Strangely, there has been uneasiness among some Lebanese Christians at the prospect that the Syrian regime might collapse amid popular discontent. Strange, because if anything has devastated Lebanese Christian power and confidence in four decades, other than the Christians’ own abysmal choices, it is the Assad presidencies.
Those anxious about the possible downfall of the Assads have generally raised the same argument: Bashar al-Assad heads a minority Alawite regime that has been good to the Christians of Syria. His ouster would benefit the Sunnis, above all Sunni Islamists. This would not only hurt Syrian Christians, it would also have terrible repercussions in Lebanon, where Christians could find themselves coping with an Islamist leadership in Damascus.
Of course, not all Lebanese Christians, or even necessarily most of them, subscribe to this view. But it is also true that the nervousness is not limited to Syria’s local allies. There is still a strong sense in a country with a deeply confessional mindset that minorities ultimately have an interest in siding with other minorities, against potentially hegemonic majorities. And this reasoning has never been reassessed, despite the somewhat disturbing detail that in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, like in Syria under the Assads, the Christian communities have tended to side with repressive minority regimes.
A fear of Islamists was, for example, the gist of a revealing recent expression of Christian fright about events in Syria. In a Foreign Policy web article in late April, one May Akl, a Yale-based press secretary of Michel Aoun, went out of her way to argue that the revolt in Syria was different from that in other Arab countries. Why? Because the Syrian army had come under attack. A purported ambush of troops near the city of Banias, she wrote, proved that “a Jihad-like approach is a force behind the movement demanding reforms.”
Akl then went on to explain, “In the context of these leaderless revolutions that stemmed from rightful social, economic, and political demands, the only organized and well-structured group has been the Muslim Brotherhood. For 83 years now, the aim of this widespread movement has been to instill the Quran and Sunna as the sole reference for ordering the life of the Muslim family and state.”
What evidence did Akl present for her extraordinary claim that the Syrian army had been targeted by jihadists? She provided a link to an article from The Independent in London, which merely cited Syrian state television to that effect. How persuasive, or surprising, from an official outlet that has been a wellspring of disinformation during the weeks of dissension in Syria, overseen by a regime that has portrayed the domestic unrest as a rebellion by armed Islamists.
In fact, all the signs, if one bothers to look, have suggested the precise contrary. The anti-regime demonstrations have not been led by Islamists; they have been peaceful, despite the brutality of the regime’s security apparatus and praetorian guard; and the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to join the demonstrations relatively late, at least organizationally, only issuing a statement on participation two weeks ago. But Akl’s flimsy assertion was good enough in the service of a parochial Lebanese agenda feeding off communal paranoia.
The Alawite regime has felt far less comfortable in overtly accentuating sectarian relations in Syria than the Lebanese have in Lebanon. The Assads have created safety nets to protect their coreligionists, but they have also downplayed the Alawites’ minority status, by allying themselves with a Sunni business class and by embracing an Arab nationalist identity transcending communal solidarities. The fiasco of Baathist rule has been a decisive blow against that strategy. However, in general, the two Assad regimes never allowed any fanciful notion of an “alliance of minorities,” especially with Christians, to check their determination to preserve themselves with a bodyguard of Arab nationalist credentials.
Moving beyond the Christians, however, how many Lebanese can honestly look back upon four decades of the Assads with any sense of warmth? Yes, the Syrians did impose an end to the cycle of Lebanese wars in 1990, but the onerous price that Lebanon had to pay was a decade and a half of a near-total Syrian domination. And even this should not blind us to the reality that during our 15-year conflict, Syrian officials usually worked heroically to keep the violence alive. On numerous occasions their army bombarded civilians of all persuasions and religions, while the Golan Heights front remained dead quiet, reminding us of where the priorities of Arab militaries lie.
It’s a bad idea for the Lebanese to turn the events in Syria into grist for their domestic political disputes. Syrian society may be a mosaic of communities, just like Lebanese society, but it is also quite different in many respects. To interpret everything occurring there through the narrow prism of confessional politics is a mistake. Hopefully, democrats will emerge triumphant in Syria. They alone are the ones we Lebanese should consider with any feelings of sympathy.