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Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia
Associated Press/Photo by Efrem Lukatsky (file)
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia

The Syrian riddle

Congress | House panel weighs plight of religious minorities in Syria

WASHINGTON—Despite widespread religious persecution in countries like war-torn Syria, the Obama administration is still opposed to creating a special envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East, according to a State Department official who testified before Congress on Tuesday.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia made the comments at a joint subcommittee hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing room regarding the plight of religious minorities in Syria.

Last week President Barack Obama announced the United States would begin arming Syrian rebels, purportedly because Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons against his own people—which Obama had publicly characterized as a red line for U.S. intervention.

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On Tuesday, Melia said the State Department is working to ensure that U.S. weapons and logistical support only go to the “most high-minded” of Syria’s opposition forces. But as WORLD has previously reported, those determinations are anything but easy in the wake of Islamic extremists flooding the country (see Mindy Belz’s June 1 WORLD Magazine cover story, “Turning Syria inside out”).

When Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, asked how the administration would determine who was “high-minded” enough to receive aid, Melia said the precise vetting process is “above my pay grade.” But the four witnesses who followed Melia didn’t mince words in describing the grim situation in the country of 20 million people, where the death toll approaches 90,000 in a civil war that began in 2011.

“The situation in Syria is more acute than anywhere else in the region,” said John Eibner, CEO of Christian Solidarity International USA. “What we see are acts of genocide. We see a situation developing in Syria that is out of control.”

Eibner’s statement rings especially true for Syria’s Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the country’s population and have become targets for both the Assad regime and rebel forces—which have splintered into scores of opposition groups.

Reps. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., co-sponsored legislation in January to create a special envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia. The bill had passed the House overwhelmingly—402 to 20—during the previous Congress, but it was blocked in the Senate.

Melia on Tuesday reiterated the administration’s stance that a special envoy is not needed, causing Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who chaired the hearing, to ask if Melia would let his superiors know that Congress was “disappointed” with the decision.

Lawmakers pressed Melia on why the United States has pursued a “Darwinian” approach to Syrian policy, in which the Obama administration has observed from the sidelines to see who comes out on top—an assessment Melia disputed. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., suggested the absence of U.S. leadership has led to the increasingly bleak outlook for Syria, saying the world has heard only “crickets from this administration.”

Gerry Connolly, D-Va., bristled at the notion that the Obama administration should have done more: “Do you know who’s good and who’s bad in Syria?” he retorted. “Unless you do, you’re in no position to lecture the administration. This country is sick of war and does not want to be sucked into another one.”

“History is going to judge what we did when there was this epic shift in what America and the rest of the world looked like,” Kinzinger responded. “We don’t have the luxury to say, ‘We’re a little fatigued. It’s time to move on.’”

Three of the four witnesses after Melia oppose the U.S. decision to arm rebels in Syria. The lone exception was M. Zuhdi Jasser, commissioner for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, who said he shares concerns about arming rebels but sees no better option.

Majed El Shafie, founder of Canada-based One Free World International, took aim at existing U.S. aid efforts around the world, saying, “Ninety percent of the American aid will be misused.” He held up an Arab children’s book paid for with American dollars that teaches Islamic jihad.

El Shafie, a former Egyptian national who was tortured and sentenced to death after converting to Christianity, said the United States has not learned from past mistakes: “We must attach aid money to improvement in minority rights,” he said. “I believe the American people are tired of supporting terrorists.”

Bassam Ishak, president of the Syriac National Council, a group advocating for Christians in Syria, told me after the hearing that he’s not convinced U.S. aid has and will go to the right people. He said U.S. engagement in the early days of the revolution helped to establish credibility, but that has since been lost.

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