Jawziyyah Division, part of The First Corps rebel coalition, many Shiites from the nearby al-Shaykh Maskin village fled following the Free Syrian Army (FSA) takeover of the village in December last year. Others joined the FSA.

Al-Jamouseh returned from working in Saudi Arabia after losing seven members of his family during regime attacks and joined the uprising. “As a fighter, I ask the Christians to make a decision, even if this decision is late,” he appealed to Syrian Christians at large. “It’s important not to support the regime, because it’s gone.”

Christians “are part of Syrian society,” he added. “We don’t consider them a minority; we consider them part of this bleeding country.”

*Rana Rizq is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist based in France.

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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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