U.S. officials question Obama’s decision to arm Syrian rebels

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Some members of the U.S. Congress are calling into question President Barack Obama’s decision to arm the Syrian rebels in light of violence against religious minorities, both at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and members of the opposition.

“Money talks. The United States should be using assistance to ensure recipient countries and entities have a plan that is implemented to protect vulnerable religious minorities,” Republican Representative Christopher Smith said.

A State Department official, the leader of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and directors of three non-governmental organizations testified about violence against Syria’s religious minorities at a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing Tuesday, most agreeing that U.S. aid to the opposition should at least be conditioned on respect for the rights of minorities.

“The war’s seeds of genocide have the greatest potential to cleanse the country of its religious minorities,” said John Eibner, the CEO of Christian Solidarity International, during his testimony.

The State Department’s Thomas Melia, however, defended the decision to arm the rebels. “These extremist groups do not support the aspirations nor do they reflect the mindset of the vast majority of the Syrian people, or even the vast majority of the active Syrian opposition. The atrocities committed by these extremist elements should not be conflated with the efforts by the moderate opposition.”

Members of Congress, as well as the witnesses, were sharply divided as to how the U.S. should respond to this situation and to the Syrian conflict as a whole.

The most heated exchange was between a Republican congressman arguing that the Obama administration has not done nearly enough to protect Syrians, and a Democratic congressman arguing that the U.S. cannot get involved in another war.

Republican Representative Randy Weber advocated for an even stronger response to the Syrian conflict, saying the U.S. has a responsibility to live up to its post-World War II promise to never let another atrocity like the Holocaust happen again.

“We made a promise to the world - to never forget...But, we have failed over and over again,” Weber said. “Thousands are crying out for us...to act...and it is our moral obligation as the world’s leading superpower to do so.”

However, Democratic Representative Gerry Connolly argued passionately against a larger U.S. role in the conflict.

“Are you willing to go to war again? Are you willing to put troops on the ground?” Connolly demanded of Weber. “Unless you are, you’re in no position to lecture the administration. This country is sick of war, and doesn’t want to be subject to another one.”

Weber, along with several of the witnesses, said U.S. aid to the Syrian opposition should be conditioned on its human rights record, including its treatment of religious minorities.

Since the conflict erupted in March 2011, the vast community of Syrian minorities has been caught between the Sunni-dominated opposition and President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated forces. These religious minority groups include Christians, Druze, Yazidis, Jews, and several branches of Shiite Islam, including Assad’s Alawite sect.

These minorities face a particular challenge in the conflict, because they have been the victims of attacks from both sides. The extremist elements of the opposition have targeted Syrians who are not Sunni Muslims, both out of religious intolerance and as a response to minorities’ real or perceived loyalty to Assad.

Sunni Muslim extremists have carried out actions such as slaughtering a 15-year-old boy for what they called blasphemy, burning down Shiite mosques and Christian churches, and massacring an entire village of Christians in al-Duvair.

Assad’s forces have also doled out violent retribution to religious minorities who have sided with the opposition.

“[The Assad regime] increased its own targeting of Christian and Alawi anti-regime activists in order to eliminate minority voices that might counter its narrative of ‘Sunni-sponsored violence’,” Representative Christopher Smith said.

The vast majority of atrocities, somewhere between 80 and 90 percent, have been carried out by the Assad regime, according to Melia, the State Department official. Melia said the United States needs to continue its support of the Syrian opposition using a careful vetting system.

Zuhdi Jasser, a witness from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom who testified, agreed the U.S. needs to invest in the opposition, saying that otherwise the outcome will be determined by Saudi Arabia or Qatar.

The other witnesses spoke in more cautionary tones about arming the rebels.

Nina Shea, director of the conservative thinktank Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, said the U.S. needs to learn from the example of Egypt, which receives millions in military and economic aid but which continues to persecute Coptic Christians.

She said the same is happening to Christians in Syria, and that they are not simply bystanders in the middle of the conflict.

“They are targets of a more focused shadow war. Christians are victims of an ethno-religious cleansing,” Shea said. “The threat they face is an existential one.”