The civil war in Syria, which has gone on for more than four years, could come to an end much more quickly if the United States would pressure its allies to stop aiding extremist groups, says a bishop from one of the most besieged cities of the country.
Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of the Melkite Greek Catholic Archdiocese of Aleppo, is touring Boston, New York and Washington, DC, appealing for American’s help in stopping the war—and in helping beleaguered Christians remain in their ancestral homeland. His US trip is sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need.
He met with Aleteia Monday at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City and discussed the background that gave rise to the conflict, the effect it’s had on the Christian population in Syria and Christian leaders views of President Bashar al-Assad.
How did the present crisis begin, in your estimation? To what do you trace it?
I’m afraid it has to be attributed to the Arab Spring. They have taken advantage of a certain number of Syrian citizens who did not agree very much with what was happening in Syria, in the government, and an opposition that was looking to have more democracy in the country, more freedom. But soon this movement became a revolution, if you like, and more than a revolution: a violent opposition and war between the opposition and the government forces. I’m not sure it began completely from inside the country. It has been moved from outside, with people from inside.
Who would you be talking about?
Certain countries and certain powers in the region and perhaps in the West. Syria is strategically in a very important position in the Middle East—in the heart of the Middle East. Syria is on the way of the commercial transit and all kinds of transit. Syria has oil and gas. …
How have you and members of your flock been affected by the crisis?
In Aleppo our people went out of all these problems. The majority of our people were not involved in politics. They had no interest in politics. They were used to taking care of the economic aspects of life, and they were taking care of their business, their industry. That’s why they have been the victims of this war, and they have been targeted by the opposition and sometimes not really understood either by the government or the opposition. But we must say that the government doesn’t harm them this last two or three years. The government hasn’t been bad to the Christians, nor to the other minorities.
What are your views of Bashar al-Assad?
It’s a very hard question. I say what I feel, what I think. Being honest to God, he is not bad. In the war, he has been violent, but we felt since he came that some improvement was done in the country and many things have been better. He tried to make reforms, and he was able quickly to amend the Constitution, and the new Constitution we’ve had since two or three years ago now. He took off the exclusivity of the Ba’ath Party. He limited the mandate of the presidency. He opened the election of the presidency, changing it from a plebiscite to an election between several candidates, etc. A good number of reforms have been initiated. Not just myself but the majority of Christian leaders in all denominations have a good opinion of the president. They do not consider that he is a bad person. He has made mistakes? Yes, probably. The people around him, some of them were bad—yes, probably. But he himself tried to do as well as he could. We don’t know what we could find underneath but all is not bad.
When a person like President Assad goes and marries a woman who is British, who has an English and French education, who has the values of democracy in the UK, it means he likes this kind of life and he likes this openness in these countries. He wouldn’t marry this kind of girl if he didn’t like these kinds of qualities. That’s why it’s a sign of what it could be in reality, his inside feelings. We rarely meet authorities in Syria respecting people, respecting clergy and respecting senior citizens as he does.
On the other hand, I cannot say. I am not a politician and I don’t know what is inside of him. But I tell you what my colleagues and religious leaders think of him—Christian leaders. … Some of the Muslim leaders are with him, some are against. The minorities generally agree with him…
Also, his life: he has his wife teaching his children, and he takes care of the family. You feel you have a normal family. He is not the person who would like to go and spend his time in nightclubs and things like that.
What will it take for peace to be restored and a society established where everyone’s rights will be protected?
I think it will be the decision for your country and European countries to stop it. They can call their allies in the region to stop financing, stop supporting, stop letting fighters and mercenaries enter Syria, and I think that things will get quickly resolved in one way or another.
Who would those allies be who are funding the jihadists?
Try to guess.
You’re talking about the funding of terrorist groups like ISIS?
Yes, ISIS. Those who fund ISIS and the other opposition groups because there are parts of the opposition who are moderate but they are not numerous. The majority of the opposition is fundamentalist: ISIS, Nusra, etc. And there are countries who are interested in seeing Syria collapse. … And these Arabic countries are doing what they are doing in helping the opposition—and not just the opposition, the jihadi group—to help them get in and do what they are doing.
Would you say Saudi Arabia is the main funder of these groups?
Not necessarily. You have Turkey, you have others.
Turkey as a funder?
No, the major part of the fighters cross through Turkey. So perhaps if Turkey could take care not to let them pass it would make things easier.
And other countries are funding, some countries are sending arms. All the fighters are well-fed. Many families in poor countries are happy to send their sons for jihad, the war for God….
What’s the main attraction for young men from the US or Great Britain or France to go to Syria to take up arms with ISIS?
From the US there are not many. There are some who are new arrivals, newcomers in the US, so their mentality, their way to think, has been done before they arrive, perhaps, or it has been entertained by some sheikh who are there. But in Europe there are many social problems and many reasons to let a young man live in desperation, and you see in many European countries there are many children who take their life either directly by suicide or by getting into drugs or terrorism. There is an emptiness, something lacking, they want to find something that gives meaning to their lives, so that’s why they respond to the fundamentalists. Many of them have understood the Muslim religion in a false way, and they thought it was a duty for a Muslim to go to jihad, which is not right because often they don’t even know how to read Arabic and the Quran. They have been influenced and conditioned by fundamentalists…and money. There is a very bad economical situation; they have no work, they have no income, and they find they will be well-fed and in a good situation. And, they say, it is an adventure, and perhaps they told them things about the success of this campaign that it will not take long, it will be finished in a few months and you will become a prince and become very rich, and who knows?
What’s the latest in the situation in Aleppo?
I’ve seen terrible things in Aleppo these past 15 days. After Easter we were hit several times with a lot of rockets and bombs—the archbishopric, the church, three or four churches have been destroyed, 15 people killed in their homes and buildings destroyed. Yesterday, my vicar general called me and told me they had a big conflagration near the old city near where we are, my archbishopric. And our church was hit again and another church destroyed and the archbishopric has been severely harmed, and all … is in very bad shape.
Aleppo had thousands of industries and mills—they had 600 factories and mills and industry has been destroyed. Aleppo used to employ 1,200,000 workers; they are without work now because industry has been destroyed, schools, hospitals. It’s a terrible thing. That makes us very sad because five years ago Aleppo was a wonderful city—very lively and rich and one of the most important cities in the Middle East, economically. We had no oil in Aleppo but we had people who worked hard and business and industry and tourism. The University of Aleppo used to have 160,000 students—all studying for free. And studying in Syria was very easy: from the beginning of one’s education to the university it was free. Aleppo had a whole city for students, which held 15,000 students free of charge. And they came from places that had nothing, where poverty was great. It allowed young people who had no hope in life to get a university degree. It allowed a lot of poor people to become wealthy and take a position in the government and other prominent positions in society.
So when you see the situation now you are likely to cry.
With thanks to Aleteia.