by Elinor Mitchell
Early this month, Syrian rebels attacked Maaloula, an ancient Christian town northeast of Damascus. Fighting began after rebels seized a checkpoint, which they claim was harming Muslims. Ever since, Maaloula has been the site of a tug-of-war battle between government and rebel regimes. The attack, one that paints anti-Assad rebels as unsympathetic to Christians, complicates the question of whether the United States should take an active stance against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Assad has famously alleged that he is pro-Christian, and the rebels’ recent attack in Maaloula may confirm that claim. Rebels leading the attack are at odds with Assad, painting him as potentially more sympathetic toward the religious minority. Maaloula is, according to Russia Today, Syria’s Christian center and one of the few places Western Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken. The rebels’ apparent disregard for Maaloula’s religious and historical significance may cost them credibility among Christians and, more importantly, American Christians.
President Obama is in the midst of convincing Congress and a skeptical American public that military action against the Assad-run government is the right next step. Though Assad has committed what the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon describes as “many crimes against humanity,” most Americans do not support an air strike that targets his regime. President Obama’s plan to convince Congress has yet to succeed, and the rebel regime’s anti-Christian image may be partly to blame.
The rebels themselves are also aware of the risk in seeming anti-Christian. The rebels filmed themselves speaking with nuns, visiting local religious sites, and openly declaring they meant local Christians no harm. Very aware of their public relations problem, rebels quickly withdrew from most of the town, but many argue—especially those who are against American support for Syria’s rebel regime—it was too little, too late. The mostly Sunni-run rebel regime is regularly biased toward other Syrian Muslims, intimidating Christians who make up only about 10 percent of the population. Maaloula has been a longtime symbol of Muslim-Christian coexistence in Syria, and recent violence has triggered the literal and figurative end of that alliance.
Given the large number of Iraqi Christians displaced after America’s 2003 offensive, President Obama is wary of the risk inherent in backing an anti-Christian regime. Skeptics against American intervention fear that the fall of Assad may mean more power in the hands of rebel extremists, ones like those leading the attack on Maaloula, the fall of which is an example of what a post-Assad Syria may look like and of the uncertainty that Christians in Syria now face. Maaloula’s fall not only complicates President Obama’s decision regarding military action in Syria, but it brings to light the religious friction that exists between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East.