Why is Russia in Syria? Part 5 Protecting the Christians of Syria
Read Part 4 Here.
Syrian Christians have a Precarious Future
If Bashar al-Assad is overthrown, then it is very likely that the minorities of Syria will suffer greatly. Assad is far from a good man, but owing to the fact that he himself belongs to a minority sect, one that the Sunni majority do not like due to sectarian and religious reasons, then out of necessity he had to treat the other minority groups in Syria well so as to maintain their support. With Assad gone the protection these minorities enjoyed would also be gone.
An important segment of Syria’s minority population are the Christians who make up 10% of the total population, at least before the civil war started. Christianity in Syria goes back to just after the time of Jesus. In fact there are Assyrian Christians living in Syria who still speak the Aramaic language, the same language that Jesus spoke two millennia ago. The Christian tradition in Syria is ancient to say the least and currently there are Orthodox (majority), Nestorian, Catholic and Protestant denominations present there. Yet if Assad is toppled, this rich history and diversity may be brought to an end.
The problem is that the most likely replacement for Assad are Islamist groups such as ISIL or Jabat al-Nusra, and these groups consider Christians to be dhimmi peoples. Dhimmis are non-believers, therefore making them inferior to Muslims and worthy of damnation and destruction, but because they are People of the Book, they are shown tolerance if they agree to the dhimma, a contract which stipulates that they pay the jizya tax and abide by certain restrictions.[*] If they agree to and abide by the dhimma, then the dhimmis will be ‘protected’ by the Muslim authorities.
Some argue that the dhimmi system is an archaic part of Islam that is not practiced in our modern times. However, in the variant of Islam practiced by ISIL, the dhimmi system is not some historical relic, but is being currently implemented. ISIL has already instituted the dhimma and jizya among Christians in the Syrian town of Qaryatayn. According to an ISIL member if a Christian does not accept the dhimma and pay the jiyza then there are three possibilities. Firstly, the Christian men are killed and the women and children are enslaved. Secondly they can be “exchanged for prisoners, money, or booty.” And thirdly they can be allowed to leave the Caliphate.
This is the fate of the Syrian Christians if Assad falls. Either they must flee their ancient homeland, or willing accept the dhimma and live as humiliated inferiors, or be used as collateral, or be slaughtered and enslaved. Already in the lands that ISIL holds sway, Christians are being brutalized and butchered. As Raymond Ibrahim chronicles, Christians have been beheaded, tortured and raped by ISIL. Related to the Russian desire to maintain stability in Syria (see Part 4), if Assad is not maintained in power then the persecution of Syrian Christians will only intensify, a scenario which Russia seeks to avert or at the least ameliorate.
Why Would Russia Care?
Now one may wonder, especially the cynical, why would Russia care about Middle Eastern Christians? Is it not possible that this concern is merely feigned so as to provide a pretext to intervene in Syria? Of course it is always possible that Putin, being a former head of the FSB, crafted a brilliant deception to suit his Machiavellian interests, but it is perfectly sensible for Russia to be concerned by the plight of Christians in far away lands. While most people still equate the militant atheism of the Soviet Union with contemporary Russia, in fact Russia, had been for centuries, an Orthodox Christian civilization. While the communists tried their best to eradicate Christianity from the Soviet Union, they failed, and with the fall of Communism the Russian Orthodox Church has seen a revival in Russia. Today the Church in Russia plays a very prominent role, with it being supportive of Putin’s government and that government being supportive of it.
Undoubtedly the Russian Orthodox Church itself is for military intervention on behalf of their Christian brethren in Syria and the Middle East, many of whom are also Orthodox. Recently, in relation to Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, an important and prominent official in the Russian Orthodox Church, said that:
“The active position of our country has always been connected with protection of the weak and oppressed, like the Middle East Christians who are now experiencing a real genocide. Russia’s role has always been in protecting peace and justice for all Mideast peoples. … Whatever they are trying to justify terrorism with, it cannot be justified. Thus, any fight against terrorism is moral, we can even call it a holy fight.”
Thus Russia’s military intervention in Syria has been sanctioned by the Russian Orthodox Church.
Does Putin Care?
One may argue that the Church’s view of the conflict has nothing to do with Putin’s real motives. The Russian Orthodox Church may be sincere in its desire to help Syrian Christians, but that Putin is indifferent only caring about geopolitical concerns. This is a difficult issue for an outside observer to resolve, whether Putin is a true Christian or not, as how can another know what is in a man’s heart? Yet Putin professes, in a reserved manner, to be an Orthodox Christian who was secretly baptized as an infant by his mother. The famous Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, an ardent anti-communist and staunch Russian nationalist who was imprisoned in the Gulag, believed Putin to be a genuine Christian. Father Yakov Kratov, is a bit more skeptical but still acknowledges Putin’s faith. He has commented that:
“Putin has shown he is a believer, an Orthodox Christian, but when it comes to politics, he is a politician. That’s to say that he doesn’t support the Orthodox Church as a whole, he supports those Orthodox believers who were brought up by the Kremlin nomenclature over the past 60 years. He doesn’t even support the Orthodox faith in particular, he supports those aspects that are part of the religious elite. That’s to say he suppresses one group of Muslims, and supports another, he suppresses one group of Jews and supports another. It’s an old Soviet trick: selection. It’s a similar thing to what Hitler did.”
In 2013 Metropolitan Hilarion asked Putin whether the defense of Christianity would be a part of his foreign policy, to which Putin replied, “You needn’t have any doubt that that’s the way it will be.”
With all of this in mind, we can say Putin is a believing Orthodox Christian, but that he is still a pragmatic politician, who will not easily ignore political considerations. Therefore it is likely that Putin does have a connection with the Christians of Syria, and would provide them with assistance if it is politically feasible and as long as it is compatible with his nation’s interests. As such it is plausible that Putin is motivated by a desire to help Syrian Christians, but that this is not a salient reason for his military intervention in Syria.
Read Part 6 Here.
 For an overview of Christianity in Syria see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_Syria
[*] These restrictions included, wearing distinctive dress, and not being able to ride a horse, bear arms, marry Muslim women, convert Muslims or publicly offend or slight Islam. Dhimmi Christians could only build places of worship if they were no higher than the local Mosques and as long as their bells and services were inaudible to Muslim. See Chapter 2, The Reign of Antichrist of A History of the Crusades Volume 1 by Sir Steven Runciman.