Syria’s Devil You Know

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Syria’s Devil You Know
For Christians and other minorities, is Assad safer than fiendish jihadists?
By Andrew Harrod

“In a movement of sheer masochism, the West encouraged political developments that would destroy systems designed as a safeguard against extremism,” writes Alexandre Goodarzy in a new Sophia Institute Press translation of his French memoirs. In Kidnapped in Iraq: A Christian Humanitarian Tells His Story, this French Catholic aid worker critically examines foolish Western beliefs that the 2011 “Arab Spring” would democratize the Middle East.

Working in Syria and the wider Middle East with SOS Chretiéns d’Orient, an organization assisting beleaguered Middle East Christians, Goodarzy experienced firsthand Syria’s post-2011 fall into sectarian violence. As he learned, jihadists, not democrats, dominated the revolt against Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Yet his ruthlessness earned him infamy among many in the West as “our best enemy — the one we loved to hate,” Goodarzy notes.

Nonetheless, Goodarzy has his justification for Assad, who was “guilty of being faithful, in his governing style, to what the Europeans of an earlier era expected of him — namely, to head a secular authoritarian regime.” As Goodarzy elaborates:

After World War I, the Arab states that were built on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire were not only designed to lead the people toward modernism under the auspices of the League of Nations and the United Nations; their state leaders were also supposed to ensure the protection of Europe from illegal immigration and radical Islamism.

Assad leads a despotic dynasty as the son of Hafez al-Assad, a Syrian air force general who led a 1970 coup in Syria and remained in power until his death in 2000. “For thirty years, he had ruled the country with an iron fist, and he did in fact bring it stability and prosperity,” Goodarzy observes. The Assads needed a heavy hand particularly because they and their primary regime supporters came from Syria’s Alawite minority, who follow an offshoot of Shiite Islam that many from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority hate as heretical.

Sunni rage against the Alawites murderously flared in 1979. An officer at a Syrian army artillery school in Aleppo issued a special order to 80 Alawite cadets to attend a morning mess hall meeting. They walked into a massacre staged by jihadists affiliated with Syria’s outlawed branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

A MB insurgency of assassinations and uprisings continued until February 2, 1982, when Hafez al-Assad’s brother, Rifaat, surrounded an MB stronghold in Hama, Syria, with 12,000 troops. Before the month ended, Syrian soldiers devastated the city, slaughtering MB rebels and civilians alike. As Goodarzy writes:

The number of those who were killed has never been clear; some say as few as three thousand, but other reports say twenty thousand. The city of Hama and the Muslim Brotherhood have never fully recovered from it — not even today.

Despite such brutality, a Syrian taxi driver in 2015 remained an unrepentant defender of the Assads, both father and son, in conversations with Goodarzy. “Assad is our hero. If he wasn’t here to defend us, we would have all died a long time ago,” the driver said while contemplating the jihadists who wanted to impose Islamic sharia law. “If not for him, my wife couldn’t drive, go to cafes to smoke hookah, or go out by herself,” the driver added.

The driver saw Syria’s turmoil in a continuum with the struggles against the Muslim Brothers three decades earlier. Bashar al-Assad’s

father, Hafez — may God bless him — crushed them in Hama in 1982 when they rose against the government. Sir, we are a secular country. Religion is a personal matter, but we have all watched the Muslim Brotherhood try to rise to power for forty long years, wanting to impose their way of life on all of us.

Yet, as a Syrian Christian friend explained to Goodarzy, the elder Assad could not ignore Islam and rule as a secularist. Since 1970, “he had worked to compromise with the Sunnite majority,” Goodarzy notes:

During the thirty years of his reign, these efforts at maintaining peace and bolstering the legitimacy of his government included building more mosques than there had ever been during the fourteen hundred previous years of successive Islamic caliphates. Perhaps more significantly, however, to the displeasure of the Sunni majority, he also established the Alawite denomination as the religion of Islam.

In the 1973 Syrian constitution, Assad senior “had then ensured that no non-Muslim person could be eligible for the presidency, closing the door on Syrian Christians,” Goodarzy observes. Additionally,

Sharia law remained one of the bases of the Syrian Constitution. As the decades of the Assads’ power continued, many Christians became aware that while their presence was tolerated, their protections were limited and were ensured by only a few good people.

Christians in neighboring Iraq had a similar awareness of depending upon a few friends in high places for protection. Here the Assads’ peer in brutality, dictator Saddam Hussein, ruled until an American-led coalition overthrew him in 2003 in the name of democratic regime change. In the ensuring years, an increasingly repressive Islamization of society caused a mass Christian exodus.

As Goodarzy writes, Iraqi Christians often –

looked back with nostalgia to the time of Saddam, saying that he had been a true shield against Islamism. Since his death, the extremism of many Muslims had gone unchecked, and the chaos induced by their radical fantasies of a caliphate was a daily reality instead of a distant nightmare.

In conclusion, Goodarzy finds little positive in the collapse of Middle Eastern tyrants. “There had never been a mass, willing exodus of Syrian refugees taking leaky lifeboats to Europe” before, he observes. Meanwhile in Syria Assad junior’s “followers have died there, working to preserve the Western way of life for the rest of us.”

In Syria’s conflagrations, Christians and other minorities have thus chosen to stick with a devil they know in the Assad dictatorship rather than submit to even more fiendish jihadists. Such desperate political choices among multiple evils has led to rather bizarre alliances, as the next installment of this series will examine.

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