Lt. Gen. (Ret.) William G. Boykin is Executive Vice President at Family Research Council. Travis Weber is Vice President for Policy at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Stream on December 21, 2018.
President Trump’s recent announcement that he will withdraw U.S. military forces from Northern Syria aims to fulfill a campaign promise that he will defeat ISIS and bring home our troops. Yet it stands to put Syria’s Christian community — who have been a target of ISIS — in mortal danger.
Compounding the danger of a withdrawal is the irony that it won’t likely help the president achieve his promise. While ISIS has suffered, it is not finished. Some reports show that ISIS still controls territory and has forces in place capable of again mounting a serious insurgency in the future. Indeed, the Department of Defense stated just this past August that “ISIS retains nearly 30,000 fighters across Iraq and Syria and is ‘more capable’ than Al-Qaeda in Iraq — ISIS’s predecessor — at its peak in 2006–2007.” Such a force would pose a serious threat to all peace-loving and free areas in Syria, including the Federation of Northern Syria.
In recent years, the Federation has emerged as a religious freedom miracle. There, people of all faiths live side by side in peace. They are the type of allies the United States should be seeking in the Middle East and around the world. While the deck is typically stacked against religious freedom in this region, within the Federation even “converts from Islam can build a new church — rather than face the death penalty” as they often do elsewhere. The Federation is a glimmer of hope in a dim part of the world.
We must not snuff it out now by withdrawing our military forces. ISIS is still active, and still wants to wipe out all its opponents — especially former Muslims who have chosen Christ, who are considered apostates and marked for death. This is an incredible religious freedom problem within Muslim communities worldwide. Against this dark backdrop, the Federation stands as a shining City on a Hill.
This problem is hard to understand for those of us in the modern United States, where we enjoy such freedom to choose what we believe and how we will live. Despite our rancorous and argumentative public square, we don’t kill people for choosing to believe differently. But within much of the Islamic world, leaving Islam (apostasy) is punishable by death. And given the fusion of Islamic law and governmental power, those in control often use their power to execute apostates. On top of this, ISIS has an even more extreme interpretation of apostasy than many other Muslims.
If the U.S. withdraws from this part of Syria, then Turkey — whose recent claim to religious freedom fame is its unjust detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson — is ready to step in. Our withdrawal would also allow Iran to expand its influence in the region and menace its neighbors, including Israel. Violent jihadists everywhere will see it as a signal to slaughter Christians, Yazidis, and others.
The Federation of Northern Syria is committed to democracy, the rule of law, and religious freedom, including full rights for all faiths, women, and Muslim converts to Christianity. A number of its residents have fled there after being pursued by jihadists elsewhere in Syria. The destruction of their new safe haven now could destroy all future hope for full religious freedom for Christians and others in the Middle East. Further, failing to cultivate such religious-freedom-loving areas in the Middle East would contribute to the region’s destabilization in the long run, causing its inhabitants to flee to surrounding areas and around the world (something many of them don’t want to have to do).
Only one week ago, President Trump signed legislation to bring aid to Christians and other victims of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Right now, the Federation of Northern Syria is committed to religious freedom for all in its territory, helping ensure that such aid is not needed in the future — and not needed again, and again, in the future — when stability eludes us because religious freedom has not been cultivated in the region. Yet the Federation must be empowered to hold on to its territory in order to ensure this religious freedom for future generations.
Our withdrawal from this part of Syria would betray our allies in the Middle East — once again. This type of betrayal is hard, if not impossible, to recover from. Further, abandoning them now could deal an incalculable blow to our professed concern for Christians being slaughtered by ISIS, and to our reputation as a supporter of religious freedom worldwide. We must not do it.