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Christians Caught in the Headlights of Syrian Crisis
By Gerald Butt

The diplomatic stalemate in Syria has been highlighted by three recent developments. First was last weekend's defiant speech by President Bashar al-Assad. Then there came the decision by armed Syrian opposition groups to dis­regard the nominal ceasefire brokered by Kofi Annan. Third was the formation of yet another group opposing the Syrian regime, thus frac­tur­ing the already split opposition still more.

This stalemate and the attendant confusion are nudging Syria into civil war. Syrian Christians, for their part, are left as helpless observers, un­certain whether to commit themselves to a besieged regime or to opposition groups, often indistinguishable from radical Islamists, which present differing and sometimes worrying visions of the future.

When the Syrian President addressed the country's parliament on state television last Sunday, it was clear that the experience of months of violence, involving the deaths of pro-regime forces as well as hundreds of civilians, had not influenced the perception of the Damascus leadership.

President Assad focused on a list of political reforms introduced over past months, such as the legalisation of new political parties -- even though such measures are regarded by his opponents as merely cosmetic. But the main thrust of his speech concentrated on his asser­tion, made from the start of the violence, more than a year ago, that Syria is the victim of a concerted outside conspiracy.

These forces, never identified, were accused of trying to "weaken Syria and violate its sovereignty, and perpetrate acts of killing, sabotage, ignorance, and backwardness, and serve the interests of foreign powers. . . The political process is moving forward, but terror­ism is growing, and hasn't subsided. The laws which have been passed since the beginning of the crisis haven't made an impact on terrorism and made it subside."

There is little doubt that in the months since the start of largely peaceful protests early last year the unrest has attracted armed elements from abroad. Arab Gulf states have called for weapons and ammunition to be sent to help the opposition. Western diplomats in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, are in no doubt that arms are being carried into Syria by Sunni fighters with experience in Iraq and Afghan­istan.

Given these attempts to strengthen the armed Syrian opposition, trying to implement the Annan peace plan was always going to be an uphill struggle. Even as the Western powers are attempting to bring about a cease­fire in Syria, some of its allies in the Arab world are seeking to bring down the Assad regime by force, thus diminishing the chances that a proper truce can take hold.

There is no shortage either of weaponry stockpiled in Syrian army camps, or of enthusi­astic opposition groups eager to take on the powerful military, despite the latter's infinite superiority. The latest armed group to an­nounce its formation is the Turkey-based Syrian Rebels Front, which says that it has no fewer than 12,000 fighters under its command. The leaders of the new faction said that they were acting in response to the Arab and inter­national failure to end the regime's crime.

The inability of Syrian opposition groups to unite on a common strategy will allow the Assad government to continue its policy of cracking down on dissent, while paying lip-service to the Annan peace plan and moves towards political reform. Clear divisions still separate groups inside and outside the country, as do political differences among the various factions on issues of representation.

The staunchly Alawite Damascus regime takes comfort from this disarray; for it means that there is no clear political programme for a post-Assad era. So, while large numbers of Syrians are prepared to take to the streets and risk their lives in the name of "change", millions more are reluctant to sign up to a process that offers the prospect, at best, of a political vacuum.

In particular, supporters of the current regime and the Alawite community as a whole (with Christians and other minorities) want to know whether their rights to live freely in Syria would be guaranteed after regime change; for unless and until a clear vision of a future Syria can be presented to them, they are likely to opt for the status quo -- thus allowing President Assad to keep on playing for time.

The Syrian government still draws comfort from the backing it receives from China and Russia. Any hopes that Russia's support might be tempered by pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church, fearful over the fate of Syrian Christians, have faded. Church leaders have again said that the prospect of an Islamic fundamentalist takeover of Syria represents a greater danger to Christians there than the continuation of the current administration.

So Syrian Christians have little choice but to sit anxiously on the fence while the brutal civil and sectarian conflict is played out before their eyes. Until they see a clear sign of the advantage of moving one way or the other, they are likely to be too fearful to budge.

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