Understanding Syria. And what do we do now?
In January of 2003 I was in a room filled with Congressmen in DC – they were asking me and my Arab friend, Samir, questions about Iraq. It quickly became evident they knew nothing of the county – it’s history, it culture, it’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious heritage. They knew nothing about the country we were about to invade/liberate. I remember asking four or five simple questions – questions anyone who knew anything about the Middle East should know. And not one of them knew even one answer. And here we are 10 years later: 5000 American lives lost. 150,000 (at least) Iraqi civilians dead. And continued daily bombings inside the country. That was probably not what these Congressmen envisioned at that large house in DC that January evening of 2003.
Today it’s Syria. Very different circumstances but many similarities. First and foremost, we should simply understand the basics. Here they are:
1. Syria is an Arabic speaking nation of about 23 million people. Even though it does have oil (not as much as the Gulf countries or Iraq), because of the corrupt regime, the Syrian people are some of the poorest in the region.
2. You might say that Syria is not a country – it’s the Ba’ath Party with an Army. For 50 years now, the Assad family has ruled with an iron fist.
3. The Assads are part of the Alawite tribe/religion. It’s a sect of Shi’ite Islam fairly unique to Syria. All the Alawites and Shi’ites combined make up about 13% of the Syrian population. Much like its neighbors Iraq and Lebanon, the majority (605 Sunni) grew tired of the minority ruling them (which is what happened with the minority Saddam Hussein – Sunni – ruling the majority Shi’ites of Iraq and the minority Christians in Lebanon ruling the majority Sunnis and Shias.
4. About 10% of Syria are Christians. Mostly various brands of Orthodox and Catholic. There are a few Protestants and Evangelicals as well. Then there are about 3% Druze and about 500,000 Palestinian refugees.
5. Assad has kept control by providing relative stability and security to the minorities in the country. So while most Christians in Syria don’t like President Assad they are unwilling to openly fight against him for two reasons: 1. Fear for their lives. 2. Fear of a conservative Sunni-led government that might replace him.
6. This war – and the U.S. support (or not) is largely about Israel and de-arming the Hezbollah. Iran supplies most of its funding and weapons to the Hezbollah via Syria. The current Assad (Alawite/Shi’ite) regime is friendly with Iran and the Hezbollah. If Assad falls, then the Hezbollah will find it difficult to exist.
7. The initial war seemed to be a grassroots vote against Assad. It has been gradually replaced by an ideological and even religious war of Sunni-Shia, and pro-Iran-Russia-Hezbollah versus pro America-Israel. The average person is caught in the middle.
8. We really don’t have a plan for what to do if Assad falls. The chances of a new government working well are a longshot and would likely take a decade or more (as we’ll see in Egypt).
My advice? It’s an internal struggle for the heart and soul of Syria – that (as painful as it is to watch) is Syria’s to figure out. Stepping in when we don’t understand what we’re stepping into will only increase the pain and prolong the struggle.
As people who follow the way of Jesus – we can pray. And fast. And do what we can to serve the horrendous humanitarian crisis unfolding in Lebanon and Jordan with Syrian refugees. Now may be the time to serve them in the name of Jesus with open heart and hands.
So we are not passive. We should act. Just choose your actions wisely. The Syrians on the borders are waiting for our help.