Besides the losses are ongoing threats. In Damascus Iran is using its influence to pressure Christians to leave the Old City. One Christian pastor, who asked not to be identified because of threats to his church, told me agents show up at Christian homes off Straight Street, saying, “I heard you want to sell your home.” When the owner replies that it’s not true, the agent offers a high sum and promises to return, making repeated offers until residents feel pressured to sell and go. “They are investing resources into pushing Christians away, people who have lived in Syria for generations,” the pastor said.
Problems are not only in Assad-controlled areas. In the northern Democratic Self-Administration area, a dispute arose over whether authorities could force church-sponsored schools to use specific curriculum. Some schools in the Qamishli area temporarily closed as a result. But the conflict revealed the competing views about political alignments for churches and the fears for survival with changing powers. Some in the Syriac Orthodox Church, long in close relationship with the Assad regime, wanted to continue using government (Arab and Islamic) curriculum. Others wanted to adopt a new curriculum called “Olaf Tao” (“A to Z” in Syriac). It includes the Christian and multiethnic history of Syria rather than “Arabized” texts adopted by the Baathist Party of Assad, and is available in Syriac rather than only Arabic.
Those who protested—actually taking to the streets in August—included non-Christian Arabs and Kurds who used the dispute as an opportunity to oppose the self-administration groups, which include Christian, Arab, and Kurdish leaders. “The Christians in Syria were not aware of many details, but now that they know, they are backing ‘Olaf Tao’ and they want the new books,” said Rima Tuezuen of the European Syriac Union, an opposition support group.
Authorities never imposed a Kurdish-language curriculum on the Syriac schools, Tuezuen said, though some news outlets reported it, and all schools but one are now open, using the curriculum of their choice, she said.
THE UNITED STATES has approximately 2,200 troops stationed in the north bordering the DSA near Manbij, playing a decidedly low-key role. President Donald Trump in August canceled $230 million in stabilization assistance appropriated for the northeast DSA zone. In an Aug. 18 tweet, Trump called the aid “ridiculous,” and said “Saudi Arabia and other rich countries in the Middle East will start making payments instead.”
That stance forces Christians and other minority groups to take more seriously the roles of Russia, Iran, and Turkey, even as Christians became the first casualties in the tense standoff over Idlib. Mhardeh sits on the edge of the province, a mostly Christian city with four churches and a monastery, and with a nearby electrical substation often fought over by competing rebel groups.
Mhardeh has a defense force of about 200 fighters who have fought alongside the Syrian army, but they were no match for a September rebel offensive. Missile fire killed 10 civilians on Sept. 14, including six children, and two more residents died of injuries in the hospital later. One man lost his mother, his wife, and his three children when a missile hit his house, according to Middle East Eye.
The attack showed the vulnerability for Christians on any side in the war, and the fragile Idlib. The war’s outcome likely will be determined by outside forces—not those with property, family, and country at stake. Russia and Turkey could agree to go jointly after HTS, ridding Assad of key jihadists while further obligating him to two powers eager for greater influence in the Middle East. But in the confines of Syria with its proliferation of fighters, the lead powers also could blunder into a much wider war.