Assad regime lacks the total support of Syria’s Christians
As the Syrian civil war drags on, one issue that has been neglected is the status of the remaining Christians within the country. Media reports have generally focused on the concerns Christian residents have for their future but do not look into what role Christians play politically and militarily in the civil war.
To be sure, as a demographic component, the Christian presence is usually somewhat exaggerated. While the standard figure is given as 10 per cent of the Syrian population, the real percentage is more likely to be around half of that figure. Nonetheless, a look at the situation by geographic region brings out some important nuances.
In the west, Christians tend to come from the two largest single denominations: Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic. Given the centrality of Arabic to the liturgies of these churches, Arab identity tends to prevail among these Christians, giving rise to some affinity with the Baathist regime’s emphasis on Arab nationalism.
Combined with general concerns about radicalisation among the rebel ranks, a staunch Christian loyalist area has been carved out in Wadi Al Nasara in Homs governorate, from which the regime has regularly drawn recruits for the Syrian army and the national defence force. This does not mean that there are no Christians in western Syria who have joined the rebels, but of those who have taken up arms, the large majority have done so on the side of the regime. Other Christians who have primarily inhabited the west of Syria – such as the Maronites and Armenians – have tended to support the regime as an economic benefactor.
In the east, the situation is much more complex. There, most Christians are members of one of the churches that use Syriac for a liturgical language (Syriac Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East and the like) and tend not to identify as Arabs, with many in the north-east speaking a local neo-Aramaic language known as Turoyo. This non-Arab identity has traditionally been a point of tension with the regime.
At the same time, Christians in the east have had to face up to the fact that the groups spearheading offensives into their areas are primarily of jihadi orientation, with the most prominent being the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil). So the biggest question facing Christians in this part of the country is: which local actor can best guarantee our interests?
For the Syriac Union Party (SUP), the answer was to set up its own defence militias, beginning in the town of Qahtaniya in 2012 and gradually spreading to Malikiya and Qamishli by spring 2013. This movement is known as Sutoro and it works closely with the police forces of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).
However, in Qamishli, the situation is complicated by the fact that the town has maintained a regime presence. As a result, the Sutoro branch that was established in the town gradually came under pressure from regime loyalists and eventually separated from the SUP’s other Sutoro branches by the middle of autumn last year. Though the now-separate Qamishli Sutoro branch claims neutrality, its affiliation with Bashar Al Assad is clear from the fact that its office features a regime flag.
Politically, the Qamishli Sutoro enjoys the support of the Assyrian Democratic Party, which, unlike the Assyrian Democratic Organisation that is affiliated with the opposition-in-exile coalition, has generally remained supportive of the regime throughout the course of the civil war. Though the Qamishli Sutoro has declared its intention to expand into other towns to protect Christians in the east, it currently lacks the financial and manpower resources to do so.
A third grouping in the east is the Syriac Military Council (MFS). The MFS was first announced at the start of 2013, declaring its opposition to the “despotic Baathist regime” while emphasising the need to protect Syriac Christians. However, it then disappeared from the public eye, only to re-emerge at the end of 2013, with its focus now having shifted entirely to fighting jihadis, accusing them of destroying churches and terrorising Christians.
Although the MFS is said to be independent, it seems that the boundaries are not so clear-cut. Many pro-regime Christians in the east condemn it as a front for the SUP and its participating in counteroffensives against Isil being contrary to the spirit of Christianity.
The overall picture that emerges is certainly more nuanced than the standard perception of the Assad regime as the protector of Christians. Yet it remains true that the rebels on the ground have generally failed to attract Christian support. To the extent that jihadi groups (not merely Isil) have been allowed to grow, the general lack of Christian support on the ground for the armed rebellion is likely to continue.
Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum
On Twitter: @ajaltamimi