The carnage is so severe, the atrocities so barbaric, and the impasse so intractable. Even when violence targets fellow Christians and their ancient communities, the morass of the Middle East can silence any moral response. Believers are tempted to throw up their hands in despair, for any proposed solution creates further uncomfortable complications.
If America stands with Assad in Syria, we back his barrel bombs. If we side with the rebels, we empower Islamism. If we stay neutral, the killing continues, as friend and foe alike meddle on behalf of their favorite proxy. If we bomb only the Islamic State, the core political issues remain. If we commit ground troops, the specter of Saddam looms over all. Propaganda shrouds analysis in conspiracy, and regardless of action refugees pour out of a tinderbox ready to spark further war.
It is no wonder Christians are paralyzed to suggest anything.
Into the morass wades Terry Ascott, desperately seeking a way forward. And his solution tramples over one of the region’s most sacred cows, one only the Islamic State has dared address: Redraw the map.
Ascott, though an outsider from the UK, is well qualified to speak. He has lived in the region for 43 years, serving in numerous Christian ministries. He is the founder and CEO of SAT-7, one of the most influential Arabic Christian satellite networks, with channels also in Turkish and Farsi. And he has never seen things worse than they are now.
Ascott made it clear his remarks are personal in nature, completely separate from his role with SAT-7. The channel ministers Gospel content for the region’s Christians, but also sows the values of citizenship, tolerance, and respect among its many Muslim viewers. SAT-7 KIDS even replicates parts of the Syrian educational curriculum on air for refugee children.
There is hope, he believes, though these changes will take a generation. Until then a policeman is needed, who must put everyone in his own corner.
In 1916 the Sykes-Picot agreement between England and France drew the modern map of the Middle East over the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, the last Islamic Caliphate. In June 2014, ISIS bulldozed the checkpoint dividing Syria from Iraq, erasing the border in pursuit of caliphal renewal. The theory of the caliphate holds that all Muslims should be equal, the same promise of nationalism birthed by Western heritage. But in practice both are challenged by ethnic and sectarian divisions easily exploited by economic grievance or political gain. It has taken dictators to hold things together, who play on the notion that only they can.
Dictatorship or democracy, the concept of sovereignty in the nation-state system is built on the notion that borders are inviolable. But if the borders were imposed by outside forces disregarding natural divisions, can outside forces force a redo?
Yes or no, it is all unraveling. Christian love sometimes demands a choice between two evils, and to stop the bloodshed Ascott thinks we must make a deal with the devil.
Of course the demons running the Islamic State will make a deal with no one, this is part of its ethos. But Christians must pressure American policy to make a deal with everyone else, he said. Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Europe—every outside power must be forced or lured to agreement, a grand bargain that will satisfy no one but stop the ever-deteriorating downward spiral toward brute chaos and Hobbesian state of nature.
Assad can never again rule over a united Syria, it is clear. But perhaps he can be king of an enclave. Perhaps Iraq must be split between Sunni and Shia. Perhaps the Kurds will get their own state. Ascott wavered if Christians should have an autonomous region in the Nineveh Plain, but thought it not the best idea. Smaller religious minorities should be welcomed as citizens within newly created borders, but that will take a large educational investment, over time, in democracy, human rights, and freedom.
Unfortunately the region does not have time, Ascott said, and has shown itself time and time again to be lacking in these basic values. Major powers can force an agreement, but the minute they withdraw everything will explode again. Any grand bargain must also delineate the responsibilities of international military oversight—perhaps for as long as 25 years. Only then will the bloodshed stop, and maybe the next generation can take ownership of at least a quasi-democracy.
Ascott’s ideas are not unique. Some foreign policy analysts have suggested redrawing the map for years. The US military produced a template as early as 2006. Conspiracy theories latch on and suggest Western intelligence created ISIS in the first place. Former President Carter has shuttled between nations to urge the big powers to negotiation. But everyone has their own interests, and much media blackens the other.
Perhaps they are all correct. Ascott spreads the blame and speaks in the language of the prophets of old. “We have not intervened, except to bomb,” he said. “We have not agreed to stop the bloodshed. It is an international sin, and future generations will hold us accountable.”
Weigh his thoughts carefully, and consider alternatives. But Christians must never throw up their hands in despair. They must extend them with the gospel of peace, in a messy world that does not welcome it. Few places are messier than the Middle East, fitting, perhaps, where Jesus announced God’s kingdom to be at hand.
Jayson Casper is a journalist based in Cairo, published in Christianity Today, Lapido Media, and the Atlantic Council, among others. He writes regularly about Egyptian politics, religion, and culture at www.asenseofbelonging.org, and tweets at @jnjcasper.
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