Last week, the Melkite archbishop of Aleppo, Syria, Jean-Clement Jeanbart, came to the U.S. to raise awareness about the plight of Christians in his country. I had the opportunity to spend 45 minutes with him and to go into some depth about the civil war tearing apart the country.
Jeanbart also spoke with John Allen of Crux, David Gibson of Religion News Service, Mark Pattison of Catholic News Service, and John Burger of Aleteia.
One theme that came out of these interviews is Jeanbart's view of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Jeanbart is pro-Assad, though he tries to temper his positive perception in certain interviews. Jeanbart appears sincere in his favorable view of Assad, but then again, Assad has protected Christians in the past and continues to do so today where his government forces control certain areas.
Here are the pertinent Jeanbart quotes about Assad from each of these interviews:
The Syrian church as called on Assad to implement reforms called for by a majority of Syrians. What is the relationship between the Christian leaders, you, and the Assad government?
Is Assad part of this kind of solution [democratic] or does he have to step down?
Part of the solution.
Do you speak with Assad? Are you in direct contact with Assad or his inner circle? Can you describe what that is like and what you believe Assad is willing to do to create peace?
It may happen, but usually, you know, the path we take is that a group of bishops can talk to him eventually. And we can send him messages through people because he will not have time to meet everybody. He is ready to help us if we ask and want to talk to him, particularly when we communicate in a way that doesn't take too much time. When it is something important, we can ask, and we can send him messages.
Over the years, Christian clergy in Syria have been accused of being too close to the Assad regime. What's the truth?
We are not pro-Assad. We're in favor of a government that's open to all denominations. We're in favor of a secular government. It may be led by Assad or someone else, but that's what we want.
Personally, I would say that Bashar al-Assad is a good man. I don't want to pass judgment beyond that, but I've met him a couple of times and all my colleagues, my fellow bishops and the priests and nuns, appreciate him. That doesn't mean he's an angel.
Is the realistic choice not between Assad and democracy, but Assad and ISIS?
In a sense, yes. If we have to choose between ISIS and Assad, we choose Assad. If the choice were between a real democratic opposition and Assad, we'd wait and see. We'd leave our faithful free to do what they like.
It seems sometimes that all the countries of the world are against Assad, but we feel we don't have any other alternative. Honest to God, this is the situation. I think [Assad] wants to reform. Let him prove his good intentions, and let's give him the chance to see what he will do.
But Jeanbart faces another challenge when he speaks to an American audience: For him, as for other Syrian Christians, Assad is not the despot that he is considered in Washington.
Christians in Syria felt protected by Assad, he said, much as Christians in Iraq were under Saddam Hussein. Many on Capitol Hill, however, want to send more arms and funding to the rebels and remove Assad, who has been accused of using chemical weapons as well as being a serial violator of human rights.
"It's up to them (the Americans) whether to like him or not," Jeanbart said of Assad. "But I'm afraid they don't know him enough. He's not an angel. He will not be canonized tomorrow. But he's not bad. Compared to the other Arab leaders, he may be one of the best."
What are your views of Bashar al-Assad?
It's a very hard question. I say what I feel, what I think. Being honest to God, he is not bad. In the war, he has been violent, but we felt since he came that some improvement was done in the country and many things have been better. He tried to make reforms, and he was able quickly to amend the Constitution, and the new Constitution we've had since two or three years ago now. He took off the exclusivity of the Ba'ath Party. He limited the mandate of the presidency. He opened the election of the presidency, changing it from a plebiscite to an election between several candidates, etc. A good number of reforms have been initiated. Not just myself but the majority of Christian leaders in all denominations have a good opinion of the president. They do not consider that he is a bad person. He has made mistakes? Yes, probably. The people around him, some of them were bad -- yes, probably. But he himself tried to do as well as he could. We don't know what we could find underneath but all is not bad.
When a person like President Assad goes and marries a woman who is British, who has an English and French education, who has the values of democracy in the UK, it means he likes this kind of life and he likes this openness in these countries. He wouldn't marry this kind of girl if he didn't like these kinds of qualities. That's why it's a sign of what it could be in reality, his inside feelings. We rarely meet authorities in Syria respecting people, respecting clergy and respecting senior citizens as he does.
On the other hand, I cannot say. I am not a politician and I don't know what is inside of him. But I tell you what my colleagues and religious leaders think of him -- Christian leaders. ... Some of the Muslim leaders are with him, some are against. The minorities generally agree with him ...
Also, his life: he has his wife teaching his children, and he takes care of the family. You feel you have a normal family. He is not the person who would like to go and spend his time in nightclubs and things like that.
Assad's regime in trouble
Over at CNN, writer Nick Paton Walsh recently wrote "Analysis: Syria's al-Assad regime in trouble." An excerpt:
Many observers note a key issue determining this change [in territorial control in Syria] is the slow erosion of the [Assad] regime's manpower and resources. There have been repeated reports of tensions in the regime, including a widely reported spat between two intelligence chiefs that led to one of them being hospitalized, and even tensions between the Syrian Arab Army and the local militias the regime often uses to bolster manpower, the National Defense Force.
The Syrian currency has also experienced another crash in the past weeks. Hanna noted that the monthly cost of the war to the regime was $1 billion, and that it may be significantly dependent on Iran for this financial support.
In the background, too, are the ongoing moves toward a nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran. Observers note this might provide a tight window for rebels and their backers to establish new gains on the ground before a deal releases Iranian money that might bolster the al-Assad regime. If the talks fail, analysts suggest Tehran may be markedly more confrontational in backing a regime it sees as strategically vital for its regional influence.
To get a sense of the chaotic nature of the civil war in Syria, Business Insider includes a map with its story, "The US needs a coherent Syria strategy more than ever."
Whether Assad is a part of the solution or not, with the dynamic pace of change on the ground, Jeanbart and Syrian Christians will need to be flexible in navigating the extraordinary complexity of this gruesome conflict. At this point, only God knows how peace will emerge in Syria and who will lead it.