David Brooks, my favorite New York Times columnist, identifies "the biggest threat to world peace right now" as "the possibility of a wave of sectarian strife building across the Middle East." Others go even further. One British politician is warning that the conflict in Syria raises "the spectre of a third world war." Another news outlet headlines: "Could Syria ignite World War 3?"
Why does the Syrian conflict threaten world peace? What does it mean for Israel? For Christians in the Middle East and around the world?
Ryan Crocker is currently serving as the Kissinger Senior Fellow at Yale University and is a former U.S. ambassador to Syria. Crocker reminds us that the Syrian conflict did not begin with the Arab Spring, but in 1982, when the Assad regime systematically eliminated the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The government has been preparing for insurgency ever since. Unlike the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, it was ready for this war.
The Assad regime is backed by Iran and other Shias. The strongest opposition group, Jabhat al-Nusra, is the al Qaeda branch in Syria. The Free Syria Army is another insurgent group – backed by Sunnis, including Saudi Arabia, it has been accused of widespread atrocities against Christians in the country. As you can see, the conflict in Syria is a "proxy war," as Iran and Saudi Arabia work against each other to increase their leverage in the region. Meanwhile, Sunni vs. Shia tensions threaten to bring Iraq back into civil war and inflame tensions in Lebanon.
This situation affects Israel directly. Iranian lawmakers are warning that a military strike on Syria would lead to a retaliatory attack on Israel fanned by "the flames of outrage." The commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards states that an American attack on Syria "will result in the imminent destruction of the Zionist regime of Israel." Israelis take these threats seriously – last week, crowds thronged gas mask distribution centers in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and northern Israel.
Such anti-Israel rhetoric has been a staple of Iranian foreign policy for more than 30 years. Why? And why is it connected now to an American action against Syria?
Here's the part of the story that isn't getting much press: Iran's leader believes that attacking Israel would bring the Mahdi ("Guided One"), an Islamic messiah who would protect Muslims from retribution and dominate the world for Islam. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been the Supreme Leader in Iran since the death of his predecessor and founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1989. Iran elects a president every four years, but the real power in the nation resides with the Supreme Leader, who combines clerical and political power.
Khamenei is now regarded by many as the "Seyed Khorasani," the individual who will set the stage for the Mahdi's re-emergence. Khamenei claims that Ayatollah Khomeini told him, "it will be during the time of your leadership that the last Shiite Imam, Imam Mahdi, will re-appear." To fulfill this role, Khamenei would need to lead Muslims to attack Israel. How would he do so?
One way would be an appeal to the Qur'an, which requires Muslims to "fight in the way of Allah those who fight you" (Surah 2:190). If America strikes Syria, Khamenei can characterize our action as an attack by "infidels" against Muslims. He can then call on Muslims to defend Islam by attacking America and its ally, Israel. This attack would lead to the re-appearance of the Mahdi, fulfilling Khamenei's role and establishing a base for global Islamic domination.
Clearly, the stakes in Syria are higher than most of us imagine. Christians should seek divine wisdom for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-2) and protection for those in Syria and across the Middle East. We can pray for Ali Khamenei to meet Jesus in a vision or dream, the kind of miracle now happening across the Muslim world. And we are called to "pray for the peace of Jerusalem" (Psalm 122:6) today.