No repeat of Iraq in Syria

  • August 29, 2012
The insurrection to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is entering its 18th month but despite international condemnation of his brutal methods and economic sanctions against his regime, the dictator refuses to release his grip on power.

The United Nations estimates more than 10,000 Syrians — most of them civilians — have died in the fighting. Other groups cite fatality figures twice that number. In addition, more than a million people have fled their homes, including about 200,000 Syrians, mostly families, who’ve sought sanctuary in neighbouring countries.

Few if any people can feel safe today in Syria. But that is particularly true for Syria’s two million Christians. Under Assad, and his father before him, Christianity was tolerated and some Christians even held prominent government positions. Now Syria’s Christians expect a Muslim backlash when Assad’s overthrow, which seems inevitable, is completed.

Their fear is based on the winds of Christian persecution that blew through Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Like his  Sryian neighbour, Hussein was also tolerant of Christianity. But when his regime fell, thousands of Christians lost their homes and businesses. Many more were harassed, assaulted and large numbers killed. Tens of thousands fled as refugees, reducing Iraq’s Christian population by half.

It may already be too late to save Syria’s Christians from the same fate. But the international community has an obligation to flex its muscle and try. It must learn from its failure in Iraq and act decisively in Syria so that a civil rebellion to end repression doesn’t install a regime that imposes a new type of intolerance.

Pope Benedict has appealed for peace in Syria and for humanitarian aid to support the uncapped flow of refugees. Later this month, he will visit Lebanon and is expected to renew the Vatican’s call for religious freedom throughout the Middle East, home to 5.7 million Christians.

The Canadian government has pledged $10-million in humanitarian aid, including $2 million for emergency medical supplies. That’s a good start, but the aid must go quickly and efficiently into trusted hands who can ensure it is actually spent on humanitarian relief. There are several reputable agencies and NGOs (including the Catholic Near East Welfare Association) that know the political terrain and whose expertise the government should utilize. Even then, the government can do more. It must become vocal at the United Nations and other forums in demanding that Syria’s next government respect human rights, particularly those of its religious minorities. It should also heed calls from the opposition Liberals and temporarily relax immigration policies to make Canada more accessible to Syrian refugees.

Iraq showed what can happen when persecuted minorities are abandoned. A repeat shouldn’t be allowed to happen in Syria.

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