At the end of January President Trump introduced his Executive Order that was widely dubbed a “Muslim ban” although it did not mention Islam, Muslims or indeed any religion. Instead, it suspended immigration from a list of seven countries of concern including Iraq and Syria and sought to re-orientate US refugee policy to focus on persecuted religious minorities – without again mentioning any particular religion.
When asked on a Christian TV network if he would tackle the under representation of Christians fleeing countries where they were persecuted, Trump replied:
“Yes, they have been horribly treated. Do you know if you were a Christian in Syria it was impossible, at least very, very tough to get into the United States. If you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian it was almost impossible.”
Yet, after his original Executive Order was blocked by the courts and greeted by a media storm, his new Order on 6 March removed all references to prioritising victims of religious persecution. And there remained a block on all immigration from Syria.
In the light of this, the US air strike on the Assad regime has two negative effects. First it empowers the very jihadists who have been targetting Christians. Apart from the Kurds in the North these are the only serious contenders to replace the Syrian regime.
Second, by empowering the jihadists who are currently attacking areas such as Damascus where large numbers of both Syrian and Iraqi Christian refugees have been taking shelter over the past few years, it leaves Syrian Christians with nowhere to flee. Damascus was the one of the few safe places inside Syria – now it is itself under attack by jihadists. Lebanon a country of four million struggling with more than a million Syrian refugees long ago told the UN it could not register any more refugees. Unlike Syrian Muslims, Christians cannot go to nearby Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia. Even in Jordan the jihadists dominate UN refugee camps. Now, they remain blocked from the USA. Under the terms of the new Executive Order there is no realistic hope that this is merely a short term measure.
President Trump is of course not the first US president to betray Syrian Christians. During the Obama administration the US government was known to be backing rebel groups such as Ahrar al Sham which worked closely with Al-Qaeda affiliate the Al-Nusra front. The two groups were jointly responsible for carrying out the attack on the predominantly Christian town of Maaloula, approximately 35 miles north east of Damascus in September 2013. When they captured the town, which had no strategic importance, Christians were given the choice of being beheaded or converting to Islam. Yet even in 2016 the US administration was still resisting calls to add Ahrar al Sham to the list of terrorist organisations.
The air strike on Syria by the Trump administration looks like a quick foreign policy decision made without thinking through the consequences for those on the ground. President Obama got it at least equally wrong. He first threatened a military strike against the Assad regime for using chemical weapons and then backed down, a move which ultimately emboldened all sides in the conflict, both the Assad regime and the jihadists to think they could do what they liked. It was not without some significance that 4 September 2013, the day the US congress was due to authorise Obama’s air strikes on the Assad regime, was the very day the jihadists attacked Maaloula. In fact, at the time Reuters suggested that it was the specific threat of US air strikes that had emboldened the jihadists to do so.
The new US government needs to develop a coherent strategy to help Christians and other religious minorities facing persecution in Syria. At the moment the incoherence of its policy is betraying Syrian Christians, the very people whom, only two months ago, President Trump was claiming to support.