New York Times Magazine tells dramatic story of Aleppo, minus all that tricky religion stuff

Please allow me to start this post with a personal note, so that readers will understand my point of view when I write about Aleppo and the wider conflict in Syria.

When I converted into Eastern Orthodoxy 19 years ago, I joined the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Church -- which for centuries has been based in Damascus. For most of my 19 years in Orthodoxy I have been part of parishes that are largely made of American converts to the faith. But for four years (including Sept. 11, 2001) my family was active in a West Palm Beach, Fla., parish that was predominately made up of people from Syria and Lebanon.

Although I now am now active in a convert-oriented church with Russian roots, I still read Antiochian Orthodox publications. To be blunt: My daily prayers include petitions for the protection of Christians, and all of those suffering, in Damascus, Aleppo and that region.

However, Christians with ties to Syria have a very complex view of events there. I have often, here at GetReligion, quoted a 2013 sermon by an Antiochian leader here in America -- Bishop Basil Essey of Wichita, Kan. -- stating the following:

Anyone who prays for peace in Syria must acknowledge, at the beginning, that "vicious wrongs" have been done on both sides and that "there's really no good armed force over there. No one we can trust. None," concluded Bishop Basil.
"So the choice is between the evil that we know and that we've had for 30-40 years in that part of the world, or another evil we don't know about except what they've shown us in this awful civil war."

This brings me to an amazing, but for me ultimately frustrating, New York Times Magazine piece that ran with this headline: "Aleppo After the Fall -- As the Syrian civil war turns in favor of the regime, a nation adjusts to a new reality -- and a complicated new picture of the conflict emerges."

Note that the defeat of the rebels holding half of Aleppo is referred to as "the fall" of the city. Needless to say, there are others -- and not just enthusiastic supporters of President Bashar Hafez al-Assad -- who see that development as its liberation.

This piece (written in first-person voice by Robert F. Worth) does an amazing job when it comes to letting readers hear from voices on two sides of this story. The problem is that there are three essential voices in this story, if one looks at it from a religious, as opposed to strictly political, point of view. Worth hints at this several times, as in this thesis paragraph:

Its fall appears to have persuaded many ordinary Syrians that the regime, for all its appalling cruelty and corruption, is their best shot at something close to normality. This is almost certainly true for the Trump administration too. President Trump may call Assad an “animal” and hint at more airstrikes, but he cannot unseat him, because he knows that the alternative is not the kinder, gentler place once dreamed of by opposition activists. It is anarchy, where the warlords rule not from the presidential palace but from every town and every street.

The three essential groups in this drama are:

* Those who enthusiastically support Assad and who actively defend his brutal and mostly secular regime.

* Various forms of rebels (a very complex patchwork of forces on the ground) who have fought to overthrow this government. These forces range from Islamist rebels acting, in the past, with U.S. support to the forces of the Islamic State.

* Syrians who have reluctantly decided that the Assad regime, at the moment, is their only protection from radical Muslims who want to kill them (ISIS) or make them live in an Islamic state. This group includes Christians and other religious minorities, including Assad's own faith group, the Alawites (considered a heretical sect by radical Muslims).

As you can see, it is impossible to discuss these groups -- especially the third -- without getting into complicated details linked to religion.

But Worth is determined not to do that. Why? He states clearly:

What destroyed Aleppo? It was not the sectarianism that is often held up as a key to the Syrian war. It was not just “terrorism,” the word used by regime apologists to fend off any share of blame. Those things played a role, but the core of the conflict in Aleppo, as in much of Syria, was a divide between urban wealth and rural poverty.

This is absolutely true and a brilliant observation.

However, what is one of the primary differences between urban Syria and rural Syria?

Syrians I have known would stress that this divide between the rural people and urban people is usually expressed in terms of religious identities. It is a divide between the somewhat tolerant world of the old Aleppo, with its mix of Christians, Jews, Shia, secularists, Europeans, etc. -- and the almost totally Sunni Muslim world of small villages. This urban lifestyle is anathema to the dominant Islamist viewpoints outside the city (as, to his credit, Worth notes).

Read carefully, as the reporter talks with Ghassan Nasi, the owner of a destroyed factory near Aleppo:

I asked Nasi what had become of his workers. He said about 70 percent of them joined the rebels. He didn’t seem bitter or surprised about this. Some lived nearby, so when the area was divided, they had little choice. As for the others, they were poor and ill educated and religious, and the rebels promised them a lot. 

They were "religious," so the message of the rebels appealed to them. What does the word "religious" mean?

Again let me stress that Worth clearly knows that there are three major groups involved in this hellish drama. He knows that many Syrians do not want to support Assad, but believe that they have no other option. Once again, here is a variation on his thesis:

Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, triumphed in part by managing a constellation of rivals who hated one another but were all dependent on him. They knew that without him at the center, chaos would return, and that would be bad for business. This is truer than ever today. And it has a secondary effect, not unimportant: Many ordinary people now see Assad as their only hedge against a far more toxic kind of chaos.

Many of these "ordinary people" are secular people and some are rather worldly Muslims. Many are part of smaller sects on the edges of Islam, people whose beliefs would get them killed under ISIS or some of the rebel leaders. And many, many of these "ordinary people" are Christians, part of ancient churches that huddle for safety in Damascus and communities nearby.

Yes, economic issues and educational issues are crucial in this Syrian division between the cities and villages, between urban elites and the rural poor. No one needs to deny this.

But why was Worth, and the New York Times team, so determined to try to tell this story without providing details linked to religion, and especially without listening to the voices of endangered religious minority groups?

This is rather like trying to describe the blue "urban" vs. red "heartland" divides in America without discussing religious, moral and cultural issues. Why would anyone want to do that?

Why write only part of this drama? Where are the reopened churches in the war zone? Where are the parades through the streets of Aleppo with icons and hymns in the hours and days after the fall of the rebels? Isn't that at least a small PART of this story? What about the bishops, priests and nuns who are still missing and in the hands of rebels?

This reporter knows what is going on. His thesis statements are DEAD ON accurate -- other than ignoring the religious components in the stories of the complex, haunted, reluctant people who feel they have no option but to back Assad.

Let me end by stressing how powerful this magazine feature is, despite what I see as it's voluntary blindness on a key element of this story.

Let's end with the beginning, with part of the long, powerful opening anecdote in Worth's piece:

One morning in mid-December, a group of soldiers banged on the door of a house in eastern Aleppo. A male voice responded from inside: “Who are you?” A soldier answered: “We’re the Syrian Arab Army. It’s O.K., you can come out. They’re all gone.”
The door opened. A middle-aged man appeared. He had a gaunt, distinguished face, but his clothes were threadbare and his teeth looked brown and rotted. At the soldiers’ encouragement, he stepped hesitantly forward into the street. He explained to them, a little apologetically, that he had not crossed his threshold in four and a half years.
The man gazed around for a moment as if baffled, his eyes filling with tears. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad had just recaptured the city after years of bombing and urban warfare that had made Aleppo a global byword for savagery. This frail-looking man had survived at the war’s geographic center entirely alone, an urban Robinson Crusoe, living on stocks of dry food and whatever he could grow in his small inner courtyard. Now, as he stumbled through an alley full of twisted metal and rubble, he saw for the first time that the front lines, marked by a wall of sandbags, were barely 20 yards from his house.
Three months later, in March, he sat with me under the tall, spindly orange tree in his courtyard and described how he barricaded himself in when the fighting started. He goes by the name Abu Sami, and he has the mild, patient manners of a scholar; he taught at Aleppo University before the war. In the early days of the rebel takeover, he said, his nephews used to drop by with fresh bread and meat. But starting in 2013, the shelling grew worse, and he would go six months or more without seeing another human face.

You can probably guess my question. This man was a professor before the war. His name -- Sami -- is common among Christians, but other groups as well.

What is his religious identity? Why did he willingly open his door to the Syrian army? Why was he waiting for the rebels to leave to go outside?

As the story makes clear, many of these "ordinary Syrians" -- especially those in religious minority groups -- know that there are monsters on both sides of this horrible war. They know about the atrocities on both sides.

They know. Believe me, they know.

But in Syria, it's impossible to tell many of these stories without including religion. Why even try?

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