Last week, rebel forces in northern Syria stormed a Catholic monastery and killed its caretaker, Father François Murad. Murad was initially reported to have been beheaded, though subsequent accounts indicate that he was shot trying to defend nuns. The monastery was then ransacked and destroyed.
The Vatican confirmed on Sunday that the murder was carried out by fighters associated with Jabhat al-Nusra, a Sunni Islamist group with ties to al Qaeda. Murad was targeted because rebels believed he was surreptitiously aiding President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
It wasn’t the first time rebel forces attacked an innocent Syrian Christian. After taxi driver Andrei Arbashe was overheard complaining about the behavior of rebel soldiers, militants beheaded him and fed his body to dogs. Rebels ransacked the St. Elijah Orthodox Christian monastery last month where they destroyed the sanctuary and detonated the belfry. Muslims who don’t toe the Islamist line haven't fared well either: After 14-year-old Muhammed al-Qatta had the gumption to make a joke about the Prophet Mohammed, rebels abducted, tortured, and publicly executed him.
The Assad regime's war crimes are heinous and well-known, including its use of chemical weapons. Now it's becoming clear that the rebels opposing him been infiltrated by Islamists, many of whom have little problem killing the innocent.
Yet it is the position of the Obama administration not only that a rebel victory is the optimal outcome in Syria, but also that rebel militants are deserving of our money and weapons. At the same time Father Murad was being murdered, the CIA was revving up its plan to ship small arms to Syrian rebels.
Even that isn’t enough for many of the president’s neoconservative critics, who want the United States to place a heftier finger on the Syrian scale. Assad, they argue, is allied with Iran and therefore the United States should be allied with the Syrian rebels. Sen. John McCain, fresh off a trip to Syria during which he accidentally mugged for the cameras with terrorist kidnappers, said the U.S. should arm Syrian rebels to deter Iran’s nuclear program.
Other hawkish writers have been dividing up their Risk boards. For Charles Krauthammer, the Syrian war is “the meeting ground of two warring blocks,” with Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia on one side, and the Sunni Gulf states, much of Turkey, and Jordan on the other. Krauthammer laments that the United States didn’t throw its weight behind Group Number Two: “The natural ally of what began as a spontaneous, secular, liberationist uprising in Syria was the United States. For two years, it did nothing.” Writing at Commentary magazine, Max Boot thinks America should jump in to “settle accounts” with Hezbollah and “in the process weaken this Iranian proxy movement.”
Dividing the Syrian civil war into good guys and bad guys and demanding that America align itself with the good guys is silly; Syria isn’t “Star Wars” with noble rebels fighting a tyrannical, Iran-linked empire. Instead the emerging picture is a complex one with villains on both sides, and where, contra Krauthammer, America doesn’t seem to have a natural ally. And while it’s certainly tempting to pursue an opportunity to weaken Iran, currently the most malignant actor on the Middle Eastern stage, doing so would require the United States to prop up a movement infested with homicidal thugs.
The president has promised that the rebels will be vetted before they receive aid, as though weeding out an entire bloc of Islamists were as easy as picking a vice-presidential candidate. Our intelligence agencies now believe that al-Nusra is the most powerful faction within the rebels, with their fighters numbering around 10,000. Their capabilities are growing as foreign militants pour into Syria and moderate rebels defect and join them. The notion that the CIA can divide the wheat from the chaff—neatly segregate the secular democrats from the Islamists and give them weapons—is ludicrous.
Caught in the middle of this deeply variegated conflict are Syria's minority groups. These include Syrian Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the country’s population. They have shown a surprising and very telling degree of support for the Assad regime, which they view as more moderate and secular than the rebels. “Thank God for Russia,” one Christian woman told the Global Post after Moscow professed support for Assad. “Without Russia, we are doomed.”
“Look what has happened in Iraq and now in Egypt,” she implored. “Assad in power means that won’t happen here.”
The reference to Egypt ought to give idealists pause. After protesters flooded Tahrir Square to demand Hosni Mubarak’s ouster two years ago, the American commentariat fell in love with the idea of Egyptian democracy, declaring Cairo the budding flower of the Arab Spring and making fatuous comparisons between Egypt’s uprising and pro-union demonstrators in Wisconsin. Mubarak was deposed, democracy blew through, and Egyptians promptly elected a Muslim Brotherhood president and a 70 percent Islamist parliament. Since then, around 100,000 Coptic Christians have fled Egypt as violence against religious minorities has exploded. Now Egyptians, fed up with the Brotherhood, are back in Tahrir Square all over again.
“Democracy,” goes the old aphorism, “is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch.” The quote is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, though its more likely and recent originator is James Bovard, a shrewd analyst of the modern welfare state. And while America shouldn’t make it a habit of opposing democratic movements, the persecution of Copts in Egypt and the worries of Christians in Syria must influence our thinking. The lambs need to be heard.
And even if there weren’t any religious minorities in the crossfire, a democracy measuring up even to Egyptian standards is unlikely in Syria. The most probable outcome of a rebel victory in the civil war isn’t a constitution, but another civil war, this time between the moderate rebels and the al-Nusra jihadists. Already al-Nusra has started assassinating officers in the Free Syrian Army, a portent of the violence to come.
Does the Obama administration honestly believe it can maneuver a clutch of secular rebels through two civil wars and a political landscape teeming with Islamists? Can anyone believe deposing Assad and poking Iran in the eyes is really worth this risk?
Syrian Christians are worried about their safety. A friend emails from Beirut to tell me Christians in nearby Lebanon see both sides as a bad deal. Israel also isn’t getting involved, except for a few bombings meant to keep weapons away from Hezbollah.
Yet the Obama administration thinks it's our moral imperative to arm the rebels. They'd be wise to listen to Syria's lambs.