How NOT to Stop the Torture in Syria

No to regime-change wars with US soldiers. Yes to backing local defenders of religious liberty, such as the Kurds. An interview with Johannes De Jong.

A soldier of the pro-American Syrian Democratic Forces comforts a young victim of political violence.

By John Zmirak Published on February 25, 2021

CBS’s 60 Minutes recently aired a heart-rending segment on the torture employed by the Assad regime in Syria against its citizens. These cruelties are all too real. But the viciousness of Saddam Hussein’s regime proved equally real, and war advocates used it to goad Americans into a regime-change war. Our war made matter worse, not better, especially for Christians of Iraq. Some 75% of that ancient, apostolic community ended up killed or ethnically cleansed. An ancient Christian community in Syria now faces threats from “opposition” fighters linked to al Qaeda and controlled by Islamist Turkey.

To untangle this mess, The Stream interviewed our contributor Johannes de Jong. He works for an EU-linked foundation that fights for religious freedom. 

Say No to Assad AND the Islamist, al Qaeda-linked “Opposition”

John Zmirak: Millions of Americans were moved by a segment on 60 Minutes this past week. The segment highlighted the sheer extent of the torture practiced by the Assad regime in Syria. Has your organization tracked this issue, and what do you have to add?

Johannes de Jong: It is right that Americans were moved seeing and hearing these shocking reports. They are not new, however. Many human rights organizations have reported on these horrors over the years.

The Human Trafficking “Moderate Rebels”

Johannes de Jong

The Syrian Democratic Forces arose as part of the opposition to Assad. But it rejected alignment with Islamist groups such as al Qaeda. It also fought against the efforts of Islamist Turkey to use Assad’s justified unpopularity to grab large pieces of Syria. Or even install an Islamist government in Damascus. What would be the consequences if Turkish-backed “opposition” groups came to power across Syria? Aren’t these groups the ones who really dominate the “opposition”? Not the vanishing “moderate rebels” whom Sen. John McCain vouched for?

The answer is actually very simple. Look to the facts on the ground where these Turkish-backed Islamists are in control. They loot, fight among themselves, rape, commit human trafficking. This also has been reported by both US agencies and human rights groups. So, these groups would do exactly the same thing and even more aggressively. Assad is a brutal dictator, but there is a logic behind his cruelty. It is meant to keep him and his cronies in power. These Turkish-backed groups are acting completely randomly. They are purely driven by greed and lust. These groups are especially a menace for women.

What Should America Do?

What position should the US government take on the situation in Syria? Are there specific measures you recommend that would also protect religious freedom there?

There is only one obvious choice that the US can make. The Biden Administration speaks a lot about democracy and human rights. It’s also emphasizing an active US involvement in global affairs. North-East Syria is a strategic location in the heart of the Middle East. The US has in the Syrian Democratic Forces a reliable and loyal ally. An ally that shares and implements the same values of democracy and human rights as well as equality for women.

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The Stream reports regularly on the SDF, the force that toppled ISIS with US aid. In a recent article Nadine Maenza (USCIRF commissioner) explained:

It’s a mistake to think we can solve extremism with weapons and bombs, you can only beat radical Islamists by building governance that is opposite the way they govern. We have to win the war of ideas.

If you really want to end “forever wars,” regions and nations must embrace fundamental freedoms instead of extremism and oppression. Where this change is already taking place, we must help keep it going. Preserving such freedoms in Northeastern Syria comes at a very low cost for the US. And it justifies the sacrifices and efforts made by the US against ISIS. The tiny US military presence (if strategically managed) amplifies and strengthens the SDF. It maintains freedom in one third of Syria. It also offers hope to others in the region for freedom for all. It firmly plants religious freedom in the very heart of the Middle East.

The Iran-Russia-Assad Connection

How deeply intertwined are Russia and Iran with the Assad regime at this point? Is Iran poised to dominate much of the country, or has that threat been averted?

Iran now basically manages Assad insofar Assad is not managed by Russia. But Russian and Iranian interests sometimes clash. Russia does not want to be pushed or marginalized by Iran. Iran dominates the south and most of the center of Syria. Russia is prevalent in the north and coastal areas. Of course that is in all areas that are under formal control of the Assad regime.

How Turkey Threatens the Rest of NATO, Including the US

What is the initiative your organization is promoting with regard to Syria and Turkey?

We published a detailed report. It summarizes all the malign activity by Turkey since 2013 in Syria, Iraq, Nagorno-Karabach, Libya and elsewhere. It also shows the agenda behind Turkey’s destabilizing aggressions. Turkey promotes an extremist Islamist program. Its goal is domination, the recreation in some form of the old Ottoman Empire.

We also show how this agenda and policy threaten the security of Europe and NATO. Then we ask a very simple question. Are we as NATO countries obliged to guarantee the security of a regime that is in fact undermining our own security?

No Americans Should Fight for a New Ottoman Empire

Many people think that since Turkey is a NATO member, the alliance has an automatic, “Article 5” obligation to defend it. This is not true. Our publication demonstrates that (please download it, see page 25). NATO clarifies that collective military action is not an automatic obligation on its own website.

It makes no sense to guarantee the security of a country that is undermining our security. So the parliaments of NATO member states (that includes the US Congress and Senate) should clarify now to their citizens, especially those in uniform: They will not support any defense of Turkey.

That would force Turkey to reconsider its acts of aggression abroad as it would need to first and foremost ensure its own security. It would save our militaries from having to defend an extremist regime that is trampling on human rights on a massive scale at home and abroad.

What’s the Locus of Hope for Syrians?

The region of Syria called the Self-Administration of North-Eastern Syria (SANES) is still a beacon of religious freedom and democratic governance. Why has it found so few allies and supporters in the West? Have more supporters come around since you last reported on Syria for The Stream?

That is because of the strange hold that Turkey still has on the elites in foreign policy making. They’re still clinging to the outmoded idea that we need Turkey to ward off Russia. This fixation undermines our own security, giving Turkey way too much leverage. Some multinationals are also apparently making money out of Turkey’s government.

None of these are good reasons to allow Turkey’s interests to override our own. Let’s make it clear: keeping Turkey under our security umbrella harms the rest of NATO. Standing with North-East Syria helps NATO countries. All of them benefit if violent extremism is replaced by fundamental freedoms.

Americans will understand deeply, I think, how important the embrace and spreading of freedom is. Ronald Reagan saw correctly the nature of dictatorships. They foster violence and extremism. Standing with North-East Syria now is the same as standing with the NATO founding nations that rejected communism.

 

Johannes de Jong is director of the Christian Political Foundation for Europe. He has been working with the Syriac Christians of Iraq and Syria, the Yazidis, Turkmen people of Iraq and Syrian Kurds.

John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream, and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He is co-author with Jason Jones of “God, Guns, & the Government.”

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