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EIBNER: Preserving Syria’s ‘first freedom’

U.S. backing of Islamist rebels fosters neither religious tolerance nor democracy

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The horrific scenes of paralyzed children gasping for breath in vain after a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs this week prompted me to recall President Obama's historic decision two years ago to make regime change in Syria official U.S. policy. The removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad, he claimed, was necessary "for the sake of the Syrian people" as they move toward "democratic transition."

The ensuing tragedy has been apocalyptic. The death toll in August 2011 stood at just over 2,000. It has now surpassed 100,000, with hundreds of civilians killed by a mysterious poison gas attack on Wednesday alone. More than 5 million Syrians — 25 percent of the population — have been displaced. The country's economy and infrastructure are on the way to ruin. Meanwhile, Mr. Assad remains in power.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, expects that the mayhem in Syria "will persist for 10 years." At the current rate of attrition, a half-million people would perish, and virtually every Syrian would be displaced should Gen. Dempsey's forecast prove accurate.

For nearly two years, Mr. Obama's regime-change strategy called for strict sanctions on Syria and the provision of non-lethal military aid to anti-Assad rebels. Washington outsourced the provision of weaponry to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

The White House now speaks vaguely about sending light arms directly to opposition forces. However, without being backed by substantial American blood and treasure, Gen. Dempsey doubts such a move would positively affect the dynamics of the Syrian war.

By delegating the on-the-ground military lead to regional Sunni Islamist allies — all with grave democratic deficits — Washington guaranteed that sectarian, anti-democratic forces would dominate Syria's fragmented opposition groups. Pre-eminent among them are militias allied to al Qaeda. Their anti-democratic ideological goal is to transform largely secularized Syria into a component of a broader Sunni caliphate based on discriminatory Shariah principles.

The predominance of Sunni supremacists within the Syrian opposition has prompted most members of the Alawite, Christian, Druze and Shiite religious minorities — representing about 30 percent of the population — to coalesce around the Assad regime for protection. They are joined by many secular-minded Sunnis.

While traveling in June from the tranquil Mediterranean town of Tartus to the war-torn city of Homs, it became clear to me why this anti-rebel constellation has grown so powerful since the heady days of the Arab Spring. Displaced Syrians related harrowing accounts of atrocities committed by Sunni supremacist rebels. Among the horrors were the beheading of Alawite girls, the kidnapping and killing of Christian clergymen, the chanting of the genocidal threat "Alawites to the tomb, Christians to Beirut," and death sentences imposed by revolutionary Shariah courts on non-conformist Sunnis.

The Turkey-based National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which is recognized by Washington as the "sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people," is either unable or unwilling to prevent such acts of terrorism. Who can be surprised that so many non-Islamist Syrians are horrified at the prospect of life under the rule of brutal Sunni supremacists?

All Syrians are well aware that the Assad regime would not shrink from employing the most draconian measures — including the use of chemical weapons — if necessary to survive challenges from foreign and domestic opponents. However, they also know a salient fact that does not feature in Washington's regime-change narrative: The secular-oriented Assad dictatorship has for decades offered greater religious parity and freedom than can be found in any other Sunni-majority state in the region.

This reality has enormous political significance in a society where religious community, not the state, remains the focal point of communal identity for most people. It means that Syria's religious minorities and many non-Islamist Sunnis regard Mr. Assad's secular approach to preserving religious harmony as significant compensation for denial of the right to free elections and majority rule. Should the Sunni Islamist opposition prevail, Syrians are likely to lose extensive space for free religious practice, without gaining political freedom.

Despite Mr. Obama's rhetoric about "the Syrian people," geopolitical interests are paramount in the minds of American policymakers. In August 2011, a Sunni-led proxy war for regime change in Syria was seen by the administration as a low-cost means of degrading Shiite Iran's capabilities in the region. Today, the influence in Syria of Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah is greater than ever. The Syrian people, irrespective of religious community, are paying a heavy price.

Reversing Syria's descent into anarchic barbarism will require Mr. Obama to cooperate with Moscow, as President Reagan courageously did to end the Cold War. Washington also must desist from financing and arming the forces of Sunni supremacism, and rein in the ambitions of its regional Sunni Islamist allies. Finally, the United States' democracy agenda for Syria and the broader Middle East must give precedence to promoting the "first freedom" — religious liberty — for all, not sectarian Sunni ascendancy.

John Eibner is CEO of Christian Solidarity International (USA).

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