As Islamists Rise, Christians Cower in Syria and Americans Oppose Arming Rebels

Patrick Goodenough | December 19, 2012 | 5:19am EST
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Syrian rebel fighters on the outskirts of Aleppo last month. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File)

( – Amid concerns about the makeup of the U.S.-backed anti-regime opposition in Syria and the country’s future direction – including worries about minority Christians – a new poll has found that a majority of Americans don’t believe the U.S. has a responsibility to “do something about the fighting,” and they don’t want the U.S. to send arms to the rebels.

Even fears that the Assad regime may use chemical weapons on its opponents do not appear to have impacted public opinion on matter.

The poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 63 percent of respondents said the U.S. does not have such a responsibility compared to 27 percent who said it does – a result little changed since last March, when 64 percent said “no” and 25 percent “yes.”

On the question of weapons – “Would you favor or oppose the U.S. and its allies sending arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria?” – 65 percent are opposed and 24 percent in favor, an shift from 63 percent opposed and 29 percent in favor in March.

Pew conducted the poll on Dec. 5-9, just before President Obama’s Dec. 11 announcement that his administration now recognizes the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the sole “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.

The National Coalition was formed at a meeting in Qatar last month, after the U.S. and some other allies lost faith in the former main rebel group, the Syrian National Council (SNC).

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said early last month  that a reshaped opposition should include more Syrians who are fighting on the ground – as opposed to those who have been in exile for decades – and should be broadly representative of all Syria’s regions.

She did not at the time refer to concerns about Muslim Brotherhood or Islamist domination of the SNC, even though some prominent moderates earlier resigned from the SNC over the issue.

Christians under threat

International religious freedom groups have since the early days of the uprising been drawing attention to the plight of Syria’s Christian minority – not at the hands of the regime but among elements of the rebels.

“The situation of Christians in Syria today has never been worse,” a recent alert by the Barnabas Fund, which focuses on supporting Christians in Islamic societies, quoted a Syria-based partner of the group as saying.

A destroyed church in the Syrian city of Homs (Photo: Barnabas Fund)

“Christians are increasingly targeted by the armed extremists through kidnap or summary executions. The death toll of Christians has sharply risen, which poses legitimate concerns among Christians about the grim future awaiting them if extremists reach power.”

Since the 2.3 million-strong community fared relatively well under the regime – which itself represents a religious minority, the Alawite sect of Shia Islam – Christians are assumed to be its supporters and have consequently been targeted, according to Barnabas Fund.

Churches have been destroyed, kidnapping and killings reported, and Christians driven out of their homes, with almost the entire Christian population of Homs -- 50,000-60,000-strong -- having fled by last April, it says.

Barnabas Fund warns that if Western governments continue to ignore atrocities against Christians and other minorities, “there could well be a repeat of what happened in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi Church has been dramatically diminished in a concerted Islamist campaign to cleanse the country of Christians, and sectarian violence continues to tear the country apart.”

When the State Department was asked early this year about the difficulties facing Syria’s Christians, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland blamed the regime for the violence.

Through this year, administration officials repeatedly have said that in their interaction with the Syrian opposition Clinton and others always stress the importance of protecting the rights and democratic opportunity of all groups, including Christians, Alawites, Druze and women.

Yet in a Nov. 30 speech in Massachusetts on “Protecting the Rights of Christians and Religious Minorities in the Muslim World,” the administration’s special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Rashad Hussain, dedicated a single sentence to Syria – and said nothing about the country’s Christians.

“We also continue to work with the international community to build pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria to halt its merciless attacks on the Syrian people and to make clear that he must step aside as part of the transition of power,” Hussain said.

West now backing a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated coalition

In general, the Obama administration has limited its public expressions of concern about the composition of the opposition to al-Qaeda-linked factions, and last week – on the same day that Obama recognized the National Coalition – it designated one such group, the al-Nusra front, as a foreign terrorist organization.

The State Department said al-Nusra is an alias for al-Qaeda in Iraq, and a senior official said the move was designed to “make clear that the United States believes that al-Nusra’s extremist ideology has no role in a post-Assad Syria.”

But some experts say small foreign groups are not the problem.

“Syria does not need foreign jihadis and radical Islamists – it has more than enough of the home-grown variety,” Mideast scholar Glenn E. Robinson wrote on the Foreign Policy magazine website last week.

“The most powerful elements of Syria's armed opposition would almost certainly be no friend of liberal democracy were they to seize power for themselves,” he said, arguing that a negotiated solution to the crisis would be the best way to prevent the worst elements from either side ruling a future Syria.

The leader of the new National Coalition is Ahmed Mouaz al-Khatib, a former imam of a Damascus mosque who is not formally affiliated with any party but is an admirer of Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi. An influential Qatar-based Sunni cleric regarded as the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qaradawi has stoked controversy with comments about Palestinian suicide bombings.

Earlier this month Reuters reported that at a meeting of Syrian rebels in the Turkish city of Antalya, Islamists were selected for senior roles in a new military command. Two of the top figures in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – a body that predated both the National Coalition and the SNC – were not invited to the meeting or given roles in the new command structure.

One of them, Colonel Riad al-Asaad was the founder and commander of the FSA while Brig. Gen. Mustafa Al-Sheikh, who early this year became the most senior Syrian officer to defect, also holds a senior FSA post. Neither are Islamists.

Jonathan Spyer, senior fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel, has highlighted the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the new National Coalition, saying the Brotherhood-dominated SNC “controls around 27 of the 65 seats on the executive body of the new coalition. There are also Islamists and fellow travelers among the non-SNC delegates.”

“The Brotherhood is by far the best organized single body within the coalition,” Spyer wrote in The Jerusalem Post on December 13.

“So the emergence of the Syrian National Coalition and the associated Joint Military Council means that the West and its regional Sunni allies are now backing a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated coalition as the preferred replacement for the Assad regime.”

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