What is Aleppo? The question seems innocent enough to most Americans. But back in September, the question lit up Twitter ( #WhatIsAleppo ) and made Independent presidential candidate Gary Johnson appear even more out of touch with reality. When asked about his response to the crisis in Aleppo, Johnson replied, “And what is Aleppo?”
It’s one thing for an average American to be unsure about Aleppo’s whereabouts; it’s another thing entirely when someone aspiring to be president is not aware of its existence.
So, what is Aleppo? Aleppo is an ancient city, one of the oldest cities on earth. Aleppo was around before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. And Aleppo existed before King David killed Goliath. Indeed, people were dwelling in Aleppo before Moses was born in Egypt. People have been living in the ancient city of Aleppo (now the second largest city in Syria) for more than 4,000 years.
Today—partly because it is Syria’s second largest city—Aleppo has become the flashpoint in Syria’s civil war. The civil war in Syria is a power struggle to determine who controls Syria and this region of the Middle East. Daniel Horowitz explains,
In Syria, there is a fight between Assad/ Hezbollah/Russia/Iran vs. Al Qaeda splinter groups, Ahrar al Sham, and the Islamic State — with Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia funding a number of the Islamic fundamentalist rebels.
Uri Friedman of The Atlantic describes Aleppo’s significance this way:
If Assad, along with his Russian and Iranian allies, were to emerge victorious in Aleppo, it would have consequences beyond Syria, Tabler added: “It would be a tremendous loss for the U.S. and its traditional allies: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan. … This would also be a huge loss for the United States vis-à-vis Russia in its Middle East policy, certainly. And because of the flow of refugees as a result of this, if they go northward to Europe, then you would see a migrant crisis in Europe that could lead to far-right governments coming to power which are much more friendly to Russia than they are to the United States.” In other words, to answer Gary Johnson’s question, Aleppo is a lot more than a Syrian city.
These quotes make a couple of important points. One, a serious war is waging in Aleppo, and it involves a number of world powers, not the least of which are the U.S. and Russia…apparently on opposing sides. The significance of Aleppo in world events is evident in the recent assassination of Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov. Karlov’s assassin allegedly shouted “Remember Aleppo” after killing the ambassador. Clearly, Aleppo is front and center in world affairs.
Two, Christians in Syria in general and Aleppo in particular have no real allies. Which would be better—to face the oppression of the Assad form of Islam or side with the Al-Qaeda rebels and live under their brand of Islamic extremism? It would be difficult in good conscience to waive a banner for either team in this civil war.
Back in 2011-2012, the U.S. thought it was intolerable that 10,000 Syrians were killed. Our government thus decided to fortify the rebellion against the Assad government. But Assad’s government did not topple. Russia and Iran reinvigorated that government with military might to reassert its dominance. And the result has been horrific. CNN reports,
Since the war began in 2011, an estimated 400,000 Syrians have been killed, according to the United Nations.
As of December 2016, 4.81 million Syrians have fled the country and 6.3 million people are displaced internally.
What should Christians do?
Without a doubt, Christians must pray for all the citizens of Aleppo. The people of Syria are suffering at the hands of their political leaders, who, in some sense, serve as religious leaders, too. There are reports that churches are growing because Muslims are disillusioned by the violence and are looking for answers. As one Christian from Aleppo says,
“But you know what’s surprising? The church is still full; displaced people take their place. Especially Muslims are coming to the church now.”
Christians must pray specifically for other Christians in Syria. The Christian district in Aleppo has been all but obliterated. About 90% of Christians in the area have either died or fled to a safer location like Lebanon. Those Christians remaining are living without electricity, gas, heat, and even without water. Conditions are not just terrible. They are life-threatening. And yet, ministry needs and opportunities are increasing. Imagine surviving through such difficulties, while having the opportunity to minister to many Muslims through your church. It’s an unusual opportunity to say the least.
For anyone interested, Global Hunger Relief operates in Syria. The advantage of GHR is that it operates on a volunteer basis, ensuring that 100% of funds given actually go toward meeting needs, not paying staff.
Dear Dr. Cochran, how can you speak of the “Assad form of radical Islam”? Whatever you think about Assad – he never was a radical Muslim. His father and he come from the Muslim sect of Alawites; but as far as I know, this sect would never be named as “radical Islam”. Because Assad himself is from a minority inside Syria, the Syrian Christians´ situation was not very bad under him. Did you ever speak with any leading Syrian Christian about the situation in Syria? I think you should.
Wolfgang, thanks so much for your thoughtful and respectful reply. I don’t mind editing out the word ‘radical.’ We tend to use it as a means of delineating violent forms of Islam from non-violent. It wasn’t meant to imply that Christians were not tolerated under Assad.
My major point was now Christians seem not to be favored by either side. I have in mind stories from Homs a few years back, like this one,
Dear Greg, thanks for the comment and explanation about your sources. I guess, that Christians who are actively fighting against Assad with the “Free Syrian Army” are killed can not be labeled ‘persecution of Christians”. Yes, speaking out against injustice is something Christians should do. So my knowledge about the situation in Syria is limited too. But whenever I heard about what Syrian Christians personally say (I am living in Turkey), their situation was much better before the civil war. And again: Even to label Assad as “islamic” (without “radical”) at least awakes a really wrong impression in the average American or European reader. Blessings to Christmas! Wolfgang
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