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Between Purgatory And Hell in Syria

We tend to think that in any situation there should be a clear way to decide what we should do. And we want to believe that the right decision will always bring good consequences. But sometimes reality is more complicated than that as the situation in Syria shows.

Let’s look back at the history of the current civil war there. In 2011, Syrians — inspired by the Arab spring — started peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Assad then sent the Syrian Army to suppress the protests. Shortly afterward, defectors from the army created the Free Syrian Army, and the civil war started. Sunni Muslims, the majority of the population, dominated the opposition, while most government officials were, and still are, Alawites.

During the war, new actors joined the carnage — Islamic State (ISIS), the YPG militia, pro-government Christian militias, Shia militias from Iran and other countries, and many other groups.

Both the government and the opposition have support from foreign governments. Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Hezbollah back Assad, while the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Kingdom, France, Israel and the Netherlands support rebel groups.

After eight years of civil war, half a million people have died and four million have become refugees. And it’s hard to tell what will happen next or even which group you want to support.

Assad’s regime is dictatorial and murderous, but Christians have supported it. For many years, since the time of Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, the regime has found allies in other Syrian minorities in order to dominate the Sunni population.

Consider the dilemma of Christians in the Syrian city of Aleppo. The city, still controlled by the government, was surrounded by Islamist forces. The choices of Christians there were to live under the Assad dictatorship or die when the Islamists took the city. That’s why there are pro-government Christian militias.

Now consider the current situation. When the Trump administration decided to retreat from northeastern Syria last week, political and religious leaders expressed their dismay. While the administration has been praised for its defense of religious freedom, its decision puts the lives of many Christians in Syria in danger. Plus, the retreat was seen by many as a betrayal of the Kurds, longtime allies of the United States.

The decision, critics say, “undercuts our own trust that this administration is truly committed to international religious freedom and the survival of religious minorities in the Middle East.”

At a time when the left and the right in the United States can’t agree on anything, there is bipartisan U.S. congressional disapproval of the abrupt decision to pull back U.S. troops from the northeastern part of Syria. The Pentagon, the National Security Council and the State Department also advised the president to keep the U.S. troops in place.

Many Americans oppose U.S. interventions in overseas conflicts. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the leading-from-behind strike in Libya, haven’t ended well — actually, they haven’t ended at all. Thousands of American lives have been lost, and trillions of dollars spent, without clear results. And hundreds of thousands of people have died in those countries.

It is understandable that many in the United States want our troops out of Syria, a country where it is difficult to discern a positive outcome in the near future. But the decision to pull out the troops from northeastern Syria seems to be a tragic mistake.

The Turkish military has already started the invasion of the territory with the help of Islamist groups. The Kurds and the Christians of the area are in real danger of a genocide.

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