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2 of Valley's prominent Syrian-Americans fear U.S. being duped by rebels

| Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
The Very Rev. Meletios Zafaran, a Syrian native, states his support for Syria President Assad while speaking in the sanctuary of St. George Orthodox Church in New Kensington, where he is the pastor, on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013.

With a U.S. military strike against Syria looming, some local residents of Syrian descent say it would be a mistake.

The debate on U.S. intervention into what has been widely described as a civil war has grown since chemical weapons were used against civilians on Aug. 21. That attack reportedly killed 1,400 civilians in a Damascus suburb. The Obama administration claims it was carried out by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against its own people.

However, the veracity of that claim is at issue as no conclusive proof has been made public yet.

Dr. Samuel Cross of Ford City, whose parents came from Syria, and the Rev. Meletios Zafaran, pastor of the St. George Orthodox Church in New Kensington, do not believe the chemical attack was carried out by Assad's government.

They believe it was done by the other side in the two-year-old conflict, those referred to as the Syrian rebels but actually include a U.S. enemy, al-Qaida.

“First of all, it's not a civil war,” said Cross, a retired surgeon who worked at Armstrong County Memorial Hospital. “In fact, it's the surrounding states that are financing this war.”

He claims the “Syrian rebels” come from 28 countries such as Chechnya, Iraq, Turkey and even the United States. “These are outside forces, and here is the significant thing, they are being financed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates,” Cross said. “They are being paid about $100 a day.”

Cross believes those countries are motivated, at least in part, by economic aims. He said Qatar produces a lot of natural gas and Saudi Arabia produces large amounts of oil. According to Cross, Russia is the leading supplier of both commodities to Europe, a market that Qatar and Saudi Arabia want to get into. Cross' contention is the countries aim to accomplish that by running pipelines through Syria.

Zafaran immigrated to the United States in 2005 and has been pastor at St. George since 2010. He said both of his parents as well as four brothers and three sisters live in Syria between Damascus and its suburbs. He is in contact with them almost daily and said two days ago, a rocket hit a house across the street from his parents' house.

“I do not call it a civil war; I call it an al-Qaida war against the Syrian people,” Zafaran said. “I wish I understood what they are doing. It's a war against Christians. They are destroying churches and killing priests.”

He compared it to the situation in Egypt, where Muslim extremists have killed Coptic Christians and destroyed their churches. But, he said, mosques also have been attacked, including a Sunni mosque because its imam supports Assad. Sunni Muslims are in the majority in Syria, but Assad is a Muslim of the Alawite Shiite sect. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE are predominantly Sunni nations.

Zafaran and Cross said that up until two years ago when the war started, there was no sectarian violence in Syria.

“Assad is a dictator, but he is a secular ruler the same as Gadhafi was and the same as Saddam Hussein was,” Cross observed.

“Assad protects the Christians, the Muslims, the Sunni Muslims and the Jews. They were all getting along before.”

From Zafaran's perspective, a chemical attack by the Assad government makes no sense.

“As we see it now, more than 80 percent of the Syrian people support their government,” he said. “The government wouldn't kill their supporters, that's stupid.”

Furthermore, Zafaran points out that the most recent attack was carried out just after a United Nations team investigating the use of chemical weapons arrived in Syria. He and Cross said that would make such an attack by Assad even more implausible.

“My point is, Syria would never use chemical weapons because it would give them (U.N.) an excuse to come into the country,” Cross said. “Why would you use it against civilians and not the rebels? Why would you use chemical weapons when the U.N. is in Aleppo investigating the use of chemical weapons?”

Both believe that the United States is being lured into making a mistake.

“It's sad,” Cross said. “One hundred thousand Syrians have already been killed and how many more will be killed if they use these Tomahawk missiles?”

Asked what the United States should do, Zafaran replied, “If we want to help the Syrian people, we have to listen to the Syrian people. Saudi Arabians, Jordanians, Qataris — they are not Syrians. Go there. Go to Syria, talk to the Syrian people and find out what they want.”

“It's not an issue between the government and the people. It is an issue coming from outside Syria,” he said. “Somebody wants Syria to be weak, to divide Syria and kill the Syrian people.”

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at tyerace@tribweb.com.

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