Many Christians are blind on Assad rule

By Michael Young/The Daily Star
June 23, 2011
Last week I happened to catch a program on OTV, the Aounist television channel. The topic was Syria and at one stage the host described how he had seen footage of people recently demonstrating in the city of Hama. A sign held up by a protester read “We will not forget Hama 1982,” or some similar phrase. For the host this illustrated the “vengeful intentions” of the Syrian uprising.

It was revealing that the presenter should have interpreted the perfectly creditable remembrance of an episode of mass murder, one in which tens of thousands of innocent people are estimated to have lost their lives, as something reprehensible. What the Aounists believe, as do quite a few Lebanese Christians with them, is that if the Alawite-dominated Assad regime falls, this will play out to the advantage of the Sunnis, and more specifically of Sunni Islamists.

Throughout his political career, Michel Aoun has been adept at making bad choices. He sided with Saddam Hussein just before the Iraqi leader became an international pariah in 1990. He flirted with Syria and its envoys before returning to Lebanon in 2005, only to see the Syrians withdraw their army in April after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister. In pursuit of the presidency in 2006 and 2007, Aoun allied himself with Hezbollah against the parliamentary majority whose support he needed to win office, on the assumption that the party, along with Syria, would impose his election. They didn’t, and during the 2009 elections Aoun was unable to secure a parliamentary majority with his partners, actually losing Christian votes when compared to the results four years earlier.

Today, Aoun and his followers may be on the verge of making a far more critical mistake: They are wagering that Syrian President Bashar Assad will crush the ever larger demonstrations against his authority. Indeed, they are hopeful that this will happen. However, in the process they are setting themselves up, and Christians in general, for a potentially decisive, long-term rupture with Lebanon’s Sunnis, but also down the road with a post-Assad government in Syria.

Aoun is not alone responsible for this situation. However, he merits the greater blame for allowing his entourage to articulate most forcefully the foolish notion that Christians have an interest in allying themselves with other Middle Eastern minorities, against the Sunnis. It has been alarming to hear a sizable number of Lebanese Christians expressing fear that the Assads’ defeat would spell disaster for their community. They forget that no one has done as much as the Syrian regime to undermine Lebanese Christian power in the past decades.

It should be obvious by now to those watching the unrest in Syria that those hostile to Assad rule have mostly avoided resorting to sectarian symbolism. Rather, sectarian violence has been largely the work of the Assads’ praetorian units and security forces. Not many people, inside Syria or out, believe the regime’s narrative that the protests are the work of armed Sunni Islamists, nor have the Assads’ propaganda outlets provided any convincing evidence. An inept Information Ministry spokeswoman was fired for pointing out that the thousands of refugees flowing into Turkey from Jisr al-Shoughour were merely visiting family members across the border. But her bankruptcy, both professional and moral, only reflected that of the leaders she served.

And yet there are those Lebanese Christians buying into the Syrian government’s fabrications. Aounist spokespersons will pen stories in foreign publications echoing uncritically the disinformation peddled by Damascus. They seem incapable of reading the Syrian unrest in political, as opposed to sectarian, terms. For them it’s about religion, about the Sunni menace, not about a multi-sectarian population striving for emancipation from a despotic clique. In defense of Christian interests, they deem it justifiable to endorse scoundrels.

You would have expected the Christians to learn from their coreligionists in Iraq. The fate of Iraqi Christians is often cited by the Lebanese as an example of the dire future awaiting them and their Syrian brethren if the Assads disappear. How odd, for the real lesson offered up by Iraq’s Christians was that siding with Saddam Hussein against a majority of the Iraqi population was an existential blunder.

The safety and security of minorities cannot possibly reside in taking a stance against their fellow countrymen – especially joining with another minority in stifling the legitimate aspirations of a majority. The wheel of fortune turns. That is why the only solid protection for Arab Christians lies in transcending their minority status by reinforcing links with other communities, and between communities, while preserving their own individuality and ensuring that the rights of all are respected within a consensual, democratic context.

It is difficult to see how Bashar Assad’s regime will survive what is going on in Syria today. His regime may last for awhile, or it may collapse more rapidly than we imagine, but Syria is not going back to where it was three months ago. In the framework of domestic Lebanese communal relations, how should Christians prepare for this eventuality? Praying for the Assads to crush the revolt is morally outrageous and politically shortsighted. By the same token, cynically gambling on a Sunni victory in Syria makes no sense, because the revolt may proudly impose itself as a non-sectarian phenomenon.

A third alternative seems more promising. The Christians of Lebanon may be on the verge of a rare and valuable moment in their modern history, one in which they can contribute to forging a historical reconciliation between a democratic Syria and a democratic Lebanon. Rather than playing religious politics, they should think in terms of values – those of liberty, of pluralism, of representative government – and define their behavior now and in the future by such values.

This may sound terribly naïve. However, Michel Aoun and his supporters conveniently forget that they once portrayed their confrontation with the Assad regime in precisely those terms. The best safeguard for minority rights in the Arab world is democracy and the rule of law, within free societies. It is not, and cannot ever be, a dictatorship that readily exterminates its own people.

**Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster), listed as one of the 10 notable books of 2010 by The Wall Street Journal. He tweets @BeirutCalling.