Wednesday, April 15, 2015

RLPB 305. SYRIA: Situation Critical

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 305 | Wed 15 Apr 2015

-- an extended RLPB
By Elizabeth Kendal

Syria might exist in theory, but not in reality. After four years of war, Syria is little more than a patchwork of sub-state entities protected by militias. President Assad and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) are fighting to protect the coastal province of Latakia and the north-south corridor between Damascus and Aleppo. Dominated by Alawites, this ethnic-religiously mixed entity includes Druze, Shi'ites, Armenian and Assyrian Christians and the secular Sunni business elite.
click on map to enlarge

To the above end, Idlib's fall to Jaysh al Fateh (the al-Nusra-led 'Army of Conquest') [see RLPB 303 (1 April)] could be a game-changer. Bordering Turkey, Idlib extends south like a wedge between the coastal Alawite stronghold of Latakia and the commercial capital of Aleppo. Idlib extends into the north-south corridor with a large section of the M5 Damascus-Aleppo Highway passing through it. Latakia and Aleppo are both imperilled. Aleppo now has al-Qaeda to the west, Turkey to the north and Islamic State (IS) to the east. Furthermore, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are planning a military alliance (comprised of Turkish ground troops and Saudi air-cover) to assist the jihadists (whom they refer to as 'Syrian opposition'). They may even install an alternative government in Idlib, Libya-style. For the Sunni powers, the US-Iran nuclear deal has brought a new level of urgency to the conflict. They believe that if regime change (the political-religious realignment of Damascus) is going to happen it must happen now as Iran is only going to grow stronger. Accordingly the war is about to move to a new level at a time when borders have closed and getting out of Syria has become virtually impossible.


On 31 March, just days after entering Idlib City, foreign fighters from al-Nusra (al-Qaeda) publicly executed two Christian citizens -- Elias Naguib (83) and his son Nael Elias (44) -- after learning they owned a shop that sold liquor (probably a licensed grocery store). Having refused to abandon the Christian remnant ahead of the Jaysh al Fateh offensive, Father Ibrahim Farah (57) of the Antiochian Orthodox Church of Idlib City, has now been abducted along with several from his church's congregation. According to Middle East Concern, they are to be tried in an Islamic court, although no details of charges or demands have yet emerged. Christians have been ordered to submit and pay the 'jizya' (protection money) or leave Idlib. Most have fled to the port city of Latakia, many bearing shrapnel wounds and deep trauma. One father got his 9-year-old daughter out of Idlib via sewerage channels; his parents remain in the city. The Syrian government will fight vigorously to regain control over Idlib. The mostly frail Christian remnant remaining in the city will have to survive not only al-Qaeda but massive aerial bombardment.

Islamic State (IS) has launched an offensive in Aleppo Province, where it is fighting mostly other Islamic groups for total control of the region (according to Stratfor 10 April).
rebel 'hell canons'  (Reuters)
Amidst this, al-Nusra has been shelling government-held areas of Aleppo City. From 9 pm on 10 April (Good Friday), well into the next day, rockets rained down on the mostly Armenian and Assyrian Sulaimaniyah district, killing more than 20 Christians, including children. Al-Nusra also launched 'barrel bombs' / improvised shells into the market in central Maadi district, killing 20 more civilians (including Christians). They also detonated a huge tunnel bomb near the air force intelligence headquarters before attempting (unsuccessfully) to storm the base. Intensive fighting continues.

Contiguous with Iraq's Nineveh Province, Haseka is part of the historic Assyrian homeland. Largely abandoned by the government, the fight for Haseka is now predominantly between IS and the Kurds. On 23 February IS fighters drove Christians from a chain of 35 Assyrian villages on the Khabour River, taking up to 300 Assyrians captive [see RLPB 298 (24 Feb 2015)]. IS is now demanding a ransom sum of $100,000 for each captive (about $30 million) knowing full well this sum of money is simply unattainable. Furthermore, reports have emerged that IS is transporting large groups of Christian captives to strategic battlefield areas and using them as human shields in their fight against Kurdish and Christian militias. A leader with the Assyrian Church of the East, Younan Talia, laments: 'The international outcry from international leaders has been silent.'


On 1 April armed groups including al-Nusra (al-Qaeda) seized control of the Nasib border crossing into Jordan, forcing the Syrian Arab Army to retreat and opening the way (temporarily) for free movement of trained jihadists into Daraa and severing a major Syrian government supply line. By 6 April an alliance of Al-Nusra and IS fighters had seized control of Yarmouk, a Palestinian ghetto/'camp' just 6km south of Damascus.  In the south, al-Qaeda is based in the Qalamoun Mountains between Lebanon and Syria where they co-operate with IS. Analysts suspect al-Nusra and IS fighters will seek to cut the M5 Highway between Damascus and Homs (in the centre), which would leave Damascus, Latakia and Aleppo isolated and encircled. Should that happen, Iran may well take control of the Syrian conflict to ensure that Damascus remains aligned with the 'Axis of Resistance'. 


In September 2014 the US voted to resume sending arms to 'moderate Syrian rebels', including the anti-tank missiles that proved so critical in the battle for Idlib. If jihadists do manage to enter Damascus, Latakia or Aleppo, then those who armed, trained, funded and empowered them must share the guilt of the resulting genocide. Whilst Muslim Turks, Arabs and Persians do not care what happens to Christians, the West -- and most certainly the Church -- should. In the words of Father Elias Hanout (38), the parish priest in Izraa (in the south, midway between Daraa and Damascus), 'If the West wants Syria to remain a country for Christian people, then help us to stay here; stop arming terrorists.'

Father Elias Hanout with his family (


* the Holy Spirit of God will move powerfully amongst his precious, faithful people to provide comfort, assurance, peace and grace amidst hardship, terror, uncertainty and betrayal. 'You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.' (Isaiah 26:3,4 ESV)

* the Lord our shepherd will lead his threatened and imperilled people through these dark days; may the Lord give all Christian leaders great spiritual discernment, wisdom, courage and conviction to lead his people according to his good will and purpose. 'Your way was through the sea, your path through the great water; yet you footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.' (Psalm 77:19,20 ESV).

* our Sovereign and merciful God will intervene in Mesopotamia, so that Western powers will stop backing regional powers and fuelling the conflict; may they instead start supporting the region's vulnerable minorities and establishing safe havens for the prevention of genocide.

'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.' (Matthew 25:40 NIV)


In September 2014 the US government resumed sending weapons to the 'moderate Syrian opposition', including anti-tank missiles critical in al-Qaeda's conquest of Idlib. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are planning a military alliance to aid the 'moderate Syrian opposition'. They believe the US-Iran nuclear deal will empower Iran and regime-change in Damascus must happen now before the window of opportunity closes. Over Easter al-Qaeda forces shelled Christian districts of Aleppo, killing dozens and wounding many more. Meanwhile, IS has launched offensives in both Aleppo Province (north) and Damascus (south). A coalition of al-Qaeda and IS fighters now controls Yarmouk, a southern suburb of Damascus just 6km from its CBD. The war is escalating markedly at a time when escaping from Syria is virtually impossible. Please pray for Syria's remnant Christians.


Elizabeth Kendal is the author of
Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today 
(Deror Books, Dec 2012).