Religious Freedom in NE Syria Can Counter Iranian Threat
Iran’s saber rattling is again making headlines. The United States has deployed a carrier strike group and other forces to the Persian Gulf after the Pentagon received “specific and credible” intelligence indicating that Iranian proxies were targeting U.S. troops in the region. Last week, four Saudi oil tankers were sabotaged just outside the strategic Strait of Hormuz. These developments have further heightened tensions in a region where stability hangs by a slender thread. In the face of an increasingly visible Iran, cultivating religious freedom where it is already budding is one way to bolster regional stability – such as the semi-autonomous area of Northeast Syria.
Emerging in the aftermath of the Syrian civil war, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) has developed into a genuinely free, pluralistic society — a rarity in the region. Under the governance of the Syrian Democratic Council, Arab Christians, Kurds, Yezidis, Muslims, and others live together under a social compact that provides for equality under the law, women’s rights, and real religious freedom. Even Muslims who convert to Christianity are protected and free to practice their new faith.
While President Trump has expressed a desire to bring U.S. forces home from Syria (he has agreed to leave a residual force in Syria for now), fully withdrawing from NES without assuring its security would be paramount to ceding the country, and its strategic location in the battle against Islamic extremism, to an axis of oppression – Russia, Iran, and Turkey. All three are serious religious freedom violators, as is evident from the annual report just released by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Allowing these three regimes to carve up Syria would be not only wrong, but disastrous for our interests in the region vis a vis Iran.
Withdrawing from Syria would embolden Iran’s designs on the Middle East by allowing it to trample on Northeast Syria’s budding freedom and march unhindered right up to Israel’s border. Iran sees Syria as a Shiite ally and the final piece of a long-sought land bridge to the Mediterranean. An unimpeded, overland route from Teheran to the Mediterranean would provide Iran many benefits, including the possibility of a pipeline to supply energy to Europe. Additionally, U.S. forces significantly hinder Iran’s ability to supply their Lebanese surrogate terror group, Hezbollah, with the military weaponry and materiel to mount a devastating attack on America’s closest ally in the Middle East, Israel. In contrast to the religious freedom in NES, Iran imposes the death penalty for apostasy and imprisons Christians for spreading the Gospel. Iran’s religious freedom violations, among other things, have earned it a spot on USCIRF’s list of worst (Tier 1) religious freedom violators.
Meanwhile, Russia has sought influence over Syria’s land and energy resources for years, and now Vladimir Putin sees a chance to dominate the government of Syria as well as exploit the oil and gas deposits in NES. At the same time, the country’s repressive and illiberal attitude toward religious freedom has also earned it a spot alongside Iran on USCIRF’s list of Tier 1 violators.
Although Turkey is a NATO ally, its recent behavior has called into question its reliability for the United States. It also appears to be walking down the road toward religious repression. Only after serious sanctions and pressure by the Trump administration did Turkey release Pastor Andrew Brunson last year, and USCIRF has tagged the country as a Tier 2 religious freedom violator.
With regard to NES, Turkey has a long-standing hatred of the Kurds who dwell there. There are fears that, if the U.S. ever fully withdraws, Turkey would enter the vacuum and annihilate the Kurds in a genocide.
Contrast these religious freedom violators with the Syrian Democratic Council in NES, which protects the freedom of all to choose (and change) their faith and live it out as they wish. Muslims are free to convert to Christianity and worship openly in NES. In most of the Middle East, this level of religious freedom is unheard of; in Iran, for instance, such Muslims could be put to death.
No other social compact, which recognizes the God-given rights of all human beings, exists elsewhere in the Middle East, perhaps with the one exception of Israel. Where religious freedom thrives, economic growth and stability also thrive. If we care about countering the instability perpetuated by Iran and its allies, we should care about religious freedom.
This budding democratic enclave in NES has the potential to entice others in the region to also pursue freedom, while at the same time holding Iran in check. For the sake of religious freedom, the prosperity of the Middle East, and our own national security, Northeast Syria’s experiment in freedom must be protected.