President Trump’s recent announcement that his administration will create safe zones in Syria should be welcome by all who seek to protect civilians and take steps to end that terrible conflict, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions.
These havens will protect Syria’s vulnerable civilian populations, particularly Syria’s Sunni Muslims, and prevent them from having to leave their country and live as refugees. It is also a model that should be considered for, and tailored to, Iraq.
This announcement also gives hope for Lebanon’s nearly 2 million Christians — and the many millions more who live in America, Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere.
Lebanon has borne the largest share of the crisis created by Syria’s civil war. Lebanon is hosting more refugees proportionally than any country in the world — the people of Lebanon have shown great generosity in receiving more than 1,500,000 refugees from Syria, even as Lebanon struggles to accommodate a refugee population equal to nearly a half of its native population, resulting in exorbitant pressure on Lebanon’s resources.
As of the start of 2017 and in less than one month, the Lebanese General Security foiled two terrorist attacks in Lebanon that were targeting the country’s capital. The Lebanese army has been fighting ISIS and other terrorist groups and the Lebanese Syrian borders, from entering Lebanon, since the beginning of the crisis in Syria.
This is another reason why safe zones in Syria are important for the resettlement of approximately 2 million Sunni Muslim refugees. The impoverishment and suffering of this community risks further radicalization within Lebanon and destabilizing the country’s system of governance.
Lebanese and Lebanese-American Christians have been among the most vocal proponents for preserving and protecting Christianity across the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria.
Last year, our organization, In Defense of Christians, working in conjunction with Congressman Jeff FortenberryJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FortenberryGOP rep leaves committee assignments after indictment The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Democrats optimistic after Biden meetings Trump defends indicted GOP congressman MORE, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, the Knights of Columbus and others, urged recognition of genocide by ISIS against Yazidis, Christians, and others. We continue to urge the U.S. government and governments worldwide to work for the preservation of Christian communities, particularly those who have suffered genocide.
To this end, IDC has advocated for a concept similar to that of safe havens, and safe zones: a province for Iraq’s ethnic and religious minority communities on the Nineveh Plain. Much direct aid will be necessary to rebuild the destroyed Christian cities and villages there, as well as a long-term plan for their security and economic revitalization.
Therefore, we urge the Trump administration to work with leaders in Congress, like Jeff Fortenberry, to see that Christianity in Iraq does not disappear.
Among the refugees who have fled Syria are Armenian Christians. A century ago, the Middle East’s Armenians also suffered genocide, then at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish government. More than 1.5 million Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians were killed.
Tens of thousands of the Armenian survivors settled in Aleppo, where they lived for a century before being forced to flee again — this time from ISIS, Al Nusra, and other terrorists. Many Christian refugees today are in Beirut’s Bourj Hammoud district, where Armenians settled a century ago fleeing persecution.
Lebanon faces other challenges that it must work closely with the U.S. and its allies to resolve. In addition to the Syrian refugee crisis, there is the problem of Hezbollah, which operates as a state within a state in Lebanon.
The protracted conflict in Syria has permitted Hezbollah to strengthen militarily, which creates a long-term threat to the Lebanese people and to the U.S. and its allies. The response should be the phased disarmament of Hezbollah, the strengthening of the Lebanese Army, and stronger ties between the U.S. and the Lebanese Armed Forces. Lebanon’s Army is the most engaged military from the Middle East in the struggle against ISIS, and is guaranteeing the stability of Lebanon.
Protracted conflict has also led to the indoctrination and recruitment of refugees by other terrorist organizations, such as ISIS and Al Nusra. This kind of exploitation and radicalization must be stopped immediately, for it is only worsening an already terrible conflict. It makes refugee camps unsafe, threatens the stability and security of refugee host countries like Lebanon and Jordan, and makes it difficult for refugees to emigrate to the West.
The Trump administration, in addition to moving toward the creation of safe zones in Syria, should at the same time demand that those funding the radicalization and recruitment of refugees by violent extremists should be identified and prosecuted.
As a young man in Lebanon, I experienced and survived the violence both of jihadi terrorism and occupation by Syria’s Baathist regime. Lebanese Christians know well what it is to face threats from both sides. Even as Lebanon welcomes Armenian, Assyrian, and other Christians as well as Sunni Muslims from the Middle East to Lebanon, it must look to the U.S. as its partner in combating terrorism.
American leadership is vital to stability in the Middle East. President Trump’s plans for safe zones in Syria shows that he is willing to move decisively to end the conflict.
Toufic Baaklini is a Lebanese-American with more than 30 years of business experience in finance and development. He is the president of In Defense of Christians.
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