The war in Syria has taken a significant turn these past few months, with the migrant crisis and the intervention of Russia. Even a few months ago one might have expected Bashar al-Assad’s downfall, and two years ago one would have bet the house on it.
Now, with the refugee crisis seriously threatening Europe’s governments and the almost comic ineffectiveness of American-trained Syrian rebels, Western leaders seem resigned to accepting Russian’s involvement and some sort of truce that allows Assad to stay.
Whatever one thinks of Vladimir Putin, he has certainly outplayed Barack Obama in Syria; four years after the start of this tragedy Russia is much stronger in the Middle East, and the United States is weaker. There are reasons for this.
As this piece in the Spectator and this one in The Week by Michael Brendan Dougherty point out, Putin’s approach to Syria has actually been more rational than America’s. The American and British policy of backing a Gulf-sponsored uprising has been either woefully naïve or quite cynically designed to curry favour with the Saudis.
There’s something especially sinister about the way our governments have followed a Wahhabi-led scheme to overthrow a secular dictatorship, a revolution that would almost certainly endanger Christians in the land of St Paul.
For example, the rebel group al-Nusra Front, one of the players in the region Russia is now pounding, previously overran the Christian village of Maaloula, 40 miles north of Damascus, executing three Christians and kidnapping a dozen nuns before being driven out by the Syrian army.
During the battle for that village one Christian addressed the BBC cameraman with these chilling words: “Tell the Europeans and the Americans that we sent you St Paul 2,000 years ago to take you from the darkness, and you sent us terrorists to kill us”.
Hey buddy, you’re welcome.
Conspiracy theories are common in the Middle East, but it is hardly surprising that people think there are reasons behind the reasons when Western governments follow policies so at odds with what most Westerners think is morally right, and which are also not in their own interests.
In contrast, Russian policy is brutal, and involves supporting a ruthless dictatorship. But Russia’s approach is also logically consistent and demonstrates a clear understanding of what their long-term goals are. Russia has a firm idea of what Syria will look like in the near future, which presumably involves lots of posters of President Assad, maybe with a few of Putin wrestling a shark. The West, meanwhile, is clueless.
That is perhaps because Western policy in the Middle East is designed to win tomorrow’s newspaper headlines, such as when Britain and France rushed into overthrowing Gaddafi in 2011. This may be one of the strengths of an authoritarian system, where critics of the president tend to accidentally stab themselves to death. When it comes to Syria, none of the Western democracies has shown any long-term thinking.
Last month Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako, Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic leader, told Aid to the Church in Need that Syria’s Christians are at risk of extinction, with a third of the country’s faithful having left already. Ninety per cent of Christians in the city of Homs fled in early 2012 after Islamists went door to door ordering them out, and that year no Easter services were held in the city for the first time in millennia.
Russia’s foreign policy is, no doubt, designed to serve Russia and those who rule Russia. But if it can bring an end to the war, and destroy ISIS, the al-Nusra Front and other militant groups, then Russia might just save Syria’s Christians and so fulfil the country’s historic promise to protect the region’s Christians.
No wonder the Russian Orthodox Church has given its support to “the holy war” against terrorism.
At any rate, the Russians could hardly do a better job of endangering the region’s Christians than Britain and America have.