Syrian Christians Rise, Unite to Oust Assad
On a rainy Friday in Washington, I gathered with passionate members of a Syrian opposition group representing a minority whose voices must be heard in the revolution and in the new Syria.
What, I asked the Syrian Christians for Democracy assembled around tables pushed together in the lounge of the Hotel George, is the one thing that Americans need to know about Bashar al-Assad?
"He's killing kids," Maroneh native and Boston diaspora leader Essam Francis answered succinctly.
As Christians, as Syrians, these activists were brought together by the bloodshed sown by the brutal regime that has slain about 8,500, according to the latest United Nations estimates, including the massacre of entire families this week in Homs -- 16 members of the Tahhan family, 20 of the Rifaei family, and more, according to the chilling reports of the Local Coordination Committees of Syria.
"Each member of the organization was against the regime on his own," said Roy Tohme, secretary for the group. "Most of our members are veterans against Assad."
That includes Jries Altalli, who spent nine years as a political prisoner and whose daughter is a member of the Syrian National Council; Walid Phares, who is advising the fledgling organization; and George Stifo, communications director for the group, president of the Assyrian Democratic Organization, and a member of the SNC (which is about 8-10 percent Christian).
"Many of the Christians in the Middle East were terrified of the results, seeing what happened in countries such as Iraq and Libya and Egypt," Stifo said. "It began to scare them of what could happen also in Syria. So we saw a lot of the Christians staying out of this completely."
He said that it's not true that the majority of Christians in Syria back the regime, but remained a "silent majority" out of uncertainty about the present and future.
"Our organization looked at this and said, well, it's taking so long for Christians to make a move," Stifo said. "We are with the revolution, and the regime was using this claim that Christians were backing them, that the minorities are all with the regime, and using this as leverage for them to stay in power."
"So we decided to show that, no, the majority of Christians are not with the regime."
The SCD was launched in December, nine months after the Syrian revolution began in earnest. In addition to uniting Christians on the ground in opposition to Assad, the organization wanted Christians inside and outside Syria -- who have offered lots of support to the group -- to know that they have someone to speak for them.
"You will have a voice outside this country," Stifo said. "You will have a voice in the future as well. We don't want you to feel isolated and alone in this fight. Those of you who are fighting, you have an ally, and those of you who are not fighting, if you decide to, we are here to help."
The new constitution put forth by Assad last month, which the regime claims was overwhelmingly approved, "treats Christians as second- or third-class citizens," he added. "It has pushed the Christians to look past this regime."
The members said that Muslims in the revolution have been supportive of the group's founding.
"Muslims are also very helpful, very receptive, understanding," Stifo said, even "joyful to see a group of non-Muslims saying openly, we are against this regime in support of the revolution. It gave them hope that, OK, the regime is saying that minorities are with them; it's not true."
"It's a mutually beneficial relationship," Tohme said, adding that they might not be best friends and will probably have to democratically duke it out in the new Syria. "We may have our diverging views of what the future Syria looks like."
Francis noted that the support publicly shown for the opposition by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri actually looks like a ploy to aid Assad.
"The Syrian regime helped al-Qaeda kill Americans in Iraq," he said. "For al-Zawahiri to say something against the Syrian regime is not right. He did a favor for the regime to do that. He gave them reason to kill a lot more people."
Executive director Ayman Abdel Nour said that the regime met several months into the uprising, when it found itself under fire for killing innocent, unarmed civilians, and decided to lay government weapons at the doorsteps of some of the country's citizens along with some nasty rumors.
"They tell the minorities that the Muslim Sunnis are coming to kill you in order to change the civil unarmed demonstrations in the streets into clash with rebels," Abdel Nour said of Assad's plan "to make them all fractions against each other and forget about it."
"It is invented by the regime and it will die with the regime," he said.
The regime quickly latched onto the new Christian organization that brings together the 11 sects living in the country, attacking the SCD as Zionist, American, CIA, you name it.
One anonymous member of the SCD board is a Local Coordination Committees member inside of Syria. "We're their shopping list," Tohme said. As the LCC feeds information about what's happening within Syria, groups such as the SCD coordinate the acquisition and smuggling of medical and communication supplies.
"It's a really bad situation over there right now," Francis said. "People need food, they need medicine, they have no clothes, they have no blankets to cover themselves."
"Nobody helps -- real help -- just the Syrian community outside," he added.
The board used the Washington trip to meet with the State Department and launch fundraisers within the Syrian diaspora in cities around the country.
In fact, Abdel Nour, also editor-in-chief of the All4Syria Bulletin, dashed late into the gathering fresh from securing a promise of medicine and physicians from an NGO, including psychological help for Syrians who have suffered torture or witness their families killed.
"That's one of the reasons why we exist," he said.
But the frustration shared by Syrian activists, Muslim and Christian alike, is the real hesitancy of the international community to act or fully acknowledge the wholesale slaughter that is going on inside their country.
"The frustration grows because the Syrian people have to fight the entire world," Tohme said. "We have to fight the Russian veto, the Chinese veto, the Iranian weaponry -- so many things stacked against you and so many people trying to make you fail."
"The frustration comes from seeing now on a daily basis these videos of tens of children dying," Stifo said. "People being killed and tortured, it brings even more frustration. Why isn't anybody doing anything? It's really painful when you know that some of your countrymen who might be relatives even are dying. It brings this feeling of people don't care and that even hurts more."
Tohme stressed that the more this frustration brews, "the more radicalized this is going to become."
"Then you become a totally different kind of revolution that we don't feel we can win on our own terms," he said. "We want to win on our own terms as Christians and as Syrians. That's why we're trying to put this to bed before we get to the point where people are so frustrated they're not even going to care how they're going to do it, even if it means embracing jihadism."
"We are frustrated but we continue fighting because this is our war," Abdel Nour said, "not the international community's. We will continue this with the support of our people and our belief in Syria."
A common refrain among Syrians, members of the group noted, is how much quicker countries would be to come to their aid if their blood was oil.
"It's like one Libyan is worth 10 Syrians," Tohme said.
With one victory this week on Capitol Hill -- the unanimous passage of a bill in the House Foreign Affairs Committee strengthening sanctions against the Syrian regime and imposing new measures against the energy and financial sectors -- Syrians got yet another kick in the teeth from the United Nations today after UNESCO refused to throw Damascus off its human-rights committee.
Waiting for help from the White House is also an uphill battle for the opposition.
Ahed Al Hendi, who was imprisoned and tortured by the regime as a student dissident and fled Syria four years ago, blames the election year "for this stagnation, this lack of decision from this administration."
"There are a lot of good senators and congressmen who want to take U.S. aid to the Syrian revolution to the next level," he said. "I like a lot about President Obama, but in foreign affairs issues he is not good."
Al Hendi noted that U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was welcomed with flowers when he visited Hama, a very conservative city, a few months into the protests. Now, he opined, Ford probably wouldn't get the same reception from the suffering Syrians.
"Now people are looking at the U.S. like they're looking at Russia," he said. "Even worse. Why? The reason is, Russia is doing what they are saying: We are with Assad, period. The U.S. is only talking. We know there are a lot of efforts done by the U.S. But so far it's only talking. People are still being killed on a daily basis."
"We need a president who is as faithful to his friends as Putin is to his own friends, or else don't pretend that we should be friends," Tohme said. "We know this administration still has a lot of cards it can play; they're still holding on to them and we don't know why.
"For us, the inaction of this administration is as bad as the actions of the Russians."
Bassam Bitar, director of SCD's board of trustees, is a co-founder of the Syrian American Network for Activists and Dissidents and a board member of the Syrian Expatriates Foundation for Democracy.
"We are not asking for anything but our dignity, our freedom, our democracy," Bitar said, "and I don't see the American administration offer anything concrete."
It's been almost a year since the start of the revolution, he noted, and how much more time is the White House willing to let go by?
"Just because it is election time in the United States… I feel we are like second-class citizens, like nobody exists," Bitar said. "It would be better at this time for Obama or any presidential candidate to talk about Syria, to do something."
"Assad is not just the enemy of the Syrian people, he's is the enemy of the American people," Al Hendi said. "He's caused a lot of damage to America as well. Think of what he's done in Iraq, the terrorist groups that were sent to Iraq and had their headquarters in Syria."
"It's not only a humanitarian thing, it's also more for the interests of the U.S.," he said of intervention. "I think the Congress should be more serious about that."
Tohme said what the revolution needs is the establishment of just one safe haven or safe zones, preferably along the Turkish border, where civilians can shelter and organize.
"And the Syrian people can take it from there," he said.
Abdel Nour advocates three things to move the revolution forward. First, "at least least balance Russian, Chinese, Iranian support" for Damascus with opposition support in Washington.
"There should be a balance between the people who are supporting Assad and the people who are supporting the freedom, the values, the human rights," he said.
Second, leave the campaign season out of it. "This should be nonpartisan," Abdel Nour said. "There should be a joint declaration from the Democrats and Republicans that this will not be used against each other in the election campaign."
And finally, make sure that the next government in Syria guarantees the rights of minorities to stem the fear that the fall of Assad means the end of Syrian diversity.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which is currently a member of the SNC, couldn't get more than 50 percent in a new parliament, Abdel Nour predicted.
"So we are not afraid of this," he said. "Syria is a totally different society than Egypt and any other countries. … We believe all Syrians believe in diversity; they have lived together for thousands of years and they're not going to change this because of Assad."
"As Christians, we are members of the society," Abdel Nour added. "We give martyrs in this revolution."
Tohme said one of the biggest misconceptions Americans have about the revolution is "that the Syrian people are not ready to rule themselves after Assad."
"I've never heard that people around the world need to take a maturity test before winning a revolution," he said. "That's not how things happen. You depose whatever is killing you now."
As a revolutionary group united by faith and representing a religious minority in the land where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken, Stifo said they cannot sit by and watch Assad's massacres.
"Christianity teaches us to always be with the helpless, to help them against those who are killing them," he said. "We cannot see how any Christian would not back or not support those who are in need right now, those who are suffering, those who are starving, those who are being killed."
"We're human beings," Francis said. "Assyrian, Muslim, Druze, whatever, we need somebody to protect us from Syrian regime."