The Devil You Know? Christianity and the Crisis in Syria

The New York Times recently ran a story highlighting the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church opposes any international intervention in Syria to overthrow the current regime there.  This news may have surprised many Western Christians who have viewed events in Syria as a conflict between forces of democracy and a military authoritarian dictatorship.  After all, the Assad regime has revealed its lack of legitimacy by responding to the popular and largely peaceful uprising in its country with violence – most recently allowing the horrific massacre of children in Houla.  How could Christians lend aid to such a regime?

As I shall suggest below, in the final analysis I do not find the position of the Russian Orthodox Church viable.  The publication of its position, however, offers an opportunity for western Christians to stop for a moment and reflect upon the ambiguities of all political action in the world.

First, as Reinhold Niebuhr would remind us, all particular political conflicts must be understood within a broader story of the struggle for power.  In this case, the roots of the contemporary struggle lay centuries in the past.   For our purposes, the story begins in the coastal mountains of present day Syria, where a relatively small ethnic group took on its own distinctive form of Islam sometime in the ninth century.  Though the full shape of this religious tradition is still not clear, the Alawites practice a form of Shi’a Islam which has always appeared heterodox to the Sunni majority that surrounds them.  The famed medieval Sunni scholar Ibn Taimiyya called for jihad against this group for their heresy.  Despite consistent animosity from Sunni rulers, the Alawites managed to survive by isolating themselves and by developing superior martial skills to thwart aggression from outside force.  Alawite identity was formed in the crucible of threats brought by majority Sunni regimes.

When the French imperialism arrived in Syria, the Alawites saw the French as yet another oppressive external force.  The French, however, came to see something valuable in the Alawites.  Imperial politics always ran more smoothly if the Empire could keep indigenous populations fighting each other rather than focusing on the Empire itself.    The empowerment of minorities thus became an important element in the imperial strategy of keeping the majority off balance.  It was here that the odd alliance between Christians and Alawites began.  Drawing on the services of Alawites, Druze, Christians and other minorities, the French began to build the infrastructure of a modern state.  Many Alawites found that participating in military service on behalf of the French was better than the bleak alternatives they faced.   Thus, the official military of Syria came to be populated primarily by this ethnic and religious minority.

Independence led, as it almost always did, to a series of military coups.  Ultimately, it was the Alawites who were ideally located to take control, and much of the chaos in this period concerned exactly which Alawites would emerge triumphant.  By the end of 1970, Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, emerged as the leader of the Ba’ath party and the Syrian state.

Assad was well aware of his position.  His strength did not rest primarily in popular legitimacy.  Assad’s government continued to run on the infrastructure built by the French.  As such, it was a government of the minorities.  Alawites, Druze, and Christians maintained power disproportionate to their share of the populace.  On the positive side, the Syrian government became an advocate for “minority rights,” even extending equal status to women.  On the negative site, the majority of the populace was disempowered, and chafed under the power of the often heavy-handed minority.  Human rights such as the right to free speech were often quashed to prevent the organization of opposition to the government.

Machiavelli once wrote that for the ruler “it is better to be feared than loved.”  Given the structure of his government, it may never have been a viable option for Assad to woo the populace.  In any case, the Alawite majority in the military made it much easier to be feared.  In 1982, Assad ended a rebellious campaign by Sunni Islamists by razing the city of Hama.  Tens of thousands were killed, the majority civilians.  While it was morally reprehensible, the Hama massacre was a strategic success.  Sunni militancy was largely eradicated in Syria, and the majority accepted their position under Assad’s rule.

Many had high hopes that when Bashar, Hafez’ son, came to power in 2000 there would be a new day in Syria.  Early on Bashar freed many political prisoners and pursued more liberal economic policies.  By the end of the first year of his reign, however, liberalization was replaced with a new military crackdown.  Whether it was Bashar himself or the Alawite infrastructure that drew back the reigns of liberalization has never been clear.  What is clear is that the minority’s fear of majority power trumped the desire for democratization.

It was in this context that the Arab Spring arrived in Syria in early 2011.  Protests in Syria followed on the heels of other populist uprisings that were toppling autocrats throughout the region.  Those in the west saw this as yet another stop in a great wave of democratizing power.  The Assad regime saw the rise of an Islamist Sunni threat.  In an attempt to return to the strategic success of 1982, the regime turned to overwhelming violence.  Even now, the regime continues to contend that it is in a pitched battle primarily against Islamic terrorists.

In drawing on the example of 1982, the Assad regime misunderstood the situation.  The Arab Spring, though it has opened the way for various populist forms of Islamism in some countries, was broader than Islamism.  It was grounded in grievances concerning economic and social justice that were not exclusively Islamic, and certainly not exclusive to militant Islam.  Against a movement with such broad appeal, the Assad regime’s reaction tended to strengthen rather than weaken the opposition.

Contradictory interpretations of the situation continue to play havoc in international society.  As the Russian Orthodox Church looks over the situation it does so with one eye on the Christian minority in the country and another on the long history of conflict on the region.  The Patriarch of Antioch (which is based in Damascus, not Antioch, Turkey) is responsible for a large portion of the Christian minority who have benefited from participation in the minority rule in Syria.  These Christians see their future as tied to the fortunes of the Alawite minority.  Alawites and Christians are driven by fear of the return of Sunni majority rule in Syria, not seen since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.  Such a shift would necessarily lead to an erosion of the power of Christians in the state, and may lead to violent reprisals from the long oppressed majority.

The calculation of the Orthodox Church, then, is that the devil that they know is better than the one which would come if the current regime is toppled.  There is much truth in their analysis.  Choices within human politics are always choices between imperfect options.  As Augustine reminds us, whoever imposes peace in the saeculum, it pales in comparison to the peace of God.  This does not, however, alleviate our responsibility in choosing.

As I see things, the concerns of the Orthodox, and the Alawites need to be taken seriously by the international community as it moves forward.  Promises of protection for minorities in Syria in any coming transition of power are necessary in order to sooth the fears that aggravate the conflict.  Robust efforts to provide such protection are a requirement of justice.

Beyond this, however, I would call my Orthodox brethren to hope in what can happen when we leave the devil we know.  “Hope” as Charles Mathewes writes, “is surprising – indeed it is the capacity to be joyfully surprised.”  In politics, hope should not be deployed blindly.  Given the moderate Islamist regime that has evolved in Turkey, and the shape of regimes that seem to be emerging in many other post-Arab Spring States, there is reason to think that it is possible to enter into a period where new relations might emerge between Islam and minorities across the Middle East.  There is, however, no certainty that such relations will emerge, and even less reason to think that these new relations will be established and secured quickly or without intervening conflict.

Hope, even when it is not blind, is always a risk.  Short of the eschaton, there are no guarantees.  For this reason, I do not call for hope lightly.  It is all too easy for one far away to call for such hope from those whose power and lives are more immediately on the line.  But the devil we know appears to be getting worse by the minute, and opening ourselves to the possibilities of the unknown future is quickly becoming the only moral option.

Originally posted at