Irina Tsukerman
Irina Tsukerman

Putin’s Show “Crusade” in Syria Is a Boon for Iran, Not So Much For Western Christians Who Lionize Him

Russia’s very own President Putin manages to find supporters in the strangest of places. The most recent trend is for Christians and COnservatives of particular stripes to laud him as a strong leader, defender of Christendom, and so forth.  Indeed, it appears, Putin received an official approval from the Russian Orthodox Church, prior to engaging in Syria. Putin’s true motivations for presence in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence are much more likely to be geopolitical (expansionist ambitions, which have started with the invasion of Georgia and Ukraine), and include a desire to continue appear strong despite the domestic morass and the failure to resolve the Ukrainian issue quickly completely. And of course, the desire to keep a friendly dictator in power, and remain in control of key waterways plays an important part in Putin’s crusading adventures.

The reality on the ground could not be any farther from the image this former KGB officer hopes to project. First of all, the idea of this Communist functionary being a defender of Christian faith is laughable for anyone even remotely familiar with Soviet party actors. Second, Putin himself is far from an example of Christian ethics. He is responsible to murders and assaults of the opposition, and with increasingly more evidence, even assassinations abroad.  That a whole generation of Cold Warriors would fall for what amounts to yet another example of crudely deceptive Soviet propaganda is mind-boggling Putin’s allegedly pro-Christian credentials are further challenged by his appeals to Stalin to boost his own popularity and browbeat the Russians into accepting additional sacrifices. Stalin was not exactly religion-friendly. Cognitive dissonance much?  Facts on the ground do not support Putin’s claims. Putin’s forces  actually seemed to avoid areas where the Christians he allegedly vowed to protect reside; and until very recently hardly touched on ISIS strongholds at all. Instead, he sought to prop up the bloodthirsty Assad regime responsible for this mess (and which this year alone killed far more people than ISIS),  and which continues to target civilians. His airstrikes have killed numerous civilians,  which Putin continues to deny despite numerous reports, and contributed to the chaos and destruction. Despite Putin’s (and Obama’s) claims that Assad has protected the Christians, Assad is actually responsible for the murder, torture, and disappearance of many. Increasing number of narratives of Syrian Christians living abroad dispute Assad’s image as a champion of religious minorities.

Meanwhile Putin’s pseudoreligious rhetoric is the “Christian” equivalent of Islamism, which so many of his newfound supporters and admirers fear and reject, for good reasons. How is Putin’s device different from a more humanitarian  idea of the Just War? For one, he is siding with a murderous despot, and for many months failed to attack many of the actual terrorists that were the alleged causus belli for Russia’s intervention. Second, the numerous accusations of significant civilian casualties make it apparent that Putin makes no attempt to minimize collateral damage, and thus his actions are not in line with justified warfare, but rather, it is clear that he is pursuing his own agenda. The Crusading rhetoric fires up the brainwashed masses that follow him in the increasingly impoverished Russia, but cause only divisions and factionalism among anyone on the other side of the “clash of civilizations” and who already views foreigners with suspicion. There is no need for it, other than incitement and giving a vague cause to distract from the fact that RUssian soldiers are dying in large numbers for obscure reasons, and as sources close to the reality on the ground inform, their caskets have to be taken home through Ukraine just to minimize the appearance of the number of fallen soldiers from area, a hard sell by all accounts. Russia has been taking pains to hide its own death toll in Syria. Apparently, even a “Crusade” is not enough to justify its involvement in a country far away, while food in its own stores is disappearing under the weight of its own self-imposed sanctions.

Russia’s return to the use of religion for political goals, and namely, to justify increasing repression within its borders and interventionalist policy abroad is disturbing enough on its own.  When Crusading rhetoric (which comes not far off from Erdogan’s comments about liberating Jerusalem and which have been soundly condemned by anyone with an ounce of common sense or decency), however, is employed in the service of supporting dangerous alliances and deceiving its own followers even in that regard, you know we are entering a well-charted territory of efficacious political manipulation which has nothing to do with religious fervor. We are facing an interesting phenomenon, when the main beneficiary of this “Crusade” is none other than the Islamic Republic of Iran, itself intent on creating a Shi’a caliphate in a resuscitated Persian empire. Syria is an area of importance for both Iran and Russia. Iran has allowed Russia to pursue its own ambitions in Syria, having expended quite a lot of resources arming Hezbullah and other paramilitary forces and militias fighting ISIS and other groups and supporting the inconvenient ally Bashir al-Assad.

Iran’s air force is rather paltry, and thus it has not been able to do what Russia can – launch effective airstrikes while minimizing human casualties. Its militias have been forced to engage in costly ground warfare and suffered great losses. Allowing Russia to fight its own battles, albeit in the name of obscure religious tones is a win-win for Iran. Syria has been a traditional sphere of influence for Russia, and Russia’s direct control over it will not deter Iran from pursuing its own regional ambitions. On the contrary, having an ally in the region will prove important in terms of military partnerships, trade, guaranteed access to resources, and other such benefits. It is not wise for Iran to try to stop Russia from asserting increased control, because, in the event the West fails to achieve a decisive victory, however it defines it, in Syria, a chaotic, Sunni-driven territory, with a variety of scenarios, will present additional challenges, as we have already seen with Iran’s ground forces. That is not to say that in the long term, Iran may not want to reassert direct control over the area, but first it will need time to build up its conventional military capabilities, restrengthen its wounded “Foreign Legion”, and get whatever it needs from Russia before dealing its “Christian” ally a fatal blow.

Meanwhile, the fact that Russia is expending precious resources in Syria is an additional boon to Iran. Russia and Iran’s complicated relationship make this partnership somewhat tense; nevertheless the two regimes need each other for the time being and are forced to compromise on a number of issues. That Iran is throwing Russia a bone in this scenario, rather than Russia is coming away as a winner, seems to be evident based on a number of factors.  One is that Iran is a rising power, which has just concluded a successful arrangement (or whatever way you wish to describe the nuclear deal) and will be attracting a great number of investors. It has already started modernizing and expanding its military and air force.  Russia, on the other hand, is struggling to hang on to the remnants of its former influence. It has likewise succeed in wooing away Egypt from the west, less so on its own merits than due to untrustworthy actions and perceived indifference and betrayal by the current administration in the United States. It is also working hard to woo the Kurds in Syria and Turkey, largely to spite Erdogan and the West, but even that is ultimately playing into Iran’s hands.  In reality, Russia, pressured by the shortage in trade with many of its traditional allies, is in a rather sticky situation. Putin, trying to assert his might, may have overplayed his hand, and driven himself into a corner in Syria. Whether or not Syria will prove to be a military quagmire for him, as some have predicted, remains to be seen. For now, it is increasingly looking like Assad may by concerted efforts of everyone involved remain in power for some unspecified period of time. Still, all of this is draining. Although this situation allows Russia to look like a hero and savior of everyone, just as it did with its proposal to assist in removing chemical weapons from Assad (which ultimately turned into an epic fail), in reality, Russia has expended a lot of resources in Syria, and has spread its military too thin attempting to maintain presence in three places, while also facing increasing economic stagnation. Despite its own ambitions, Russia is not a rising power. It may derive some level of economic benefit from increased infrastructural and defense projects with its small circles of allies, but its importance is that of a mischief-maker and destroyer, rather than a rising economic superpower.

Second, is that in reality Russia has a great deal more at stake in Syrian than Iran does. For Iran, Assad’s eventual departure is a foregone conclusion. It is fighting to stave off ISIS and biding for time, while working out a long-term plan of action (to be described in a future article).  Syria’s importance for Iran is that of a gateway. Destabilization of the region is helpful to Iran, since it can afford to sit back and watch while allowing others to fight all the battles for it. Russia cannot afford such luxury. If Putin fails in Syria, his image as a nationalist hero, defender of Christians, and a strongman will crumble.  Syria’s importance is in asserting a sense of importance and presenting a particular image to the West. For Iran, that battle is already won. Iran has gotten what it needs from the West and now all it needs is more time with a weak US administration or two to rebuild its strength and be able to deal with internal problems successfully. Russia’s population is relatively docile for now, but Russia also has fewer prospects from Iran, and unlike the Islamic Republic which managed to deceive many into believing into a possibility of some sort of rational rapprochement, which would miraculously benefit all sides, no one is holding up much hope for Russia while Putin is in power. He has come across as aggressive, one-dimensional, and unsympathetic that other than a fairly confused group of admirers, he has won few followers in the West. That is not to say the West has not fallen prey to some of his damaging influence. Overall, however, Putin’s ultimate ambition of reigniting a Soviet empire is a grandiose fantasy.

There is some irony in the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church, in voicing its support for Putin’s ambitions in Syria, chose to refer to this “adventure” as a Crusade. What appeared to be a big deal for Christians back in the day, seemed a mere skirmish for Saladdin (See Ephraim Karsh’s Islamic Imperialism). Similarly, though Syria may prove to be the undoing of many, including Putin and his supporters, for Iran, that battle may ultimately be a mere skirmish. Indeed, Iran has sacrificed a number of Revolutionary Guards, but it has won much more through its dealings with the West, and should its plans succeed will view the current events in Syria as nothing more than an unfortunate misadventure.  Russia is helping Iran clear the path. In exchange, it is allowed to salvage its reputation tarnished by the shameful fiasco in Ukraine, in addition to its recent and ever–worsening spat with the United Kingdom over the targeted assassination of its former spy,  and the crashing course of the ruble to boot. Russia is allowed the legitimacy of participating in all the talks around the division of Syrian territory with all the big boys, just like in the good old days, though thanks to his vast human rights violations, Putin should be a persona non grata in any Western country worth its salt. Iran is adopting Russia as its partner, Putin is allowed to play along. Interestingly, Russia with its presence is granting Iran some level of legitimacy as well, being a “Christian” country, allegedly standing up for Western ideals, and serving as an intermediary between Iran, which only recently was considered part of the Axis of Evil, and the SUnnis, with some of whom Russia manages to maintain good working relations.  Indeed, Russia is now allowed to set its own agenda and terms as a reward for standing by its Persian ally. Still, in Putin’s demands at the failing Geneva talks, one can discern the Iranian footprint, and it’s becoming harder to distinguish between the partners. Putin’s agenda is becoming subsumed by the SUpreme Leader’s. Ensuing confusion and chaos at the talks are precisely the sort of effect Iran is seeking… it has a long-term vision. For Russia, annoying the West and appearing strong and stalwart is vision enough.

And what about the Western Christians and Conservatives? Where do they fit in this uneasy alliance? They do not. Syrian Christians continue to die and remain displaced. Putin’s admirers have failed in pressuring the State Department into accepting Christian refugees. Putin’s warmongering has not benefited anyone, nor has he spread any Christian values, unless higher rates of HIV in Russia count as such. Putin is an equal opportunity dealer – he deals with Israel, Iran, Hezbullah, (until recently) Hamas and Turkey, Egypt, China, and frankly, just about anyone who does not directly piss him off.  There are no Christian or any other values to speak off. Putin is a classic kleptocrat supported by the forces that may just as easily destroy him should he show weakness. Still, for now, he will keep holding on, since the Western powers have embraced him and and Aytollah Khamenei as partners for peace in the region.  What remains certain is the following:

  1. As of now, Iran and Russia are seeking a new proxy to take place of Assad should he fall after all.
  2. Even if warfare in Syria will continue unabated, Russia will not going to withdraw is forces, but will likely increase them as necessary for quite a long period of time. How much of a quagmire it will ultimately turn out to be remains to be seen, but commitment here is not just ideological but practical. Should Putin come to be seen as week or a failure, he is doomed.
  3. China has been actively involved in Africa for quite some time, but is now building its first military base in Djibouti. That means it has its eyes set on the Middle East as its next sphere of influence, quite likely in partnership, rather than in competition with Iran and Russia. China’s potential involvement in Syria will surely benefit Iran and Russia, though more likely Iran than Russia. Russia and CHina have always had a competitive tension; not so with Iran, which is viewed by CHina as one of its most desirable trading partners. (Watch out for analysis on a toxic military alliance between these two in the future). THis interesting pairing of Communist state, an anti-Western nationalist pseudoChristian kleptocracy, and an Islamic Republic will make for a particularly distasteful mixture, which nevertheless, will be embraced and justified by the West.
  4. ISIS will eventually be pushed back, as will other Sunni terrorist groups… but new ones will emerge. More than one country is benefiting from the perpetuation of conflict in Syria, and if I were serious about “deconflciting” and creating any sort of stability there, I would be looking very careful into the financial resources funding these groups and assisting these groups and working hard to cut it off.  Except if one looks hard enough, one will see to discover that everyone actually benefits from the presence of ISIS in the area. Turkey benefits financially, and keeps the Kurds away from creating an increased autonomy-cum-state. Russia needs something to fight. Iran needs a force of destabilization.  And the United States need a reason to justify its increased military cooperation with Iran and allowing Russia and Iran to issue demands in spite of their obviously unjustifiable actions on many fronts.
  5. Saudi Arabia’s peculiar alliance of surprised misfits will fall apart into oblivion and KSA will need to find a real set of military allies to create an actual military force in the area. Even the most interesting alliances and the greatest expenditures on mercenaries and contractors may not suffice. The Gulf States may actually have to expend resources into upgrading and training their own armies. And even that may not be enough. Watch out for Jordan’s greater involvement… even, perhaps, for appeal to other Asian countries.  We already see a number of Colombian contractors fighting Saudi’s proxy war in Yemen. Ultimately, however, these groups will need people with local knowledge, expertise, and ability to infiltrate both ISIS and Shi’a forces, not to mention Russia.
  6. Kurds remain a wild card. Ultimately, they would prefer a strong US military presence in the area, but this administration will continue to hemm, haw, and hesitate, because its interest lies in Iran and not in Kurds. An independent Kurdistan or even stronger Kurds actually interfere with this administration’s vision of the region. Ultimately, what will happen is that some anti-Iranian powers will come to their senses and start arming Kurds to a significantly greater extent than what is being done now, whether the US likes it or not. Why do I think this time it’s going to be different from any other times Kurds were used and dumped by their “allies”? Because the stakes are much higher, and a number states in the regions are now facing existential crisis.  Fragmentation of the Kurds is a significant challenge to be overcome. Until some level of unity is achieved, they will continue to be wantonly used and manipulated by stronger powers.
  7. If ISIS seriously goes after Russia internally, its Crusading rhetoric may well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Russia had succeeded in pacifying Chechnya through a combination of warfare, brutal suppression, and vast bribery.  Many Chechens, however, have joined ISIS, and are spoiling for a fight. If their Syrian caliphate fails, they will go after greener pastures. And Russia will eventually become a prime target. To be expected: assorted terrorist attacks within Russia. Recruitment in Russia itself may prove to be a challenge due to a much greater Internet control by the government. Still, this group has been pretty ingenuous in its tactics and may yet surprise us all.
  8. Finally, it seems that the same people who cheer on Putin turn out to be the most vocal of Donald Trump supporters. The same support for shrill authoritarianism and paranoia can be observed in both cases. These “Christians” and “Conservatives” should examine their premises. Putin is not an example of strong leadership and neither is Trump. Both don’t know what they heck they are actually doing and have managed to get themselves and others around them intro tremendous financial messes. Avoid thoughtless entanglements, my friends. Don’t vote for Trump, don’t support Putin. Learn from what’s happening in Russia and don’t let it happen here.


About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.