BRUSSELS â€" Moved by the dramatic situation of the Christian population in Aleppo, Syriaâ€™s largest city, a group of Belgian activists, with support from the government, orchestrated a remarkable rescue operation to save nearly 250 Syrian Christians.
In Aleppo, the Christians were under continuous assault by ISIS, the al-Qaeda-aligned al-Nusra front and the Assad regime. Now they're set to receive refugee status in Belgium and join the approximately 5,500 Syrian refugees already in the country.
In total, seven separate groups of refugees left Aleppo to reach Lebanon over the course of May after undergoing a preliminary examination by the Belgian intelligence services. They drove on the last safe highway out of the devastated city, only a few hundred meters wide.
Belgian officials ensured the groups passed the Lebanese-Syrian border unencumbered, and upon their arrival in Beirut the Belgian embassy granted them a visa to board a plane to Brussels, on a flight either self-financed or paid for by the group of activists.
There are 25 people on the committee that organized the operation, some of them lawyers, doctors and civil servants. Most choose to remain anonymous. They come from civil society, include members of several religions, and were mobilized by Logia, a Christian organization. Fearing for their safety, the group was careful not to publicize their plans.
To turn their plan into reality, the organizers of the unprecedented mission contacted Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, Foreign Minister Didier Reynders and Theo Francken, secretary of state for migration. Francken, a Flemish nationalist who professes a tough stance on immigration and has been criticized for his dubious links to the far right, surprisingly supported the initiative.
A former Belgian ambassador to Syria who maintained contacts in the war-torn country and a Belgian priest who still lives there both contributed to the success of the operation.
Why just Christians?
When the government finally decided to make it public, on July 8, the announcement sparked questions and criticism. Some members of the committee that organized the rescue worry that it will now be more difficult, as a result, for them to save refugees in the future. Other Belgians have questioned the way the refugees were chosen for rescue.
â€œThis was the most difficult phase,â€ says Peter Adriaenssens, a psychologist who is part of the committee. â€œWe favored families with children, for Syriaâ€™s future.â€
In an interview with the Brussels-based De Standaard, a leading member of Aleppoâ€™s Christian community noted that only people from the small Maronite Christian minority were rescued. "Other Christians met the Belgian criteria but were not given a chance,â€ the source said.
Why, many ask, did the government only rescue Christians? â€œI expected this decision to draw criticism," says Francken, the secretary for migration. "These people were not saved because they were Christian, but because they were among the most vulnerable in the civil war."
A UN representative shares that opinion. â€œThere is no problem with this choice," the UN official says. "Christians are particularly targeted in the war."
Aleppo had 160,000 Christians before the war. Belgian authorities estimate there are only 55,000 left now.
Several NGOs fear the collateral damage stemming from the Belgian governmentâ€™s decision. Brigitte Hermans, an expert from the Catholic NGO Pax Christi, worries that the rescue will only embolden Bashar al-Assadâ€™s claims that ISIS, rather than his regime, is the true threat to the Syrian people. Other sources believe that tensions between Maronite Christians and other communities in Aleppo could rise as a result.
Certain observers have harshly criticized the Michel administration, calling the rescue a public relations stunt. The government had been facing criticism in the past for its lackluster response to the refugee crisis in Europe, and still has not specified how many asylum seekers it will accept from the rest of the EU. Echoing the concerns of other EU members, Brussels opposes the proposals for a mandatory quota system but has yet to indicate whether it will host part of the 64,000 people who need to be resettled.
Another troubling side of the affair is that the entire management of Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen, one of the largest Flemish NGOs aiding refugees, will be let go for "budgetary reasons." A partner of the federal authorities, the organization claims it is being victimized for political reasons. "They donâ€™t want to invest in a critical organization, even as we face the worst crisis since World War II," says Els Keytsman, the NGOâ€™s director.
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.
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.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.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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