West Must Protect Syria's Persecuted Christians

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The hardest test of foreign policy is not its intersections at the lofty geopolitical level but where it inevitably affects ordinary people, and nowhere is this test as difficult as in the Middle East.

As I visited the area recently to assess the situation of minorities in the Syrian conflict, it quickly became evident that the West's policy there courts a disaster.

I was not surprised. While my experience was dated, I had lived in the Middle East and observed some of its most enduring conflicts. Unfortunately, the passage of time seems to have taught us little.

Some level of confusion about Middle East politics is excusable for anyone.

Attempts to decipher it are always muddied by a bewildering array of sects and agendas in the context of alliances of convenience, even between sworn enemies.

But surely an alliance with al-Qa'ida is beyond the pale for any US government, even if its purpose is to counter Iran's influence.

The pictures of the American family devastated by the Boston bomb would be enough for me, but the US State Department certainly hasn't considered Syria's Christian minorities adequately.

There are reports of heartbreak as people who lived in harmony for decades are suddenly turned into bitter enemies by the radicalisation of previously moderate Sunnis under the influence of the al-Qa'ida proxy Jabhat al-Nusra.

Syria has always been somewhat unusual in the Arab world for its secularism and religious freedom.

When I lived in Damascus for six months, Christian churches were easy to find and join. There was also a ready acceptance by Muslims and Druze, many of whom became good friends. And it seems this continued to be the case until the revolution two years ago. Then cries of "Alawites out" and "Christians to Lebanon" suddenly filled the air in crowds stirred up by extremists.

For Christians to be thrown out of Syria after more than 2000 years of history is too much for most. Despite the steady flow of refugees, most will stay. But the cost of staying is extreme.

Al-Nusra empties any area it captures of the "infidels". Occupants of centuries-old Christian quarters in the ancient cities of Aleppo, Hama and Homs have been turned out of their homes with nothing. The aged are not spared and those refusing to leave are sometimes killed.

Also heartbreaking for these ancient communities is that their churches in the occupied parts of these cities have been destroyed and desecrated, at least one being used as a toilet by al-Nusra, as an illustration of its utter contempt for Christianity.

There are some Christians fighting with the Free Syrian Army. Although they were part of an initially secular opposition, their position becomes increasingly tenuous as al-Nusra's dominance of the opposition increases by the day.

As always in war, it is perhaps the women who suffer most.

Al-Nusra fighters see Christian women as little more than booty. One woman tearfully told of a friend considering suicide as she contemplated the possibility of rape, which two of her friends had suffered. As a Christian in an al-Nusra-held area, she knew she risked the same fate.

These are ancient Christian communities that look to Western governments not to abandon them by pursuing irrational policies, including a partnership with foreign jihadists allied to al-Qa'ida.

It is long past time for the West to make a stand in two other areas that are essential to combating Muslim extremism at home and abroad.

The first is that Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are funding the extremist al-Qa'ida fighters, must be told to back off. In addition we cannot accept that as many as 200 Australians might be fighting for al-Qa'ida in Syria as part of a contingent of foreign fighters drawn from Western and Middle Eastern Islamic communities.

All Western countries must pass and enforce anti-mercenary laws that will forbid their nationals from fighting as mercenaries without losing their nationality.

We have an army to fight our wars and joining it should be the only way for an Australian to become a combatant.

The so-called Arab Spring was never going to be that for anyone but extremists across the Middle East. Unless the West reconsiders its support to an opposition dominated by al-Qa'ida, vulnerable Syrian Christians will face even worse persecution than that experienced by Egypt's Copts.

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