Ever since the wave of popular movements started sweeping the Middle East, Western media have rarely found much good to say about the authoritarian regimes under attack. Few observers deny that the last generation or so of Arab rulers were indeed greedy despots, and it seems desirable for Western powers to intervene as forcefully as they can on behalf of what are commonly billed as pro-democracy movements. The arguments against intervention are obvious enough, most obviously that it is much easier to begin a military intervention than to end it, while we rarely have much idea about the political character of the supposed democrats we are trying to aid. But in one case above all, namely Syria, debates over intervention have missed one overwhelming argument, which is the likely religious catastrophe that would follow the overthrow of the admittedly dictatorial government. Any Western intervention in Syria would likely supply the death warrant for the ancient Christianity of the Middle East. For anyone concerned about Christians worldwide -- even if you believe firmly in democracy and human rights -- it's hard to avoid this prayer: Lord, bring democracy to Syria, but not in my lifetime.
Why is Syria so critical to the religious geography of the region? From ancient times, the territory had a complex mixture of religious traditions, and one that was far too complex to reduce to a simple Christian-Muslim divide. Under the long centuries of Ottoman power, Syria retained its sizable Christian minority, but other minority populations also flourished, groups that originated within Islam, but which orthodox believers condemned as heretics and apostates. Particularly important were the Alawites, a group that certainly includes Christian and even Gnostic strands in its esoteric world view. In fact, they were long known locally as Nusayris, "Little Christians" The Druze are no less secretive in their beliefs, and are equally loathed by strict Islamists. Although estimates are shaky, a reasonable estimate is that Alawites make up around ten percent of Syria's population of twenty million, with the Druze at another three percent.
Christian numbers are still harder to determine. Over the past century century, Syria regularly served as the last refuge for Christian communities who had been largely destroyed elsewhere in the Middle East -- for Christians fleeing massacre in Turkey after 1915, or in Iraq after 2003. A standard figure for the number of Syrian Christians is ten percent, or around two million believers, but that omits an uncertain number of thinly disguised crypto-believers, not to mention the recent arrivals from the wreck of Saddam's Iraq. A fifteen percent Christian minority is quite probable.
It's one thing to catalogue the religious oddities of a particular country, but we also have to know that that diversity is the absolute foundation of Syrian politics. Basically, a large majority of Syria -- officially, some 74 percent -- is Sunni Muslim, and the nation's politics for almost fifty years has been devoted to ensuring that this majority does not gain power. Ever since 1963, Syria has been ruled by variations of the Ba'ath Party, an Arab ultra-nationalist movement originally co-founded by the Syrian Christian intellectual, Michel Aflaq. Because of its devotion to absolute secularism, the Ba'ath cause appeals strongly to religious minorities who fear the overwhelming demographic power of Sunni Islam. Christians, Alawites and others all have a potent vested interest in drawing all Arab peoples, regardless of faith, into a shared passion for secular modernity and pan-Arab patriotism, in sharp contrast to Islamism.
Since the 1960s, Ba'ath rule in Syria has meant the dictatorship of a highly structured one-party system closely allied to the armed forces and the intelligence apparatus. But it has also meant the dominance of the nation's religious minorities, who are so over-represented in the military-intelligence complex. This means above all the Alawites, in alliance with Christian elites. Hafez al-Assad (President from 1971 through 2000) was of course an Alawite, and by the 1990s, five of his seven closest advisers were Christian. The deadliest enemies of the al-Assad clan were the Sunni Islamists, organized in groups affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood. But any effective Sunni opposition ended violently in 1982, when government forces suppressed a revolt in the city of Hama, killing possibly twenty-five thousand.
The evils of the Syrian regime are obvious enough: this is a classic police state with a penchant for assassination whenever it sees fit, and no compunction about supporting terrorist attacks at home or abroad. But just imagine that the Ba'ath regime fell. Whatever happened in the first few months of revolution, by far the most likely successor regime in the long term would be Islamist, led by activists anxious to avenge Hama. Alawites, Druze and Christians could all expect persecution at best, massacre at worst, a fate that could potentially befall five million residents. And this time, there would be no welcoming Middle Eastern refuge (Egypt has millions of its own Coptic Christians, but is not going to welcome a mass immigration of foreign Christian refugees). The only solution for these Syrian minorities would be exile from the region -- to France or the US, Australia or Canada.
The West might like to see the Ba'ath regime crushed as thoroughly as its counterpart in Iraq, but as on that earlier occasion, the religious consequences of intervention could be horrible. Before planning to intervene in Syria, Western nations had better start printing several million immigration visas to hand out to refugees seeking political asylum, and demanding protection from religious persecution.
Philip Jenkins teaches at Penn State University.