Cover Story

Surviving by serving

"Surviving by serving" Continued...

Issue: "Syria's pain," Sept. 8, 2012

"So the main division in Syria is not between Assad and the rest, but between Sunni fundmentalists (including foreign Salafi jihadists) and the rest, i.e., the majority of Syrians," notes Kendal.

Yossef Bodansky, who as director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism became one of the first U.S. analysts to document al-Qaeda's structure and the role of Osama bin Laden, also believes that siding with the rebels is the wrong stance for the United States and its allies. "The international community has been blindly following a jihadist-driven agenda for Syria; a solution the majority of Syrians reject, but which Turkey and Qatar have been driving. It begs the question: Why are analysts in Washington-or Paris or London-not digging more deeply into what is really happening, given that the solution they have endorsed is so profoundly anti-Western?"

Bodansky says that the Syrian National Council, the lead political opposition to Assad, "has always been a front of the more militant-jihadist wing of the Muslim Brothers." Left to battle for control of the country, he and other analysts argue, these rebel groups are likely to send Syria into political chaos and militant insurgency, and likely to take Lebanon with them.

The humanitarian toll of that trajectory already is evident: Across Syria tens of thousands have been killed and almost 3 million, according to the UN, are displaced or in dire need of food and other essentials. Meanwhile, fighting this month has spread to Tripoli and other areas across the Syria-Lebanon border.

Ultimately, the battle for Aleppo, and all Syria, may represent an opportunity for the United States-with Iran and Russia, no less-to agree on a transitional regime that could lead to a move away from Assad's brutality. "Regional stability and moral considerations both require a transitional phase in Syria, not cold-turkey democracy," argues STRATFOR analyst Robert D. Kaplan. "Syria's situation is dire. From both a moral and geopolitical point of view, fighting a proxy war with Iran and Russia there is less desirable for the United States than reaching out to them."

Yet, as Kaplan and others point out, the Obama administration has shown little flair for back-channel, hard-boiled diplomacy. Increasingly it appears that the United States, along with Great Britain, is content to provide tacit support for the rebels, to arm them without direct aerial or naval support, on the premise that civil war in Syria distracts Iran from its nuclear ambitions and Russia from its own military buildup. Republicans in Congress are content to go along because in principle they would like Assad to go and "democracy," whatever it may look like, to replace him.

Christians, who form a significant part of the "Fertile Crescent of minorities" standing between the Sunni Arab majority in the Middle East and the Shiite extremists of Iran, face the largest threat from jihadist groups within the opposition. Despite Assad's reputation for brutal mistreatment of opponents, in the past he's shown favor to Syria's Christian minority, allowing protection for ancient Christian sites and religious liberty unlike most of the Middle East. Assad personally has relied on Christians as his bodyguards and as caretakers for his children.

Since war broke out, Christians increasingly have been targeted by rebels. Over 138,000 Christians fled Homs, where they were terrorized and churches looted by occupying rebels. While the UN claims that pro-government militias were behind the May massacre in Houla that killed 108, local Christians insist that the killers were part of rebel groups.

A report from a local priest in Qaraa, near Houla, provided to WORLD in French, describes in detail "rebel armies" attacking a police station and killing 35 officers, then proceeding to a hospital where 25 patients, their family members who were present, and medical personnel were killed. "The gangs massacred all the people there and then burned the hospital after having moved the corpses," reads the report.

In Aleppo, Christians are surviving by serving. As street battles and strafing from helicopter gunships have moved from outer neighborhoods into central Aleppo, where most of the Christian population lives, displaced residents are living in parks, churches, or school shelters run by local Christians.

"The churches and our people are doing a tremendous work among the IDPs [internally displaced persons] all over Aleppo," reports the physician, who is not named for security reasons. Sunday schools are distributing bread and canned goods to "hundreds and thousands" of the displaced, he said. "The church is having a very good testimony in Aleppo."

In addition, churches in the city continue to work with about 495 Iraqi families who remain as refugees. Many have returned to Iraq since fighting broke out, and at least 12 Iraqi refugees have been killed this month.

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