Christians in Syria can date the origins of their faith as far back as any group on the planet, and many Christians there still speak Aramaic, just like Jesus did. But since the escalated conflict in 2011, the nation’s Christian population has dropped from 30% to less than 10 percent of the populace. Many Christians are being pushed out of their homes, forced to convert to Islam or even murdered.
But westerners must understand that religious faith is a serious and significant motivation for Russian involvement in Syria. Western news agencies consider this a non-issue. Don’t be too sure. President Vladimir Putin seems to be following a course of action that caused a major conflict earlier in the 19thCentury.
An evident and historical reason for Russian involvement in the Middle East has been to protect Orthodox Christian shrines in Israel as well as Orthodox Christians that live in the region. Czar Nicholas I pursued a similar policy that led to a disastrous war between Russia, France, Turkey, and the British Empire – the Crimean War.
Nicholas triggered the Crimean War by asserting Russian authority over Christian shrines in Palestine, then part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The Turks objected to the violation of their sovereignty, and so did French Emperor Napoleon III, who wanted France’s Roman Catholic Church to control the shrines.
Eventually, the British intervened because they were afraid the Russians would conquer Turkey and establish bases on the Mediterranean. War broke out, and troops from all four powers got bogged down in trench warfare in Crimea – the same region seized from Ukraine by Vladimir Putin.
Is History Repeating Itself in Syria?
Two of the powers attacking Syrian President Bashir Assad, a Russian ally, are Britain and France. Both countries had fought Russia in the Crimean War 160 years ago. It seems as if that history might be repeating itself.
Interestingly enough, Putin is modeling himself on Czar Nicholas I, who ruled from 1825 to 1855. Like Putin, Nicholas organized a police state based on Russian nationalism and strict Orthodox Christianity. Nicholas administered a program of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.” Putin has expanded the police state, restored most of the power and authority of the Orthodox Church, and started flexing Russia’ s military muscle.
A key component in the Czars’ ideology was the belief that Russia was the successor state to the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire. Several of the Czars, including Nicholas I, Catherine the Great, and Peter the Great, believed they were ordained by God to recapture the Christian lands of the Middle East from the Moslems. Not surprisingly, the Turks did not agree, and the result was centuries of war between the Russian and Ottoman Empires.
Is Moscow the Third Rome?
A fundamental idea in Czarist Russia was that Moscow was the Third Rome, after Constantinople (Istanbul) the Byzantine capital and the original Rome. It was a city destined to be the seat of a new Orthodox Christian Empire. Putin seems to have inherited that idea and may believe that the modern Russian Federation is the current successor state to the Byzantine Empire.
A good case can be made that Putin believes he is the successor to the Czars and that he has a mandate from God to conquer the Middle East. Putin likes to appear with Czarist symbols such as the Imperial Flag, and with soldiers in Czarist, not Communist uniforms.
Is Putin trying to start a Holy War in the Middle East?
Putin has already waged two wars to reclaim Czarist territory, one in Chechnya and one in Crimea. Now he is conducting another war to make Czarist goals a reality in Syria.
Putin has also proven that he is willing to pit his forces against American troops to achieve those goals. News stories have relayed that U.S. forces killed hundreds of Russian mercenaries in Syria before the April 13 airstrikes.
That should worry everybody because it would lead to all-out war between Russia and Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia (a criticalAmerican ally). Such a war would drag in the United States, Israel, NATO, and possibly the People’s Republic of China. The People’s Liberation Army of China established a naval base in Djibouti across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia in August 2017.
Czar Nicholas I’s Middle Eastern adventure led to a large-scale war that included naval battles in the Baltic Sea. Hopefully, Putin’s attempt to behave like a Czar will not lead to all-out war in the Middle East.