BASHAR AL-ASSAD AND SYRIAN CHRISTIANS: WHAT SHOULD WE THINK? by Phil Dorroll and Kari Edwards

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Clockwise from top left: President Bashar al-Assad, Antiochian Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Youssef

This is the third article in our Dialogical Series. On April 15 Orthodoxy in Dialogue published “A Statement Issued by the Patriarchates of Antioch and All the East,” which had been released the day before. The Statement and our decision to publish it provoked criticism in some quarters because of what appears to be the Patriarchs’ implicit support of the Assad regime. Yet other Orthodox in the West feel obligated to follow Russia’s lead in backing Assad. Here Dr. Dorroll underscores the extreme complexity of the Syrian dilemma for Christians who live there, while Ms. Edwards examines the pro-Assad stance of some North American Orthodox Christians.

~ Phil Dorroll ~

The Arab World in the 20th century

Most modern Arab states are recent in origin, only having gained independence from Western colonial dominance in the middle of the 20th century. The most persistent challenge to political development in these young, postcolonial societies has been the persistence of authoritarianism.

The persistence of authoritarian governments in the Arab world has been explained by a variety of factors, including:

  • The persistent interference of national militaries in politics.
  • The continuing power of authoritarian political traditions previously cultivated by colonial powers, who usually favored alliances with authoritarian client rulers over democratization.
  • The presence of oil, which can often exacerbate anti-democratic politics. Reliance on a single source of economic development often provides little incentive for the state to cultivate diverse political constituencies.
  • The persistent intervention of international great powers (such as the United States and the USSR/Russia) in local politics, who—like previous colonial governments—often empower local authoritarian regimes in exchange for their support in enhancing the great powers’ influence in the region.
The Assad Regime: Origins and Ideology

All of the factors listed above apply to modern Syria. Syria gained independence from French control in 1946 and experienced its first military coup in 1949. After a brief but vibrant period of democratic political life from 1954 to 1958, Syrian politics experienced successive waves of chaos and military rule until Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, took control in 1970. Hafez al-Assad ruled Syria from 1970 to 2000. His rule is particularly important to an understanding of the current regime of Bashar al-Assad, as Bashar has directly followed and even intensified the tactics used by his father to control the country. 

Hafez al-Assad’s regime is best described as having been a “populist-authoritarian dictatorship” (Kevin Martin, Syria’s Democratic Years: Citizens, Experts, and Media in the 1950s, Indiana University, 2015, p. 14). He ruled by means of a massive cult of personality that reflected his overall “strategy of domination based on compliance rather than legitimacy” (Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria, University of Chicago, 2015, p. 6).

His populist nationalism was rooted in the Ba‘th political party, one of the central institutions of secular Arab nationalism in the middle of the 20th century. The party, whose name means “revival” or “awakening,” was founded in 1947 by two eminent Arab political thinkers, Michel ‘Aflaq (a Greek Orthodox Christian) and Salah al-Din al-Bitar (a Sunni Muslim). Ba‘th party ideology was centered on the “reawakening” of the Arab nation and cultural identity; its central ideological axes were summarized in the slogan “Unity, Freedom, Socialism.” Syrian Ba‘thism is a secularist ideology that views a variety of religious traditions (Islamic, Christian, or otherwise) as key components of, but subsumed under, Arab cultural identity.

It was also during Hafez al-Assad’s reign that a close relationship developed between the Soviet and Syrian governments. Economic and military relationships had existed since 1956, but ramped up significantly during this period. Between 1971 and 1973, Hafez al-Assad developed the foundations of the Soviet/Russian-Syrian alliance that has endured to this day (Patrick Seale, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, University of California, 1989, pp. 186-87). The Syrian regime has received massive arms and military assistance in exchange for supporting Soviet/Russian foreign policy objectives in the region. The current Syrian regime is also a close ally of Iran.

The Assad Regime: Maintenance of Power

Despite initial optimism about the change in power, Bashar al-Assad has continued and strengthened the totalitarian methods that his father had used to rule Syria.

The Assad regime deploys a massive police state to monitor the Syrian population and eliminate any trace of opposition to the regime. Syrian political life is famously marked by mass paranoia and surveillance. The regime has also implemented corrupt economic policies that enrich sectors of society that are loyal to the regime, such as some members of the Syrian Christian and Sunni Muslim upper classes, the urban upper classes, and certain key provincial populations, such as some members of the ‘Alawi religious minority of which the Assad family is a member (Wedeen 7).

The regime completely controls media output within Syria: freedom of the press and expression are entirely non-existent. In recent years an online pro-Russian and pro-Assad network of social media activists and propaganda has also emerged that accounts for a significant portion of the regime’s ideological influence in current digital media sources outside of Syria.

Both Hafez and Bashar al-Assad have also employed incredible levels of mass violence against civilian populations in order to both intimidate and eliminate domestic opposition to their regimes. The elder al-Assad first deployed this strategy during his regime’s attempts to counter jihadist threats in the first decade of his regime.

Jihadism (a radical religio-political ideology that recasts Islamic tradition as oriented entirely toward the deployment of violence and revolution) first emerged in the 1970s and 1980s as an Islamic religious alternative to secular nationalist ideologies of armed struggle. It therefore grew in power and legitimacy under authoritarian secular Arab nationalist regimes, under which the only viable option for regime change was violence and revolution. In recent years, particularly horrifying jihadi strains have developed in Iraq after the American invasion and during the Syrian civil war. This includes the genocidal violence of ISIS. 

Hafez al-Assad faced a series of brutal jihadist terrorist attacks in the 1970s that led to a broad crackdown on all Sunni Muslim political dissent. (At around 70%, Sunni Muslims comprise the largest religious group in the country.) In 1982, Hafez al-Assad suppressed an uprising in the largely Sunni Muslim city of Hama by attacking the population with some 12,000 troops. Syrian regime forces levelled entire civilian areas, and arrested or executed many of those who survived. According to human rights organizations, some 10,000 were killed.

The younger al-Assad also employs horrific violence against civilians. The Syrian uprising that led to the current civil war began when teenagers painted anti-regime graffiti on a school in the city of Dar‘a. They were subsequently arrested and tortured by the Syrian police. The ensuing non-sectarian, peaceful protests calling for democracy and human rights were fired upon by regime forces, sparking escalating clashes that led to war.

Throughout the ensuing civil war, the Assad regime has portrayed itself as the only effective shield against jihadi violence such as ISIS (which remains a terrible threat); but Assad regime forces have been responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths since the conflict began.

According to human rights groups, nearly 500,000 people have died or gone missing in Syria since the war began. While precise numbers are difficult to obtain, it is clear that the Assad regime has been responsible for the large majority of civilian deaths in the war, which run in the tens of thousands. One reliable estimate puts the civilian death toll at approximately 96,000. According to this estimate, over 83,000 of those were killed by the Assad regime and almost 4,000 were killed by ISIS.

Christians and the Assad Regime 

It is important to remember that Syrian Christians live under extraordinarily dire political conditions: totalitarianism presents a profoundly distorted set of political options to any community living under it. Approximately 10% of the Syrian population are Christian. Most Syrian Christians fear jihadist violence or the terrible victimization of minorities that occurs in many Arab states, particularly in times of political chaos (such as neighboring Iraq after the American invasion). For these reasons, many Syrian Christians offer support for the Assad regime (Andreas Bandak, “Performing the Nation: Syrian Christians on the National Stage,” in Syria from Reform to Revolt, Volume 2, Syracuse University, 2015, p. 128).

Syrian Christians’ legitimate fears of victimization have therefore forced them into the arms of a regime that victimizes other religious groups in the country. Due to state patronage of its institutions over the past few decades, the Greek Orthodox Church in Syria, for instance, “on both a popular and official level has been in favor of the regime and an ideology of pan-Arabism, and has assisted the regime in spreading the message of Arab nationalism” (Bandak 119).

The Assad regime’s support for Syrian Christians is, of course, not based on a concern for the protection of human rights in general, but is rather focused on cultivating the loyalty of this religious community by exploiting their tenuous position in contemporary Arab states. Pro-democracy Christian activists are tortured and killed alongside activists of other faiths.

In other words, questions of support and resistance in contemporary Syria are extremely difficult to evaluate morally under such terrible conditions. By the same token, contemporary support for the regime by Christians living outside of these conditions is a different moral and political question. The role of Christians in the transformation of modern Syrian politics from democratic to authoritarian is also an important historical question, but one entirely distinct from the horrible urgency of survival under the current regime.   

~ Kari Edwards ~

#SyriaHoax

A simple hashtag, but one that has taken on a life of its own on Twitter following last year’s US-led strikes against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s government. Although it failed to trend quite as spectacularly earlier this month, when President Trump once again ordered retaliatory missile strikes, it still had a major impact, prompting another flood of tweets questioning the authenticity of virtually every aspect of the accepted mainstream narrative. The problem, of course, is that in the midst of so much conflicting information, it is next to impossible to discern what is real and what is fabricated. Two interpretations have emerged in the American media: one of Assad as a protector of Syria against an otherwise imminent ISIS invasion, the other of Assad as a ruthless dictator bent on the destruction of his own people. Conspiracy theories flourish in these circumstances.

As we examine American reactions to the crisis in Syria, it’s important first to understand the level of confusion surrounding the topic. The “truth” about Syria, at least on the internet, depends on whom you ask. There isn’t a clear consensus on Assad’s government or Trump’s actions against it that would be recognizable to most Americans: this means that traditional political affiliations don’t really give much indication as to where one stands on the issues. Democrat and Republican lawmakers both condemned and approved of Trump’s most recent move. The type of party-based, conservative-versus-liberal discourse that Americans are used to seeing does not adequately apply.

Support for US intervention is typically centered around the idea that Assad has created an international humanitarian crisis, one which must be confronted in the wake of chemical attacks on civilians. Some want to go so far as to topple the Assad regime completely and install a presumably Western-friendly government in Syria. Opponents’ arguments are comprised of several, often overlapping concerns: the legality of Trump’s actions, their potential to drag the US into another war, the fear of jihadi groups instantly filling any power vacuum left behind if Assad is deposed, and the belief that Assad’s government offers protection to Syrian Christians who would otherwise be in grave danger. Support from Trump’s own conservative base is hardly universal, and where it exists it is often cloaked in caution.

Backlash against Trump for intervening in Syria is particularly strong among those who helped propel the president’s campaign in 2016: the “alt-right.” That backlash is echoed by some Republicans, although hardly with the vehemence felt by the group that, up until the removal of former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon from his role on the National Security Council, had claimed Trump’s victory as their own. Bannon, once the executive chairman of the extreme-right political website Breitbart News, was known as a virulent opponent to any American interventionist actions, especially against Syria. He was also the indisputable link between the president and the white supremacist “alt-right.” His departure from the White House in August 2017, according to his own Breitbart News, was a sure sign that “the globalists in Trump’s administration” were now empowered to push forward with more foreign intervention. The “alt right” saw the first Syria strike as the point of no return so far as their once cozy relationship with Trump was concerned. The second attack this April only confirmed their messy breakup.

The Orthodox response to action against Syria has largely been unified, at least on the surface. This comes as no surprise, since Orthodox Christians in the US view Syrian Christians as their brothers and sisters. The potential for American military escalation is a troublesome prospect for this reason, because it could easily put Syrian Christians in more danger. When the Patriarchs of Antioch released their joint statement in the wake of the latest missile attacks, they seemed to echo these sentiments. What is interesting about their statement, however, is #3 on their list of affirmations. They argue against America’s claims “that the Syrian army is using chemical weapons and that Syria is a country that owns and uses this kind of weapon, is unjustified and unsupported by sufficient and clear evidence.” Reluctance to denounce Assad is certainly not new among Christian leaders in the Middle East, but their outright denial of the Syrian government’s involvement in any chemical attacks speaks to a much larger issue, one that has reverberated across the furthest corners of the internet and steadily trickled into the mainstream: that Assad is being wrongly accused, the chemical attacks were either outright fabrications or the work of someone else, and the West is exploiting the crisis for its own ends.

Central to this counter-narrative is Russia. The Assad government owes its continued livelihood in no small part to Russia, and many have accused Trump of devising the 2018 missile strike as proof that he is tough on Putin without overtly provoking Russian retaliation. In early April 2017, in the days following an alleged sarin gas attack by Assad’s forces, the #SyriaHoax hashtag began trending on Twitter. It spread like wildfire, popularized eventually by “alt-right” conspiracy theorists Mike Cernovich and Alex Jones. According to those on Twitter, the sarin gas attack was either:

  • Carried out by pro-Western groups as a “false flag.”
  • An attack by jihadi militant groups such as ISIS.
  • Entirely made up and acted out by “crisis actors” to deceive the public in order to justify US military intervention.

The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab published a painstaking investigative piece on the history and impact of #SyriaHoax, one which traces it directly back to pro-Assad news websites of both Syrian and Russian origin. The hashtag started to resurface after the April 2018 chemical attacks, enough to prompt the BBC also to do some investigating of their own into the shadowy world of Russian pro-Assad Twitter accounts masquerading as independent reporters. The media’s interest has even sparked some backlash from official Russian Twitter accounts.

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One striking commonality that many pro-Assad accounts share is Orthodoxy. Some of the more popular ones, including @Partisangirl and Sarah Abdallah, regularly tweet references to Orthodox Christians in Syria and Russia:

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Other accounts even display the Russian Orthodox cross in their names:

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One of the most prolific of these accounts is @NinaByzantina (above), who promotes the “crisis actor” conspiracy.

Explicitly pro-Assad Orthodox accounts like @For2000years and @Christian_Syria retweet information that seems to validate American fears of potential extermination of Syrian Christians without Assad:

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Putin, of course, figures heavily into much of the discussion, along with hierarchs of the Russian Church:

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Putin’s Russia has an undeniable history of politicizing the Orthodox Church, but with the Syria conflict Orthodoxy has become particularly weaponized. In 2015, then chairman of the Synodal Department for Cooperation of Church and Society, Father Vsevolod Chaplin, claimed that Russia’s intervention in Syria was nothing less than “holy war.” He was later removed from his position for this statement. But despite backtracking on Chaplin’s comments, both Putin and the Russian Church continue to portray Russia as the savior of Syrian Christianity. Even white supremacists in the US have helped promote this image.

Alongside the many pro-Assad media outlets and social media accounts, American conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones of Infowars have taken up the cause, as well, parroting a wide swath of “false flag” narratives since the April 2017 sarin gas attack. Infowars blames a “globalist coup” for the desire to overtake Syria, a “new world order” that desires access to more oil reserves in the Middle East. Jones is one of many who blame such shadowy figures for intentionally sowing discord in Syria. Even former KKK Grand Wizard, David Duke, echoed these sentiments when he visited Damascus in 2005, although he referred to the culprits as “Zionists.” The “war for oil” theory isn’t exclusive to the ultra-right, either, although the anti-Semitic overtures that often accompany such theories are.

As tales of “false flag” operations slowly start to appear in mainstream cable news outlets, it becomes increasingly clear just how extensively these counter-narratives have managed to cast doubt on anything having to do with Syria in the past year. The questionable legality of Trump’s actions, combined with the very real threat of ISIS within Syria and the relative protection that Assad’s regime offers Christians who live there, all paint a muddled picture for Americans who can only speculate based on what bits of information they get online and through the media. Fueled in no small part by the rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric post-9/11, the Christian response in the US tends to revolve primarily around curtailing an Islamic insurgency. Whether that comes in the form of tacit approval of Trump’s missile strikes, support for Assad, or even the conviction that Syrian chaos is a sign of the end times, the common thread seems to be fear of Muslims somehow eradicating Syrian Christians. Russia, for its part, continues to go to great lengths to promote that fear, increasingly with a keyboard and an Orthodox cross.

Phil Dorroll holds a PhD in Religion from Emory University. He specializes in the history of Islamic theology in classical Arabic and modern Turkish. An Orthodox Christian, he is assistant professor of religion at Wofford College in Spartansburg SC. His work focuses partly on historical interactions between Orthodoxy and Islam.

Kari Edwards is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Mississippi, an Orthodox Christian, and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue. She holds a BA in Religious Studies from the University of Tennessee and an MA in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi.

Addendum: Ms. Edwards resigned as associate editor on May 23, 2018.
Orthodoxy in Dialogue seeks to promote the free exchange of ideas by offering a wide range of perspectives on an unlimited variety of topics. Our decision to publish implies neither our agreement nor disagreement with an author, in whole or in part. Likewise the publication of an article by an editor implies neither the agreement nor disagreement of the other editor. 

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