Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Fascinating analysis on Russia's support for Syria from Walter Russel Mead:
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...

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.
Read the whole thing.
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