ROME – As spring blooms across most of the Northern Hemisphere, Syria’s perpetual winter that’s beginning its eighth year continues, the result of a bloody civil war that reignites every time it seems to be reaching an ending point.
Frustration with the deadly conflict is widely felt, including a Syrian prelate this week who told Crux that the recent U.S., UK and French airstrikes on the country in response to an alleged April 7 chemical weapons attack were justified by “lies” that reflect “Satan’s language.”
Those airstrikes, according to Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart, the Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, were “based on lies and disinformation,” pushed forth by “people who have no morals, and they’re working with the bad one, I mean the devil. Their lies are Satan’s language and way of dealing with things.”
“I am afraid that when you lie, lie, lie, and then speak about democracy, liberty, freedom, and the dignity of human beings, it doesn’t matter, you don’t have credibility,” Jeanbart said, adding that wanting to help Syria would have meant actually finding out what happened.
Observers on the ground agree that the recent bombing was not well received by locals.
Alexander Gouodarzy, Head of Mission for SOS Chrétiens d’Orient in Syria, who’s been living in Syria for the last three years, said Syrians today feel that “Western countries want to destroy them because they really see that the Syrian army is protecting them, it’s defending them,” he said.
Gouodarzy acknowledges that since he’s not from the United Nations or an expert on chemical weapons, he cannot say if Assad used sarin gas against his own people in in the suburbs of Damascus, but “what I do know is that we didn’t allow for the time for experts to confirm it. We already bombed Syria.”
During a phone conversation with Crux on Monday afternoon, the humanitarian worker kept interchanging the plural, speaking as “we” both when he spoke about the Western coalition that bombed Syria during the night on Friday, and also about how people on the ground feel.
Furthering his doubts, he said, regarding the plausibility of al-Assad bombing his own people are two factors. One, the conviction that the Syrian army was close to defeating the Islamic fundamentalists in both cities. Secondly, he argued, this would not be the first time that unreliable evidence has been used to justify attacking a Middle Eastern country.
Gouodarzy noted that in 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Collin Powell gave a speech in the UN’s Security Council making a case for the Iraqi war, using evidence of a weapons program that didn’t exist. According to the U.S. State Department, Christians in Iraq have since then become victims of genocide, going from a community that was over 1.5 million people in 2001 to, according to high-end estimates, close to 200,000 today.
“Why would our army, our president, use gas to attack these terrorists, when 95 percent of Ghouta has been liberated?” he insisted, referring to a suburb in eastern Damascus where the chemical weapons attack is alleged to have taken place.
Jeanbart told Crux over the phone on Monday that even though he couldn’t say “it’d be impossible” that a chemical weapons attack might have happened, “it’s incredible to think that the last action of the Syrian army in Ghouta would be killing people in this way.”
Jeanbart is not naive when it comes to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: “He could have done it two months ago, even a month ago, but now that the fighting was finishing, that the Syrian army was winning … Even if it was possible, if the army had the means to do it, they wouldn’t have done it.”
He’s also willing to acknowledge that Syria as a nation “has been naughty and has done things that are really bad. The situation is really hard, but lying constantly about it doesn’t make it better.”
He insists that Western nations have “misinformation” on what’s going on in Syria, with news and even movies based “in lies.” Syrians, the archbishop said, know that the alleged attack is a “headline, a pretext” for the United States, the UK and France to strike Syria.
“Why? I don’t understand. We have seen several times fake news, lies going on in the media, with efforts to make Syria seem like a place where people have no heart and no morals, no respect to human beings,” he said.
“This is not right,” Jeanbart said, adding that historically, Syria has been a place where Muslims, Christians and others have lived together peacefully for centuries.
Asked about what the Catholics who live in the countries that bombed Syria last week can do, the archbishop said that they can “help by praying, and by trying to show the truth and what is really happening, how much people are suffering and how much misery this war has caused.”
Syria, Jeanbart said, was once a beautiful country, one that had promises of a future and that could have been a witness of a pluralistic and even democratic country, “even if in a dictatorial way.”
“You can help us by helping your people and the public opinion in your country to understand that it’s not as simple as they want to make it seem,” he said. “You can help us end the war by understanding that the situation is very complex, and it needs to be studied and analyzed to have precise information.”
Gouodarzy agrees: “It’s important to listen to those of us who are here. Don’t speak about what Christians in the Middle East need without actually speaking with Christians in the Middle East.”
Many bishops and priests from the region want to speak up about what they’re going through but, he said, they’re oftentimes accused of “being paid by the dictator,” an assertion which he described as “ridiculous.”
Speaking specifically about the situation of Christians, he said that he’s heard many say they don’t like al-Assad as president and that, before the war, they would have “loved to have a better one.”
Yet, if “we have to choose between being killed by those men from ISIS or have a strong man who we call a dictator leading us, there’s no choice.”
Many Christians, he argued, would rather have an Alawite like al-Assad, who’s in favor of a strong Syrian nationalism than an Islamic fundamentalist as leader.
The alternative to al-Assad, he deadpans, is death.