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Religious minorities fear Syrian Islamists

U.S. envoy looks beyond Assad

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Syrian Christians and other minorities are scared of potential government influence by Islamic hard-liners if President Bashar Assad falls, U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford says.

"A lot of Christians here are very frightened of it, frankly," said Mr. Ford, speaking by phone with The Washington Times from the Syrian capital, Damascus.

He also said that many in the minority Allawite Muslim sect, business owners and reformers who advocate a separation between religion and state are also concerned about a rise of political Islam in Syria.

However, he said, he thinks those fears are exaggerated.

"My own sense, just moving around, is that it is not nearly as strong here as it is, for example, in Iraq or in Algeria, for that matter," he added.

"But the fears among some elements of Syrian society cannot be ignored."

Click here to listen to the Ford interview

As many as 10 percent of Syria's 21 million people are Christians and an additional 12 percent belong to Mr. Assad's Allawite sect, a Shiite offshoot.

Mr. Ford said the opposition's newly created National Council of Syria needs to assure both groups that they would not face persecution by the country's Sunni majority in any new government.

"We have urged the Syrian opposition to develop a vision that they all agree on in terms of the state, how it would operate, and one of the issues … is how will it address the question of religion and religious minorities," he said.

"They have to make, ultimately, the sales pitch that convinces the Christian community or the Allawi community that those communities' interests are better served by change."

It may be a hard sell for the Christians, many of whom are refugees from Iraq. An independent report, meanwhile, has revealed that nearly 93,000 Christians have fled Egypt since its February revolution.

Syria's 6-month-old uprising has raised hopes that Mr. Assad might be replaced by a pro-American government.

However, Mr. Ford said a democratic government would not necessarily back Washington's regional objectives, even though opposition activists remain grateful for U.S. support.

"I have to be honest and say that there is throughout Syria a sort of a deep-seated suspicion of the United States," he said, citing anger at U.S. policies on Iraq and Israel.

"I don't think they're vehemently anti-American, but neither are they rushing to give us kisses."

President Obama appointed Mr. Ford to a temporary, one-year term as ambassador during a congressional recess in December after foreign-policy hawks objected to sending a U.S. ambassador back to Syria.

As president, George W. Bush withdrew the U.S. ambassador in 2005 to protest suspected Syrian involvement in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister.

Now, however, several senators said that Mr. Ford, a career diplomat, had won their admiration because of his public defiance of Mr. Assad and his bloody crackdown on unarmed protesters.

Mr. Ford has visited demonstrators in flash-point cities, attended funerals of activists and publicly denounced the regime for killing an estimated 2,700 civilians.

"I really changed my mind on this," said Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"He has done some things that are just really impressive. He's gone to places where the protesters are. He's been roughed up a few times. I had the impression that he wouldn't be quite strong enough, and I've been proven wrong."

Mr. Ford's nomination cleared the committee by a voice vote this month, but a confirmation vote in the full Senate could be blocked by one of his remaining skeptics.

"I've talked to some of our senators who have concerns about him, but I do think that the situation has changed because the [U.S.] policy has changed," said Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who also previously opposed sending an ambassador to Syria, said he, too, was "cautiously optimistic" that Mr. Ford would get Senate confirmation.

"I would say now, because he has become such a symbol of American support for the Syrian people, that it would actually be a defeat for the cause of freedom in Syria — and almost a victory for Assad — if we don't confirm Robert Ford," Mr. Lieberman said.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author

Ben Birnbaum

Ben Birnbaum is a reporter covering foreign affairs for The Washington Times. Prior to joining The Times, Birnbaum worked as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. A Boston-area native, he graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University with a degree in government and psychology. He won multiple collegiate journalism awards for his articles and columns in the Cornell Daily Sun.

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