10 years of the Syrian Crisis and the Future of Christians in the Country: An Interview with Dr. Mark Tomass

By Abdulmesih BarAbraham

Until the outbreak of the Syrian revolts in March 2011, Syria had the largest Christian population in the Middle East after Egypt. According to different sources, two to three million Christians (making up 10-15% of the population) lived in the country forming a rich mosaic in terms of their denominations, visible in a variety of Christian churches in Syria. During the conflict, they have not been acting as a homogeneous group and remained fragmented along many denominational lines. Geographically, they remain scattered in different cities of the country. According to Open Door assessment from 2013, their geographical concentration in strategic areas marked an important factor of their vulnerability.

While Christians too participated initially in the peaceful protests that emerged in 2011 demanding reforms, the bulk of the Christian population distanced itself from the development very early on due to the rapid militarization, radicalization and Islamization of the insurgency. Not actively involved in the conflict, they have been casually blamed as supporters of the regime. Many observers see the Christians as the biggest losers in the Syrian conflict. Their numbers have been dwindling, more than half of them has left the country.

Partially with diverging interests and priorities, US, Turkey, Russia, and Iran, as the key actors to the Syrian conflict, are not able to find a common solution for Syria while some observer see the ongoing disagreements and rivalries over the post-conflict reconstruction of the country indicative of new difficulties and disagreements.

In his New Year message in early February to the audience of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, Pope Francis drew attention to Syria and called for the end of the conflict, pointing that 2021 marks its 10th anniversary.

How I wish that 2021 may be the year when the conflict in Syria, begun ten years ago, can finaly end!” Pope Francis told 88 ambassadors from around the world.

For this to happen, renewed interest is needed also on the part of the international community to address the causes of the conflict with honesty and courage and to seek solutions whereby all, regardless of ethnic and religious affiliation, can contribute as citizens to the future of the country,” he added.

The Pope also touched on the suffering caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis which aggravated a number of humanitarian emergencies in some regions and countries, saying that his “thoughts also turn to Yemen and beloved Syria, where, in addition to other serious emergencies, a large part of the population experiences food insecurity and children are suffering from malnutrition.”

I had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Mark Tomass, Harvard University’s Extension School instructor and former research fellow at the Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies to get his insights into the various aspects of the Syrian crisis. Of particular interest is his view on how US Policy will be forming after President Joe Biden took office in Washington. Dr. Tomass addressed in this context several issues, with some focus on the situation of the Christians in the country.

Dr. Mark Tomass is an author of two books on Syria. He has a Ph.D. from Northeastern University and is sought-after commentator and analyst on Middle East issues. He is an economist specialized in financial markets and monetary and credit crises. By virtue of his Syrian birth and upbringing, he engaged in the research field of civil conflict in the Middle East to explain the Lebanese civil war and subsequently the Syrian conflict. In his book “The Religious Roots of the Syrian Conflict: The Remaking of the Fertile Crescent,” published in 2016 by Palgrave McMillan, Dr. Tomass outlines the role of religion in the history of Syria and the Middle East from early Roman times to the rise of ISIS, with particular relevance to understanding the genesis of the regional civil war sparked in 2011 as a result of the Arab Spring Uprisings while portraying Syria’s religious and sectarian communities, describes their origins and development over time, and identifies sources of intractable conflict among some groups. 

His second book, edited with Charles Webel in 2017 by Routledge, and titled “Assessing the War on Terror: Western and Middle Eastern Perspectives,” highlights the works of prominent scholars and policy-makers’ insights regarding the direction and efficacy of the War on Terror.

INTERVIEW

Abdulmesih BarAbraham (AB): Professor, thank you for accepting this interview. Let me start with the most raised questions these days: What are the political and military options the new U.S. President Joe Biden might consider with respect to Syria? Will he follow the policy of President Obama as he was Vice-President under him for two terms?

Dr. Mark Tomass (MT): As of today, and since his inauguration, President Biden has not spoken about the Syrian conflict. However, we can conclude what his policy will look like from the appointment of Antony Blinken as Foreign Secretary, Brett McGurk to head the National Security Council and oversee U.S. policy in Syria and Iraq, and Victoria Nuland to be Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. The track records of the three are those of interventionists.

Secretary Blinken’s announcement on March 3 that Biden’s foreign policy will not pursue regime changes with military means is welcomed, but we will wait and see how serious that announcement is. The U.S. army has several military bases in Syria without the consent of its government. As we speak, new military bases are being built to the west of the Euphrates, most likely to prepare for a confrontation with the Iranian backed militias. If that is not military intervention, then Blinken needs to define what he means by military interventions. Biden has already struck Iranian backed militias in Syria on February 25, killing 22 and injuring many in retaliation for a missile attack on a U.S. base that killed one contractor hundreds of miles away in Irbil, northern Iraq.

Moreover, McGurk is strongly in favor of empowering the Kurdish militias in Syria as opposed to the Obama-Biden administration’s wrong bet on the Islamist rebels to topple the Syrian government. The Obama-Biden support to the Islamist rebels inadvertently led to the expansion of ISIS into eastern Syria and the expansion of al-Qaida in various parts of Syria, which in turn provoked Russian military intervention. The U.S. bet on the YPG, the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, as a secular alternative to the Islamists because it had no other alternative, given that its policy was still to topple the Syrian regime. However, the YPG cannot maintain its control of eastern Syria without indefinite U.S. military support and presence. I believe Biden’s policy will continue along the same lines. The aim of the policy is to continue blocking the Syrian government’s access to the oil fields and the grain corps, thereby continue the ongoing starvation policy in the hope of inciting a new wave of rebellion, this time from inside the Syrian regimes’ ranks. Yet, the U.S., following Trump’s instructions, did not obstruct the Turkish incursion into parts of northern Syria, and even encouraged Turkey’s incursion into the northwestern Idlib region to stem the Syrian and Russian military advances to retake Idlib from al-Qaida, its affiliates, and rival jihadi groups. It is still to be seen, what U.S. policy towards Turkey will be. We will see what sort of tools Biden’s team will resort to as they follow up on his presidential campaign promise to support the Turkish opposition to President Erdogan’s rule, but it is highly unlikely that the U.S. will engage with Turkey militarily.  

AB: In fact, northern Syria particularly became a playing field for external powers: US, Turkey, with its mercenaries, Russia and Iran. The players have partially diverging interests and goals. Is northern Syria the Gordian knot for the solution of the decade long Syrian conflict?

MT: Sadly, I do not see now any positive sign of a solution emerging in any part of Syrian landscape. Each part has its own problems, reflecting the divergent visions of its multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-sectarian inhabitants regarding what their country should look like. This is also true in the various nation-states of the Middle East, with one exception that only in Syria these divergent visions are currently engaged in an armed conflict with regional and international forces fueling opposing sides.

The north can be divided into a western and eastern part, each with a different problem. The northwest, including eastern and northern Aleppo, the Idlib province, and northern Latakia, are dominated by domestic and international Jihadis of various group affiliations. All those groups, except Hurras al-Din, a splinter group from al-Julani’s al-Qaida, have an understanding with the Turkish military intelligence not to clash with the Turkish army in that region, but they nevertheless have not abided by the Russian-Turkish agreement to open the Aleppo-Latakia M4 highway. This situation has been at a standstill for the past three years with no prospect as to what is to be done with the tens of thousands of jihadi fighters.

The rest of the northeast is occupied by the Turkish army and the Syrian fighters under their command. Their primary aim is to keep the U.S. sponsored Kurdish YPG away from the Turkish border and to prevent the formation of a separate Kurdish entity anywhere in the northeast. Russian forces are attempting to moderate between the three parties and persuade the YPG to relinquish control to Syrian government troops to avoid a situation like Afrin’s fate. In Afrin, the YPG’s refusal to allow the Syrian government to take over the city, prompted Russia to lift its protection of the city and for the Turkish backed militias to advance into it. The fleeing Kurds’ houses were subsequently inhabited by refugees from various parts. In short, until Turkey, the U.S., and Russia agree on how to settle their differences in the northwest and the northeast, the current stalemate will continue, and I do not see a sign that those parties are about to arrive at a formula on how to settle their conflicting interests.     

AB: In 2015 the U.S. founded the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to combat ISIS on the ground. What is the SDF’s role after the total territorial defeat of ISIS?

MT: That is a great question. As you recall, President Trump wanted to withdraw from Syria immediately after he thought that ISIS was defeated and intimated that the U.S. mission is not to serve nationalist Kurdish aspirations, the fact which prompted Brett McGurk’s resignation at the time. Indeed, it is said that the acronym SDF was McGurk’s creation to bestow legitimacy to the dominant Kurdish YPG component of the U.S. sponsored militia. I would not be surprised that the adding of Syriac script on its flag was also at his request. While it is clear to me that the SDF cannot continue to rule the Mesopotamian part of Syria without direct U.S. backing, I suspect that the U.S. military presence cannot remain for long without a clash with the Syrian government’s allied militias.

Flag of the Syrian Democratic Forces

On March 3, the Syrian presidency’s informal mouthpiece on social media with the fictitious name Naram Serjoonn, accused the U.S. of killing of hundreds of sheep and their shepherds as part of its policy to starve people and called for taking their revenge on U.S. soldiers stationed in al-Tanf airport, the desert triangle between Syria, Jordan, and Iraq that is blocking the road from Iraq into Syria. In the past, Syrian military intelligence officers arrested and imprisoned Syrian troops who spontaneously plotted to attack U.S. military personnel. That may not continue for long, as a perceived policy of deliberate starvation to incite another popular rebellion continues.     

AB: With U.S. support, the SDF was able integrate also some Arab tribes into its structure. According to an 2019 analysis by the Carnegie Endowment SDF has “been loath to relinquish any significant decision-making power to both Kurdish communities and the titular political and military leadership of the Arab participants in the Self-Administration and SDF.” How would you assess the relations between Kurds and Arabs in view of Kurdish aspirations to claim big parts of country including most fertile land and control its oil resources?

MT: This is another great question that only those intimately familiar with the Middle Eastern landscape will ask. The YPG faces problems with the local Kurdish and non-Kurdish Muslims. One is the Kurds, in general, are not perceived as devout Muslims. In fact, their conversion to Islam in the past millennium is not viewed by non-Kurds as genuine. They are often accused of not practicing the five pillars of Islam properly, especially the five daily prayers. While this may be true of members of the YPG, being a genuinely secular organization, this prejudicial attitude extends to all Kurds who are seen as always prioritizing their ethnic identity over their religious one and therefore cannot be trusted as fellow Muslims. The fact that prominent Syrian Kurds in the past were devout Muslims, such as Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (Jerusalem’s liberator from the Crusaders) and Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah (the father of the Takfiri scholars) were Kurds and that approximately one third of Iraqi Kurds are Muslim fundamentalists does not seem to change that prejudicial attitude.

The other problem between the two ethnic groups is that the Arabs of the eastern Euphrates have a tribal structure and therefore are hard to bring under one command. Their allegiance may change once rival opportunities emerge. They may turn on the YPG if the Syrian government promised them rewards, each separately. The third problem is between the shifting ideology of the PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan and the other Kurds who are not followers of the imprisoned PKK leader. For those three reasons, I do not see the current YPG dominance within the SDF can be sustained in the long run without continued U.S. support.    

AB: Despite reservations of the majority of Assyrians in Syria, which have their roots in the Genocide of 1915, to cooperate with the Kurds, the Syriac Military Council as a military wing of the Syriac Union Party in Syria, joined the Kurdish-led self-administration and SDF. It is not a surprise that this cooperation is hailed as democratic and multi-ethnic by the PYD. Though, looking at next-door Assyrian experience in northern Iraq with the Kurdish Regional Government, Assyrians became marginalized under the Kurdish rule. According to a 2018 report by the Assyrian Policy Institute “electoral law left the voting process for the selection of Christian MPs [based on the quota] open to abuse, enabling powerful non-Christian parties to exploit the quota system.” How can a similar scenario be avoided in northern Syria?

MT: A similar scenario cannot be avoided in Syria. The fact of the matter is that the Kurds have been deprived of national and cultural rights for a long time and now they find themselves in power and are eager to exercise it. Accommodating their dwindling Christian Assyrian/Syriac neighbors is their last concern, as was seen in the YPG’s insistence on imposing a Kurdish curriculum in Assyrian schools. There is a special rivalry between those two groups, since the aspired greater Kurdistan is imagined on what Assyrians believe is their ancestral historical land.

AB: Within the Syrian opposition there seems to be still disagreement on key issues related to a new constitution. These are the name of the country (Syrian Republic vs. Syrian Arab Republic), religion of the president of the country, source of the legislation, and official languages. This doesn’t promise good prospects for Christians. They would be postmarked to second-class citizens from the outset. Doesn’t their survival depend very much on a secular (non-religious) and democratic constitution that guaranties equal citizenship?

MT: Syrian Christians, as is the case in other Arab countries, are broken people. They accepted their second-class status a long time ago and were historically grateful just to be left to live in relative safety and be spared from public humiliation policies occasionally enforced by certain rulers. In fact, Syrian Christians have always had a second-class status, even before the Arab conquest of Syria. When the Romans ruled Syria before and after their adoption of Christianity, they dealt with Syrians as a conquered people, while the Christian East Romans, or Byzantines, actively persecuted them for their refusal to accept the Roman Chalcedonian doctrine. That is partly why Syrians did not resist the Arab conquest of their dwellings. I deal with this question in my book ‘The Religious Roots of the Syrian Conflict.

On the question of equal constitutional rights, that matter has been debated often since Syria’s independence from France, but it always faced strong opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood organization and it still does. I doubt that they will accept equality now, even though they have been militarily defeated. At any rate, in the event a new constitution would state that all citizens are equal, it is not conceivable that if a Christian would run for president in a fair election, she or he would be elected. Yet, the Christians’ exclusion from that right is a matter of principle and is rooted in religious doctrine. I suspect that the current government will compromise on this point and keep the condition that the president must be a Muslim and that Muslim scriptures be one source, if not the primary source for legislation.

The other question regarding the supremacy of Arab identity and its addition to the name of the republic is a regime-related demand because the Syrian leadership believes that Arabism serves to legitimize its rule in the eyes of the Sunni Muslims. First, the Arab identity ties itself to Islam because, according to tradition, the Prophet of Islam was an Arab and presumably Syria was Islamized by the Arabs. Second, it distances itself from the Iranian identity. Third, it satisfies its support base among the Alawite Muslims, the majority of whom are of Tanoukhi origin, a confederation of Arab tribes that migrated from southern Iraq prior and during the Arab conquest of Syria and Mesopotamia, who incidentally were Nestorian Christians before they were Islamized. The removal of the term Arab from the official name of the Syrian Republic is a Kurdish, Assyrian, and Syrian nationalist demand, all of whom put together make up less than 15% of official Syrians. That is why President Asad dismissed the notion that the Islamic tradition is influenced by Syriac literature and emphasized the relationship between Arabism and Islam in his most recent theological sermon to the body of Muslim religious scholars which he summoned to the Presidential Palace. Last, making Kurdish and Syriac/Assyrian an official language next to Arabic is also unlikely. The maximum these two ethnic groups can hope for is their freedom to teach their native languages in their private schools and possibly in public schools where they constitute a sizable majority. 

AB: Due to the U.S. Caesar Act and the sanctions imposed on Syria the humanitarian crisis in Syria worsening, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last July, Russia, China vetoed an U.N. Security Council resolution to deliver humanitarian aid to Syria from two Turkey locations. What were the issues here? What were China’s motivation to block this?

MT: To begin with, the tens of billions of Gulf Arab funds that were spent on the weaponization of the uprising did not ask for the Security Council’s permission to do so and were freely and illegally delivered into Syria; if the intention to deliver humanitarian aid is genuine, why isn’t it also being delivered illegally into Syria? Why ask the Security Council or the Syrian government, for permission?

It should be clear to all observers that none of the domestic, regional, or international forces care about the humanitarian aspect of the Syrian conflict. If that were the case, government forces would not have heavy handedly cracked down on the protesters in 2011 and the regional and international forces would not have weaponized the uprising. That said, the July 2020 resolution you asked about was intended to deliver aid not to Syria at large, but to the Idlib region, which is currently administered by the Syrian Abu Muhammad al-Julani faction of al-Qaida and other splinter jihadi groups. Because Russia and China are backing the Syrian government, their vetoes were consistent with their official policy not to strengthen any party on the ground that operates outside government-controlled regions and end up strengthening the non-state actors controlling those regions, incidentally among whom are also Uighur Chinese nationals, who have been fighting along al-Qaida since the war began. Both China and Russia are weary of foreign interference because they keep in mind that their countries can also become subject to foreign intervention. Therefore, they only approve of interventions that are requested by the Syrian government. That is why China has not objected to the Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict because it was requested by its government that is still the only internationally recognized one despite the brutal 10-year war and the West’s taking the other sides of the conflict. As we well know, China itself is having trouble with Uighur dissidents and separatists who either refuse conform to the social aspect of communist ideology or violently resist Han immigration in Xinjiang where the Uighurs are the majority. This should explain why China is inclined to consider the Syrian government’s brutal crackdown on the Syrian protesters and then the rebels and their supporting communities an internal matter.

AB: Professor, you are native of Syria with roots in Aleppo. Aleppo has been before the Syrian crisis the most visible multi-religious and multi-ethnic cosmopolitan city of the country. It was home for Christian communities from all denominations, orthodox, catholic, and Protestants. How would you assess the situation of the Christians in the city now? Will Christianity be able to revive again in Aleppo?

Greek Orthodox church in Aleppo’s old quarter

MT: As long as Aleppo does not fall under the control of al-Qaida or its daughter ISIS, it will always maintain a token presence of Christians of all denominations to maintain their magnificent liturgical traditions in their ancestral land. Unfortunately, the Syrian conflict has taken such a long time that forced the approximately 70% of Aleppo’s Christians to flee death and starvation. Most of those have permanently settled elsewhere and are not likely to return. The Christians of Aleppo, like many other Syrian cities, have lived in relative peace within their semi-segregated quarters and prospered under various Syrian regimes including the current one. My family, for one, was deported from Urfa in February 1924, two years after the formation of modern Turkey, along the rest of the Assyrians/Suryan and found refuge in Aleppo, where they built the Assyrian Quarter. My paternal grandfather came back from the U.S. in the early 1930s searching for survivors from the 1915 genocide, found his sister in a convent in Beirut and settled also in the Assyrian Quarter of Aleppo. He would not have stayed had he not felt safe. Today, the fate of the remaining 30% of Aleppo’s Christians or the other Christians elsewhere in Syria will be the same as their Muslim neighbors, living through perilous uncertainty and worsening starvation. We should not forget Iraq’s Christians, whose numbers declined by about 85% since the U.S. invasion in 2003.       

AB: Christian communities in Syria are scattered across the country, as they lived mainly in cities like Aleppo, Homs and Damascus and did not occupy a large visible region. An exception were the Assyrian/Syriac communities in the north-east (Hassake governate), who formed till the 1970 the majority of the population there. At the turn of the millennium, they were still one third of the population in that region. These communities are indigenous to the country and trace their existence to the era prior to Islam. While Assyrian political organizations are engaged with the Syrian opposition or collaborating with the Kurdish-led self-administration in northern Syria, the leadership of Churches softly argues for reforms. In the West they are falsely seen as regime friendly. At the Munich Security Conference in 2019 the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II lamented (http://www.aina.org/news/20190220203444.htm) how casually Christians “are blamed as supporters of the regime,” ignoring that they are struggling to survive in a country where they live for thousands of years — even prior to Islam and Christianity emerging in the region. Would you agree that majority of the Christians do not believe that a change pushed by a Syrian opposition that is dominated by Islamic groups would be a better alternative to the current but reformed regime?

MT: I faced similar criticisms when in October 2012, I contributed a blog to Harvard’s website with the title “The Syrian Conflict Is Not About Democracy.” The article was taken down a year later because it was perceived as justifying the government crackdown on opposition forces. The same article was cloned by AINA and is archived on its site for one to assess its diagnosis of the Syrian conflict and its prediction of the rise of al-Qaida and its daughter ISIS. Prior and during the uprising, I gave numerous lectures open to the public to explain the complexity of the Syrian conflict, especially its inhabitants’ lack of understanding of constitutional freedoms and individual rights, without which no democracy could be established.

It was an uphill battle to offer an alternative narrative to the dominant one that the Obama administration and the corporate media in the U.S. decided to peddle. I am confident that once the CIA’s intelligence reports are declassified thirty or fifty years from now, it will be apparent that the rebellion was antigovernment and not prodemocracy. It is not conceivable that the CIA with its billions in resource endowment could not figure out the Syrian demographic landscape and that chaos would emerge from the destruction of the Syrian state in a similar manner that took place in Iraq. The Syrian conflict is a result of an intra-Muslim civil war. After the dust settles, history will classify it as the third major civil war in Muslim history, or “fitnah” as Muslims will refer to it, and a byproduct of the Islamic Awakening.

The Syrian Christians were bystanders and suffered the consequences like everyone else, although they were only targeted directly by al-Qaida and ISIS, including the Patriarch himself who narrowly escaped a suicide bombing that targeted him in 2016, and I should not forget my friend, the vanquished Aleppo’s metropolitan Yohanna, who was most probably beheaded in 2013 like many other “infidels” and “apostates” at that time. Most, if not all, Christians withdrew their support of the protesters and the rebellion after it quickly transformed into a sectarian war. They took the side of the government, not because they were happy with it, but because it was obvious to them that it was a better alternative to chaos.

The Syrian protesters wanted to have state without corruption but ended up having corruption without a state. All of those who wielded power in various regions abused it and prayed on the weaker. That is a structural sociological phenomenon that could not have been eradicated through a rebellion. The dominant anti-democratic, anti-individual liberties, anti-individual rights cultural patterns reproduced themselves within all the alternative governing structures that emerged outside government-controlled regions, while they became worse than before in every single category within the government-controlled ones. People must first learn how to respect each other’s rights before they ask government officials to respect theirs. Lack of respect for your fellow citizen’s humanity cannot be overcome with a revolution from the bottom up and certainly not through violence. I do not intend by this to moralize to my fellow Syrians, but I am making this diagnosis out of years of direct observation and interaction. A culture that does not respect individual human rights, produces despots. The personal identity of that despot is a footnote; it is not the cause of despotism.     

AB: Thank you very much for your time and answers.

______

Selected Blogs and Books on the Middle East in Chronological Order:

Interview: “Understanding the Syrian Conflict” (March 2012) http://unypressfullstories.blogspot.com/2012/03/understanding-syrian-conflict.html   

Blog: “The Syrian Conflict Is Not About Democracy” (October 2012) http://www.aina.org/news/20121022163331.htm (Originally published by Harvard, then taken down one year later for its controversial content)

Blog: “Why the Western Diagnosis of the Syrian Conflict Is Wrong” (February 2015) http://www.aina.org/releases/20150216194247.htm 

Book: The Religious Roots of the Syrian Conflict: The Remaking of the Fertile Crescent (Palgrave Macmillan 2016)

https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=m7btCwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en&pg=GBS.PP1

Edited Book: Assessing the War on Terror: Western and Middle Eastern Perspectives (Routledge 2017)

https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781315469164

Blog: “The ISIS Caliphate Will Be Eradicated, But What Will Follow?” (August 1, 2017)

“Current political confrontation between the US and Iran will not escalate into a military confrontation.” (December 4, 2018) https://www.ilna.ir/Section-politics-3/698979-current-political-confrontation-between-the-us-and-iran-will-not-escalate-into-military-confrontation-harvard-lecturer

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