Despite the fact that Middle Eastern Christians have suffered multiple genocides, pogroms, and episodes of persecution over the past century, 2020 presented these “first Christians” with two existential threats to their presence in the land where it all began.
During this presidential transition period, President-elect Joe Biden must construct a foreign policy agenda that prioritizes confronting the rogue NATO ally, Turkey, on its belligerent international conduct, and stabilizing the spiraling economic, political, and security situation in Lebanon.
Erdogan’s Attacks on Christians and Christianity
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has led an international campaign of denial that the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against Christians a century ago while also referring to Turkey’s minuscule Christian population as “remnants of the sword” when trying to galvanize his ever-shrinking base.
How can a head of state deny genocide in one breath and, in the next breath, spew ominous lamentations that the job had not been finished? The simple answer: the United States and other Western nations let him get away with it.
The US Congress did the right thing in 2019 by recognizing the Armenian Christian Genocide. The vote was historic and bipartisan. However, no American president since Ronald Reagan has recognized the Armenian Christian Genocide. This is a shameful byproduct of realpolitik doublespeak. It is time for Biden to show the world that American presidents stand with persecuted Christians and do not bow to foreign pressure. Without the moral clarity to identify past wrongs, we lack the moral standing to address injustice in the present.
Furthermore, Turkish aggression against Christians extends beyond its borders.
Amy Austin Holmes, writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, found that Turkey has committed over 800 violations of the US-brokered ceasefire in northeastern Syria since October 2019—just one year ago. This includes over 138 violations in Tel Tamer, a historically Christian region, alone. These ceasefire violations all came after President Donald Trump’s October 2019 removal of sanctions—mere days after imposing them—in response to empty Turkish assurances that kinetic military operations would be discontinued. The US must take a strong stance in confronting Turkey for its serial human rights violations and use of jihadist militias against vulnerable Christian communities. In addition to the current American military engagement in Syria, the US must exercise other instruments of national power—specifically, the reimposition of tough economic sanctions.
Starting in late September, Turkey exported battle-hardened jihadists from Syria to Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), to add the Armenian Christian body count through asymmetric warfare. The Armenian Christians, who date back to the earliest decades of Christianity, suffered daily bombardment of its civilian communities, including churches and schools.
The Turkish onslaught against the Armenians of Artsakh is but the latest aggressive action against a neighboring Christian community. Turkey’s ongoing persecution of Greek Orthodox Christians is no new phenomenon. In 2020, Erdogan converted the historic Hagia Sophia Cathedral and Chora Church into mosques. This comes after the government’s closure of the Halki seminary in 1971, interference in the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and, as the Order of Saint Andrew notes, “the destruction or desecration of more than 500 Greek Orthodox churches and chapels in the occupied areas of Cyprus and the illegal transfer of more than 60,000 ancient artifacts to third countries.”
It is no coincidence that Turkish foreign policy has targeted Arameans, Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Greeks, and Syriacs. These are the same groups—the “remnants of the Sword”—targeted for extermination during the Ottoman Genocide against Christians just a century ago.
The Last Bastion of Christianity in the Middle East Is in Crisis
The ambition of Erdogan’s destructive foreign policy extends into Lebanon, the last bastion of Christianity in the Middle East. In the aforementioned Christian Genocide, half the population of Mount Lebanon succumbed to starvation due to the Turkish-induced famine.
Today, Turkey is smuggling weapons into Lebanon through its northern border with Syria. Erdogan is signaling his intention to extend the Turkish sphere of influence into Lebanon, through the Lebanese Sunni community in the north. He aims to create a counterweight to Hezbollah’s Shia-based hegemony in Lebanon’s south and the Bakaa Valley.
Turkey is also leveraging soft power, in the form of political propaganda, in an attempt to influence the Lebanese to support Erdogan’s “Neo-Ottoman” vision for the Middle East. This has resulted in racism against Lebanon’s large Armenian Christian community. Turkey’s attempt to gain the support of Lebanon’s Sunni community is cause for consternation in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have traditionally been the foreign supporters of Lebanon’s Sunnis.
Hezbollah, the Iranian proxy, on its own, has destabilized Lebanon nearly to critical capacity. To complicate matters further, Russia and China are also vying for increased influence in Lebanon’s political system. The influence and proxy interference from more nefarious actors will exacerbate existing sectarian tension, reminiscent of Lebanon’s experience during its brutal and tragic 15-year civil war.
This is what prompted Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros Al-Rai’s call for “active neutrality.” By modeling itself as the Switzerland of the Middle East, Lebanon will be able to insulate itself from both the Saudi-Iranian proxy war manifesting across the region, as well as the Saudi-Turkish intra-Sunni rivalry for dominance. My friend, Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, and I have written that US involvement is necessary to produce equilibrium, making such a neutrality possible.
The first way the US can accomplish this, as the patriarch-cardinal noted, is through continued US support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), the only legitimate institution for Lebanese national defense. The LAF is widely respected across all of Lebanon’s sects, and bolstering its effectiveness would erode Hezbollah’s coerced mandate over Lebanon.
The second task would be a strong US humanitarian response to the August 4 explosion that destroyed over 300,000 homes in the predominantly Christian neighborhoods around the Port of Beirut. The provision of humanitarian assistance in response to the explosion has become a soft power battleground between competing nations vying to increase their respective regional presence and indispensability.
The American national security goal in Lebanon is no different than the Lebanese people’s desire for their country: stability. Stability can be achieved in Lebanon, in part, through a US response to the August 4 explosion and delivering humanitarian aid to NGOs and Lebanese citizens, not a corrupt government that has proven itself illegitimate.
Third, the US should exercise Magnitsky sanctions against corrupt government officials, forcing an end to the endemic and crippling culture of national exploitation. The recent Magnitsky measures taken against Gebran Bassil, former Lebanese foreign minister and current Free Patriotic Movement leader, should put government officials on notice; no bad deed shall go unaccounted for.
These three priorities—LAF support, humanitarian aid, and accountability for corruption—wholly complement the patriarch’s calls for active neutrality.
Iran wants to use Lebanon as a satellite state from which to propagate its revolution and stage its attack against Israel. An increasingly aggressive Turkey views Lebanon as the next frontier of its resurrected caliphate. America simply wants to see a secure, independent, and prosperous Lebanon, which is a keystone to a stable Middle East. Smart engagement will ensure that Lebanon’s best days, as a multiethnic and multireligious democracy, lie ahead.
Saving Lebanon and stopping Turkey will require a commitment from the Biden administration to pursue specifically tailored policy initiatives, which invest in constructive institutions and sectors of society, and target corrupt and nefarious actors. While the necessary commitment to support democracy and religious pluralism is deep, the goals are clear and achievable.