Skip to comments.Inside Syria: Aleppo’s Christians arm against Islamists
Posted on 07/31/2012 9:34:08 AM PDT by bayouranger
ALEPPO, Syria and BEIRUT, Lebanon As evidence mounts that foreign Islamists are fighting alongside Syrias increasingly radicalized rebels, Christians in Aleppo and elsewhere are taking up arms, often supplied by the regime.
We saw what happened to the Christians in Iraq, Abu George, a Christian resident of Aleppos Aziza district told GlobalPost. What is going on in Aleppo is not a popular revolution for democracy and freedom. The fighters of the so-called Free Syrian Army are radical Sunnis who want to establish an Islamic state.
While the 30-year-old shopkeeper said he had not received any direct threats from Syrias Sunni Muslim rebels, he fears a repeat of Iraqs sectarian bloodletting.
Since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the UN Human Rights Council estimates around half of Iraqs 1.4 million Christians have fled the country, driven out by nearly a decade of church bombings, kidnappings and sectarian murder.
More from GlobalPost: Inside Syria: Complete Coverage
The plight of Christians in Iraq has long worried Syrias estimated two million Christians, around 10 percent of the population. The nightmare of similar persecution has led them to support the secular regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which presents itself as a defender of minorities.
With Syria now gripped by civil war and the Assad regime fighting for its survival, however, Christians like Abu George fear retribution, already occuring in some parts of the country, from the Sunni-led rebels they refused to back.
In Qseir, a town of some 60,000 people southwest of Homs, which has been under siege by regime forces for at least seven months, mosques recently rang out with the call for all Christians, who numbered around 10,000, to leave.
The breakdown of inter-communal relations in Qseir stems from both rising fundamentalism among Sunni fighters and the widespread belief that Christians had been collaborating with the Assad regime.
Just 10 miles from the border with Lebanon, Qseir Sunni fighters are increasingly radicalized. Some openly identify themselves as mujahadeen fighting for an Islamic Caliphate rather than simply the overthrow of the Assad dictatorship.
We fight to raise the word of God, said Abu Salem, a 29-year-old Syrian from Qseir, recuperating recently in the no-mans-land border between Lebanons northern Bekaa Valley and Syria.
As shells exploded less than a mile away, the former cement mixer showed photos on his mobile phone of Osama Bin Laden and the latest videos from Al Nusra Front, the little known jihadi group that has claimed responsibility for many of the biggest bombings to hit Damascus since January.
More from GlobalPost: Who bombed Damascus?
After the regime is toppled this will be the first stone in building the Islamic Caliphate and Syria must adopt Islamic law, he said.
The skinny fighter said his group, the Mujahedeen Brigade, was led by a Syrian who fought against US troops in Iraqs Fallujah. Abu Salem said he received money from Syrian expatriates in the Gulf and that it came with the greeting that is commonly used by ultra-conservative Salafists.
While Abu Salems claims were impossible to verify, there is little doubt that Qseirs Sunni fighters have grown increasingly radicalized over the past six months.
More from GlobalPost: Syria: The new land of jihad?
Abu Ali, a military intelligence officer who defected to the rebels and was first profiled by GlobalPost last November, and then again in a video published in March, now leads Qseirs Wadi Brigade, one of the towns largest and strongest rebel groups.
Interviewed regularly over Skype over the last six months, Abu Ali has expressed increasingly fundamentalist and intolerant views. He once called for foreign military assistance. But now he says that if international forces join the fight against Assad, they would be the ones we target, even before the regime.
Injured by shrapnel at least twice since joining the fight in Qseir last December, Abu Ali has grown a thick beard. Increasingly conservative, he criticized a Muslim reporter for smoking during a Skype call, citing the current period as a time of holy war.
Abu Ali said he supported the call for Christians to leave Qseir, accusing them of collaborating with the regime.
In interviews with more than a dozen Qseir residents, a Wall Street Journal reporter recently discovered a vicious cycle of murder and kidnap between Sunni and Christian families, triggered by claims that Christians were acting as regime spies. Almost all Qseirs Christians have now fled, with many taking shelter in makeshift tents in the northern Bekaa valley.
I used to work as a legal consultant, but now I live like a beggar here in Lebanon, said a woman who gave her name as Marta and who said her husband had been kidnapped. She said her home in Qseir had been taken over by rebels and destroyed.
Abu George, from Aleppo, said officials from the ruling Baath Party had offered prominent Christians in Aziza and other Christian-majority areas of Aleppo AKs and pistols late last year. The weapons, they were told, were to protect themselves against the armed gangs the regime claimed to be fighting.
For the first year of Syrias uprising, Aleppo remained largely untouched by the mass protests seen in opposition strongholds like Homs and Hama.
More from GlobalPost: Aleppo, Syrias sleeping giant, stirs
Today, however, Abu George sees the regimes control over Aleppo as slipping, directly threatening his community.
The armed fighters took over the Midan police station, very close to the Christian quarters. There are no police there now, so how can we live? We see on TV armed young men with beards shouting, God is great! and calling for jihad. We have the right to defend ourselves.
The exact number of Christians in Aleppo, a city of three million people, is not known but estimates vary between 100,000 and 250,000.
Like Abu George, Abu Omar al-Halaby was a shopkeeper who has taken up arms. But Abu Omar is a Sunni, a fighter with the Brigade of Unification, one of the largest rebel groups holed up in Aleppos Salah Adeen quarter.
Speaking to GlobalPost, Abu Omar said his unit had deliberately not deployed in Christian areas in order not to inflame communal tensions. We are very concerned for civilians and have been working to get people out and to safety, he said.
Abu Omar said he wanted the right to go to a mosque, have a long beard and practice my Islamic duties freely and said much of his motivation to fight stemmed from the religious persecution he saw his father suffer under Hafez al-Assad, Syrias former dictator.
My father was arrested for 15 years just because someone who hated him wrote a report to the security services, accusing him of being a member of the (banned) Muslim Brotherhood, he said.
He was not, but he was a religious man who spent time at the mosque. A piece of paper took him away from us. Three months after he was released from prison, he died.
I’m sure groups like Kataeb in Lebanon would be more than willing to help them out. The Lebanese would probably LOVE to pay back the Syrians for the decades of interfering they’ve done in their politics.
Assad is an Alawi.
John McCain is fully aware of these things and the only reason he would support the so-called rebels and their AlQaida allies is that he hates Christians.
Notice that they said “we saw what happened to Christians in Iraq.” and that was on our watch, when theoretically we should have been protecting them from the Islamists that Saddam had held in check through his dictatorship. Instead, we gave the islamists the green light, and now there are very few Christians left in Iraq.
He's absolutely right. The persecution of Christians, and our inability to stop it was the worst aspect of our invasion in Iraq. Saddam was actually one of the most laissez-faire of all the Arab leaders toward the Christian community. I despise the ruling filth in that country for giving tacit support to the murder of those who are not part of the evil cult that bows toward Mecca and barks at a nonexistent moon-god.
And people today have been duped into thinking the Crusades were some kind of Western imperialist or colonial venture.
Will the West turn a blind eye to the Christians of Syria, as they did in Kosovo?
That’s a topic that will have to be revisited in order to correct our wrong, regardless of whomever is guilty.
Notice that they said "we saw what happened to Christians in Iraq."Well, duh, of *couse* they said that -- they are partisan media shills.
How does an honest statement make them “partisan media shills”? The situation of Christians in Iraq is much worse now that it was before the US intervention, and in fact almost any Christian who had the means to flee has done so.
Iraqi Christians are subjected to regular harrassment, beatings, assassinations and church-bombings by the Muslims. I think they have a reason to be upset.