Ever since the struggle in Syria began, the Obama administration has consistently underestimated Russia’s commitment to the Assad regime. Even last week we were hearing hopeful noises from Washington about possible moves on the issue in Moscow.
The roots of Russia’s support for Butcher Assad go deep. This is much more than nostalgia for Russia’s last Middle East ally from Soviet days. This is about getting back in touch with Russia’s pre-communist foreign policy traditions, and about Putin’s relations with one of his most reliable and important bases of support: the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church has historically exerted a strong pull on Russian policies overseas, especially in defense of Christian minorities in the Balkans and Middle East. Throughout the events of the Arab Spring, Russia has been reluctant — to put it kindly — to join the efforts to unseat dictators like Hosni Mubarak and Bashar Assad. Though these tyrants have often been brutal toward many of their citizens, Christian minorities have, by and large, thrived under their rule.
The Orthodox Church does not drive Russia’s foreign policy by itself, but it is certainly a force to be reckoned with. A few months ago, president-elect Vladimir Putin went to Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the chairman of the Russian patriarchate’s department of external church relations, with a pledge to support the Church with millions of dollars in donations to Church causes and institutions. The metropolitan did not want money. He wanted the Russian government to protect the Christians of the Middle East. “So it will be,” Putin promised.
Christians make up 10 percent of Syria’s population, about 2.5 million people. Bashar Assad has long protected them, and many of them support him still. Syrian Christians fear the intentions of the rebels fighting the regime. They worry about the anti-minority sentiments espoused by some of the leaders of the Syrian National Council, many of whom are Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood. Like Syria’s Kurds and other minorities, Syrian Christians prefer the stability of the Assad government to the turmoil that could follow if the regime collapsed.
In the face of the violent crackdown by the Syrian government on its citizens, an outsider might question the Syrian Christians’ support for Butcher Assad, which seems wrong on moral grounds not to mention contrary to the teachings of Christianity itself. But Syrian Christians feel threatened, a fear exploited by Assad: Support me, he told a group of Christian leaders only days after the rebellion began last year, or your churches will burn.
The Russian Orthodox Church hears these fears. Under great secrecy, Patriarch Kirill I visited Damascus late last year, by which time observers say the Assad regime had killed 3,500 people and Syria had been suspended from the Arab League. The patriarch appeared in public with his Syrian counterpart, flanked by portraits of Bashar Assad. He praised Syria’s protection of Christians and made no mention of the violence sweeping the country.
As the rebellion continues, some Syrian Christians have ditched Assad. Others have doubled down. Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch, who earlier stood by the Assad regime, has recently backed away. Many of those Syrian Christians who stick with him do so out of fear. Some elements of the rebel forces have proven themselves no friends of Christians: reports of churches burned and Christians expelled from cities have been broadcast on Syrian state television and by the Syrian Orthodox Church. During the government’s siege of Homs earlier this year, the Church decried what it called ethnic cleansing and forced relocation of Christians by the under-siege rebel fighters.
Stories like that have reinforced the position of the Russian Orthodox Church, and with it the Russian government’s determination to side with Assad, with stability, with safety for Syria’s minorities. Church leaders view Western efforts to eject Assad and to support rebel forces with weapons and explosives as naive at the least, perhaps dangerous. “Only bloody chaos will result from shortsighted attempts to plant, in a biblical region, political models from a different civilizational matrix, without taking into account the worldview and values that have shaped peoples’ lives for centuries and millennia,” Reverend Nikolai Balashov, the deputy chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s department of external church relations, told the New York Times. “Forming foreign policy without accounting for the religious factor could lead to a catastrophe, to the deaths of thousands and millions.”
Syria’s Christian communities are ancient. It was in Antioch that followers of Jesus were first called Christians and through the ages, under one ruler or another, Christians have survived persecution and marginalization in the place we now know as Syria.
Russia’s concern for Syrian Christians is also nothing new. Although the Communists were more interested in hounding and enslaving religious believers than protecting them, under the czars Russia was officially recognized by the Ottoman sultans as the protector of Orthodox Christians throughout the Turkish empire. In the 18th and 19th century Russian concern for these Christians (married to a concern for its geopolitical ambitions) frequently shaped Russian policy towards the Ottomans and the West. The Crimean War at one point brought Russia into war with Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire over a quarrel between Russia and France over their rights to represent and protect Ottoman Christians in the Holy Land.
As Putin and the people around him look to rebuild Russian identity and Russian policy in the wake of the Soviet collapse, the Orthodox Church is an important focus for their work. Internally, Orthodox Christianity can replace Marxism-Leninism as a philosophical basis for Russian patriotism and identity. In a country where the principle alternatives to Putinism seem to be fascism on the right and communism on the left, the importance of the Russian Orthodox Church as a mass base for conservative and nationalist but non-crazy Russian politics should not be undervalued. Externally, Orthodox Christians in the Balkans and the Middle East are eager to renew their relations with a power that sympathizes with their needs and world view. Regardless of Putin’s own religious views, an alliance with Orthodoxy is vital to any attempt to govern Russia and to rebuild its foreign influence.
The Obama administration seems to have underestimated the depth of Russia’s commitment to its Syria policy, and even to have misunderstood the moral foundations of Russia’s approach. For Putin, support for Assad isn’t just a cynical ploy to support geopolitical interests (though it is that); it is also an important way to rally support from Russian nationalists and Christians at home.
Russia feels itself far more fundamentally challenged by radical Islam than does the United States. The war in Chechnya, and terrorism throughout the Caucasus make religious radicalism a far more dangerous force in Russia. The French and the Obama administration have done their best to see the opposition as tolerant liberal and secular democrats, a view that gets less plausible as the conflict drags on. Russia takes just the opposite approach and sees the opposition as a weak coalition that can easily be dominated by dangerous religious extremists. (The role of the Saudis in bankrolling and supporting the Syrian opposition does nothing to allay these fears.) Russia may well be convinced that the greatest danger in Syria is another triumph for the Sunni radicalism that they fear will engulf their own country in a savage war.
Bitter religious warfare and memories of Islamic persecution are one of the forces that hold Orthodox Christians in the Balkans, Russia and the Middle East together. The long Islamic conquest of the Orthodox world, the destruction of Orthodox empires and kingdoms and the subjugation of Orthodox Christians to alien Islamic rule remains a vibrant memory. It connects the Serbs, the Greeks, the Greek Cypriots, the Russians, Bulgarians and many others — and Czarist Russia’s role in breaking Islamic rule and restoring freedom to Christian communities in the Balkans is remembered.
Linked to that memory are memories of Western Christian treachery and betrayal. From the Fourth Crusade, ostensibly sent to protect Eastern Christians but turned into a piratical assault on Constantinople, to memories of how the westerners made their help conditional on Orthodox submission to the authority of the Popes, a history of betrayal shapes the Orthodox political mind in many of these countries.
Today’s western support for “democracies” in the Middle East that turn into Islamist states fits into this historical pattern in the view of many people in the Orthodox world. From Serbia and Moscow, the dangers seem much more immediate than the dilettantes in Washington understand. Turkey’s ‘neo-Ottoman’ return to Islamist policies, Islamism rising across the Arab world, short sighted Western policies that stigmatize and oppress Orthodox resisters against the Islamic surge (Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo, Russians in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Dagestan), or that stab eastern Christians in the back (‘unfair’ EU austerity in Greece, support for Islamists in Egypt and Syria, the destruction of the ancient Christian community in Iraq following the US invasion): all these revive memories and trigger reflexes that were already old in 1800.
Russia and the Orthodox are not always right in their views, and the close ties between the Church leadership and the Putinocracy are likely to be bad for both church and country in the end. (The close relations between the czars and the church also did not end well.) But the Obama administration is looking a bit like a babe in the woods as it prattles on about democracy and keeps nudging Russia to sign up for overthrowing Assad.
Putin’s support for Assad is grounded much more deeply in a tragic sense of history and in political and national interest than Washington seems to grasp. The killing of 10,000 Syrians, the undoubted atrocity that has US diplomats throwing whole dictionaries of invective at Assad and his backers, is a relatively small thing given the scope and scale of atrocities and murders that swept through Eastern Europe and the Middle East in the last two hundred years. Susan Rice judges Syria by the standards of post 1990 western Europe; Putin and Russia are judging matters in the context of two hundred and more years of slaughter and genocide.
To the Russians, western indignation over Assad’s crimes looks like self indulgent moralistic posturing, separated from any serious thought about the power realities on the ground. Are the Americans prepared to garrison troops in Syria for decades to protect its minorities from Sunni revenge and power seeking if things go wrong? If not, why are they flapping their lips and waving their arms about democracy and universal rights, posturing like moral saviors when they are really just cheap poseurs?
Anglo-Saxon liberal optimism and deep Russian pessimism both sometimes go fatally wrong. I suspect that Syria is a case in which neither Washington nor Moscow has a genuinely workable policy. But Washington looks particularly clueless in that it doesn’t just seem to be rejecting the Russian point of view; it seems completely unaware that such a point of view exists, and that even if the Russians don’t have the right answers, they have asked vital questions that Washington doesn’t understand.
The reality is that neither Washington nor any of its pro-democracy western allies are willing not only to overthrow Assad but to provide long term security for Syrian minorities when he falls. Without that kind of commitment, the religious minorities in Syria (Alawite and Christian) fear persecution, exile and genocide. They may well be wrong and I hope they are wrong, but the grim facts of world history mean that their fears cannot be dismissed.
From this perspective, Putin and his Orthodox allies aren’t resisting the West because its commitment to democracy and pluralism is too strong. They are resisting the West in Syria because they believe that the western commitment to Syria’s minorities is pathetically weak.
To understand Russia’s view is not to accept it as gospel, but to fail to understand it is to build Middle East policy on hopes and illusions. The Obama administration is still well short of a serious policy for Syria; the limits of its world view prevent it from grasping the nature of the forces with which it must deal.