Walking around the two ancient Christian shrines of Maaloula and Saidnaya in Syria, one constantly feels the ancient roots of the Christian faith stretching through that biblical land. However, that ancient faith and those deep roots are now gravely threatened by international sanctions aimed at “regime change,” which by now should be a discredited policy.
In 2013, ISIS captured the shrine of Maaloula, kidnapped several of the community of nuns, and inflicted much damage on the shrine, including the usual iconoclasm the barbarians of the Islamic State wreaked upon all the Christian sites they captured. Saidnaya, where an icon reputed to have been painted by St. Luke has been venerated for centuries by both Christians and Muslims, was never captured. The locals believe that this is because of the special protection of the Virgin Mary.
In Damascus itself, in the Christian quarter close to the Bab Touma, or Gate of Thomas, the region’s Christian heritage is even more palpable. On the street called Straight, as depicted in the Acts of the Apostles, the pilgrim descends the steps of the house of Ananias, deep below the city that has risen over the centuries to enclose that two-thousand-year-old site. It was there that Saul of Tarsus was baptized by Ananias and had his sight restored after he was blinded by the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus where Saul intended to arrest and kill the followers of “the Way.”
The streets of the Christian quarter, narrow and intriguing, are scarred. This is because of the almost constant mortar and small rocket attacks the occupants suffered at the hands of the conveniently named “rebels” for more than five years; the attacks only truly ended in 2018. The “rebels” were, of course, hardened Jihadists, a fact that does not sit well with the sensibilities of the newsrooms and editorial offices in most of the Western media. I know personally of one senior war correspondent from a major international news agency who admitted that by 2015 and 2016, all the “moderates” were Jihadists of some form or another, but he was unable to report that fact because it did not fit the preferred narrative.
The mortar and rocket attacks caused many lower limb injuries; I do not remember ever seeing so many injured people in one location. The friend who was guiding me around the streets of the old city commented that, during those years of bombardment, even going to the shop to buy bread was an act that might end in death, yet the people refused to give up.
After ten years of war, with hundreds of thousands of deaths and the mass displacement of millions of civilians, the Syrian people are desperate for peace and stability.
Realpolitik is a phrase invented for a reason: it is the situation as it is, and not necessarily as we might want it to be. According to Robert Ford, the former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, the regime of President Assad has “won.”
To state this fact is not to be an apologist for the regime or to deny the atrocities that took place during the most brutal years of the war. It is, however, to deal with the situation as it is. The former U.N. Special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, declared in 2017 that the forces fighting the Assad regime must accept that, “if they were planning to win the war, facts are proving this is not the case.”
The Syrian conflict, as in so many previous proxy wars, continues to be used by competing powers to advance their own interests. The involvement of Russia and Iran was the deciding factor in the survival of Assad’s regime. Now, both countries are competing for the economic advantages of being on the winning side—to the point that there is even competition in some Syrian schools between the teaching of Russian or Farsi.
Despite the relative peace and stability in the regions where the regime has become dominant again, the ordinary people of Syria—including its ancient Christian population—are still suffering terribly, and in some ways even more than during the fighting.
According to a recent conference organized by Caritas International, the Catholic body based in Rome which oversees much of the Catholic Church’s humanitarian response to crises, ninety percent of the Syrian population are now living in poverty. A third of the population has fled the country, and 12.5 million people do not have adequate access to food and heating.
Most Syrians do not have access to basic goods. Medicine, in a country hit badly by the Coronavirus, is in short supply and very expensive. According to both news reports and to personal conversations I have had with friends in Damascus, people wait for hours for a share of the small amount of available fuel, which is used for vehicles and for heating. Children are withdrawn from school to queue for bread. Many people are now vegetarians because they cannot afford meat, and some of the poorest survive on bread alone. The war of weapons is now, according to the words of a Christian aid worker in Damascus, a “war of food.”
All this suffering is the direct result of one thing: the international sanctions imposed upon the country.
Most political experts agree that one of the purposes of sanctions is to encourage the people to overthrow the regime. This has not happened in Syria, and now, it is only the people of the country who are suffering. In August 2016, the three most significant Christian leaders in Syria—the Syrian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, and Greek Orthodox Patriarchs—made a united plea for the lifting of the unilateral sanctions against Syria. And at last, after ten years, Caritas International has itself called for the lifting of unilateral sanctions.
That wording is important: these are unilateral sanctions, not targeted against individuals or companies. There can be no justification for the Syrian people being denied access to food, fuel, and medicine. Sanctions are being used as a weapon of war, but not against a regime; this is a war against the people of Syria.
Cardinal Zenari, the brave Papal Nuncio who has stayed in Syria throughout the fighting and suffered alongside the Syrian people, has added his voice to the growing clamor for justice and charity to be shown to the people of Syria. In speaking at the Caritas conference as well as in an interview in Vatican News, the Cardinal described a “bleak picture” in Syria. He told how more than “half the country’s Christians are missing” through death or displacement, and critically used the phrase “economic war” in describing the situation imposed by the sanctions. “Peace,” he said, “will not come to Syria without reconstruction and economic start-up.” Neither of those things will be possible without the lifting of the unilateral sanctions.
In particular, the “Caesar Act” authorizing additional sanctions, signed by the Trump administration in 2019, is having a devastating effect on the reconstruction possibilities.
Cardinal Zenari, in his interview, described the country as “no longer the Syria I knew when I arrived twelve years ago.” That country was a place of religious tolerance and remarkable harmony between the different religious groups. Cardinal Zenari recalled how fertile Syria had been, with fields of golden wheat.
Was it a model of western democracy and just governance? That can remain a rhetorical question; however, I am reminded of a conversation I had with an Iraqi priest about the difference between living under the regime of Saddam Hussein and in post-“liberation” Iraq. He said to me, “there is bad and there is worse. Which would you rather live under?”
For the people of Syria, living with unjust sanctions has gone from bad to worse. It is time for the West to listen to the Christian leaders, the Papal Nuncio and ultimately, to the voice of the Syrian people, and recognize that there is no justice in continuing to punish ordinary Syrians in the hope of regime change.
Fr. Benedict Kiely is the founder of Nasarean.org, a charity helping persecuted Christians.