Lebanon/Syria Brief – February 2019

Responding to Turmoil through Unity in the Church

By Chaden Hani

 

News

To the surprise of all, US President Donald Trump announced last month that the Islamic State militant group had been defeated in Syria and US troops in the country would be returning home. To many in the region, the palpable fear is that an imminent U.S. withdrawal from Syria would open the way for Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East.

A withdrawal of the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria would have many implications for the political and military climate in the Middle East and North Africa, specifically the political divisions taking shape in the wake of Syria and Libya’s exclusion from the regional Arab Economic Summit hosted in Lebanon last month.

Analysis

Regional and international powers will intensify their efforts to fill the vacuum created by the US withdrawal. Russia, Iran, Turkey, Islamic extremist groups, and the Syrian regime will each compete to secure their interests in Syria. Apart from granting a free hand for the Russians to continue supporting the Syrian regime, Turkey will be granted advanced weapons systems and become a decisive voice in Syria’s future. Likewise, Turkey will inherit a clear path to attacking the YPG (Syrian Kurdish Fighters of the People’s Protection Unit), the US’s local military partners who have been instrumental in fighting IS forces but are considered a terrorist organization by Turkey. Israel too will be affected, as it faces the prospect of an increased Iranian presence across its border. An additional regional concern is the regrouping of scattered IS forces.

Finally, as mentioned above, the withdrawal gives Iran an unobstructed path to retaining a significant military and intelligence presence in Syria. Iran, being the major player in Syria, began exerting its influence on the region by pushing its Lebanese allies to boycott the Arabic Economic Summit for the purpose of countering the Sunni majority backed by the Saudi Regime.

Theological and Missiological Implications

Throughout history, the Church has faced many situations of political unrest and turmoil. The scriptures tell us, however, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Heb13:8). God is faithful; He has sustained His Church in the Middle East for reasons beyond our understanding. The unity of the church should overshadow the divisions we see happening within the socio-political fabric of the Middle East. Politics has an agenda of its own: to struggle over the distribution of power and wealth, to divide and rule. But, the church must strive toward unity amidst our inherent divisions. Political tensions and alignments must remain outside the church:

For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?  What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task” (1Cor 3:4-5).

Unity, in the midst of diversity, is the basis for our belief in the triune God and it should be reflected in our lives and relations. Churches in Lebanon and Syria are the means through which this unity is reflected, together with the global church. A withdrawal from the politics of power and domination does not imply a humanitarian withdrawal, but rather solidarity with and support for the purpose of strengthening the body of the one church of Jesus Christ in humble, sacrificial service to the surrounding world.