A year after forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began shooting pro-democracy demonstrators, sparking the war that continues today, I met with an alliance of Syrian Christians who had come to ask Washington for help in their struggle.
They wanted nothing more than freedom from the regime and were chillingly prescient in this 2012 conversation about the horrors to come, including the eventual outbreak of terrorist groups, if the world stood by and did nothing to stop Assad. Among these Christians were survivors of Assad’s pre-Arab Spring brutality, one man having languished for nine years as a political prisoner in Assad’s notorious jails, another having suffered torture and imprisonment as a student who spoke against the regime.
They raised their voices “to show that, no, the majority of Christians are not with the regime.” They emphasized that Christians along with Syria’s other sects were fighting and dying to oust Assad. They noted that in the first year of the revolution, Assad’s new constitution treated Christians “as second- or third-class citizens.” They were incredulous that any fellow Christians could sit back and watch Assad’s crimes, see children and neighbors murdered, and not stand with those suffering given the responsibility to stand up for the persecuted instead of the tormentor.
The years-long Syrian conflict has been defined not only by unpardonable neglect from the outside world, but by misunderstanding and even fake news about the reality on the ground and Assad, who may soon rightly face a war crimes tribunal. Assad and his allies have perpetuated myths to try to stoke global opinion in their favor, labeling every political prisoner al-Qaeda or enlisting Russia to deny their chemical weapons use.
One of the most dangerous myths is that Assad is a protector of Syria’s Christian community, thus not supporting Assad means decimation.
It’s fatal folly and blind ignorance to hope that a man who’s waging an ongoing campaign of crimes against humanity will somehow have enough respect for someone’s faith to act as a protector. Those who boil the choice down to the dictator or terrorists are simply speaking like a true Assadist – also usually buying the infamous Assadist fiction that he fights terrorism, when in reality he’s cut oil deals with ISIS and prefers to strike regime opposition groups.
Even Assad’s own Alawite sect hasn’t qualified as a protected class. Dissidents among them were killed by the regime in the early days of the revolution. Alawites have for the past few years decried being used as “cannon fodder” by the regime, and the massive death toll among the sect has fed the Alawite anti-Assad movement. Alawite dissident Udai Rajab returned to Syria in 2015 after being promised amnesty by the regime, only to be arrested and tortured for more than a week until he died of kidney failure.
A year ago, religious leaders within the sect had enough, and issued a document outlining their desire for a democratic, free, multi-sectarian post-Assad Syria.
If Assad regained control of the entire country, don’t think for a moment that every last Christian, along with the rest of their countrymen, wouldn’t be screened to ascertain if they ever participated in a pro-democracy demonstration, ever denounced Assad’s crimes in or out of church or so little as retweeted the Free Syrian Army or an opposition journalist.
Any perceived slight – and with a madman, the guidelines are going to be extremely fluid and the charges often fake – will land a Christian, Alawite, Druze, and every other faith or lack of belief in one of Assad’s notorious prisons. And we have ample evidence of the torture and death in those hellholes.
Assad needs to add fire more than ever to his tall tale that he’s some great protector of minorities because the women and men of the Syrian Democratic Forces – with Assyrian Christians, Arabs, Kurds, and other ethnic minorities in their ranks – representing a blueprint for a post-Assad Syria are about to crush the Islamic State in their Syrian capital.
The grass-roots alliances that created the SDF stand as a powerful reminder that Syria is not a choice between Assad or terrorists. There’s a third option, representing the only viable future for the country and its Christians: an alliance that stands against tyranny in all its forms, that stands for freedom and multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian unity.
Bridget Johnson is a senior fellow with the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center. She is a contributor at NPR and has worked for The Hill and the American Enterprise Institute before joining PJ Media as D.C. bureau chief.