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What about Syria?
By Pastor Joe Fuiten
September 8, 2013
Cedar Park Church Evening Service

As we consider this topic, the American Congress has been asked by the President to decide whether to punish Syria for the use of chemical weapons. Then he asked them to put it on hold while they explore the Russian proposal. Meanwhile, well over 100,000 Syrians have already died without our intervention, and mostly by conventional weapons. However, the President announced last year that chemical weapons is a red line that cannot be crossed, although it has been crossed many times. Having announced that he will act if they cross the chemical weapons red line, the President has painted himself into a red line corner. Maybe the Russians will come to our President's rescue.


It is hard to tell what the American government will do having already acted so erratically in the Middle East. Some are arguing that we should do nothing because it is neither our fight nor our obligation to unilaterally resolve. Others say we should put our military into Syria to get rid of the Assad regime. Others say we should just deliver some quick blows of punishment and deterrence then walk away.  There seem to be so many options but so few good choices.


In the past, American foreign policy has had a strong component of defending Christian interests in the Middle East.  This goes back over 200 years starting with President Jefferson and the Barbary Pirates but has continued to the present time.


In the Syrian Civil War, there have been many reports of the rebels attacking Christian villages and bringing harm to Christians generally. Some are saying radical Islamists have used this civil war as a pretext to attack Christians. This is especially true west of Homs where there is a strong historic Christian presence and where many Christians serve in influential positions particularly in business. 


Aleppo may have the largest group of Christians in the country although Damascus has a sizeable Christian community with churches in the city. Christian civil servants often get Sunday morning off even though Sunday is a work day and the Christian schools have Saturday and Sunday as the weekend. Fighting has been very intense around Homs and Aleppo where Christian numbers are strong. International Christian Concern has reported that many Christians have actually supported the Assad regime although like civil wars generally, it is a much divided situation.


I wish the President and now Congress would be clearer that we will not tolerate use of chemical weapons neither will we tolerate persecution of Christian minorities. This is relevant in Syria where Christians make up 10% of the population.  Although the constitution requires the President of Syria to be Muslim, Islam is not a state religion and officially the government does not favor one religion over another.


When considering current events it is helpful to consider ultimate outcomes particularly ones where the Bible says what will ultimately happen. The case of Syria and Damascus may be such a case.


The Bible does give a negative outlook for Damascus. Isaiah 17:1 "An oracle concerning Damascus: "See, Damascus will no longer be a city but will become a heap of ruins." In preparation for my Feast of Trumpets message this morning I read the next chapter of Isaiah, chapter 18. Isaiah 18:3 makes a reference that is a bit mystical but still interesting. "All you people of the world, you who live on the earth, when a banner is raised on the mountains, you will see it, and when a trumpet sounds, you will hear it." This kind of language, particularly about the trumpet, linked to the destruction of Damascus makes me think of the Second Coming of Jesus. That would make Damascus some kind of indicator of the prophetic timeline of the coming of the Lord.


I get a similar kind of impression from reading Zechariah 9:1-6.  "An Oracle. The word of the Lord is against the land of Hadrach and will rest upon Damascus - for the eyes of men and all the tribes of Israel are on the Lord- and upon Hamath too, which borders on it, and upon Tyre and Sidon, though they are very skillful. Tyre has built herself a stronghold; she has heaped up silver like dust, and gold like the dirt of the streets. But the Lord will take away her possessions and destroy her power on the sea, and she will be consumed by fire. Ashkelon will see it and fear; Gaza will writhe in agony, and Ekron too, for her hope will wither. Gaza will lose her king and Ashkelon will be deserted. Foreigners will occupy Ashdod, and I will cut off the pride of the Philistines."


If Damascus is going to be turned into a heap of ruins then I wonder how that will happen. I used to think that obviously Syria would attack Israel with chemical or nuclear weapons and Israel would respond by wiping out Damascus. I still think that has obviously possibilities. 


We know there was an Israeli airstrike on a nuclear reactor in the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria carried out on September 6, 2007. Israel is concerned about being attacked in the future. There was also a recent Israeli attack on the Syria port of Latakia. The Syrians were storing Russian-made Yakhonts anti-ship missiles. Israel believed the armaments were headed to Hezbollah in Lebanon which would use them in the next war in Lebanon to neutralize Israel's naval forces. All these kinds of events suggest that Israel would be the one to take out Damascus.


As an aside, people worry if the US attacks Syria then Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran would respond by attacking Israel. If those hostile forces didn't attack Israel after the previous attacks on Syria, I don't see why they would attack Israel following a US attack on Syria. A far more likely scenario is that US bombings might precipitate actions the Israel's would use to attack Iran.


This civil war in Syria has raised for me another possible way the Isaiah 17 prophecy could be fulfilled.  


The subtext of Syria is the basic split between Sunni and Shite. That ancient battle of succession for leadership in Islam from the late 600's is being replayed in Syria at least as a subtext. Sunnis are rooted in the majority group who followed Abu Bakr, an effective leader, as Muhammad's successor, instead of his cousin and son-in-law Ali. The Sunnis are so named because they believe themselves to follow the sunnah or "custom" of the Prophet. Shi'ites are those Muslims who followed Ali, the closest relative of Muhammad, as Muhammad's successor. It's hard to believe that a battle for succession 1500 years still impacts Islam today but it is a serious grudge-bearing religion.


The third wrinkle is that President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has held the presidency in Syria since 1971, is a member of the Shia Alawites who side with the Shi'ites in the matter of rightful succession. A majority of Syrians are not Shia but Sunni. The other factor is that Damascus was the capital of the Umayyad Empire after control of Islam was wrested from Muhammad's family. Islam's Caliph was a Sunni governing from Damascus while the Shi'ites languished in obscurity. For a Shi'ite, it is important that Assad is not Sunni. That is one important reason why Iran and Hezbollah have moved to support Assad and have helped him turn the tide against the mostly Sunni rebels.


The conflict gradually took a more sectarian nature between Sunnis and Shia Alawites when the Syrian government began establishing Alawite militias to substitute defected soldiers. A late 2012 UN report described the conflict as "overtly sectarian in nature".


If Assad loses the civil war and the majority Sunni's take over it would feel to the Shia like the return of the Umayyad to Damascus, something totally repugnant to them. Rather than accept such a setback, the Shia themselves might destroy Damascus. "If the Shia can't have it then nobody can."  They could make Damascus so radioactive or hot with chemicals that it would fulfill Isaiah 17 and become "a heap of ruins."


If the proposed US attack so weakens the Assad regime that they fall, such a scenario could begin to play out. My reading of the situation is that the fear of Al Qaeda is overblown. Al-Nusra Front is associated with Al Qaeda and they have become a main player in the rebel force. I can't see any reason for the US to support Al Qaeda in Syria. My enemy's enemy is not necessarily my friend. 


However, Al-Nusra Front are such a minority player in Syria, and not really native to the Syrians, I don't think they are a long term threat but I still would not want the US associated with such violent and anti-American forces.


I am not predicting the Shia will be the ones to destroy Damascus or that this is how it will all happen. I am only saying that I can now see a second way in which the Bible's prophecy will be fulfilled. Like so much of prophecy, we cannot know the how but we can be certain that what God says will be, will be.


I feel very sorry for the Syrian people. My personal experience is quite limited but I have found them to be warm and hospitable. I have been particularly impressed by the Christian people there who have endured so much for so long and have remained faithful to the Lord and strongly functioning members of Syrian society. They certainly deserve our prayers. I also pray the American government doesn't make a bad situation worse.


FORWARD to a Friend
Dr. Joseph B. Fuiten is the senior pastor of Cedar Park Church in Bothell, Washington, and he is the former president of Washington Evangelicals for Responsible Government and the Positive Christian Agenda. Currently, Pastor Fuiten is a founding member of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, an associate organization of Focus on the Family.