Facing ISIL Propaganda, Russia Denies its Syria Campaign is a “Holy War”

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Remember when George W. Bush lapsed and called his Iraq War a “crusade?” He had to back off that religious rhetoric really quickly because he needed Muslim allies.

Now the Russian Orthodox Church has made a similar error.

Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin said that his church supports Vladimir Putin’s aerial assaults on ISIL. He said, “The fight with terrorism is a holy battle and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it. . . This decision corresponds with international law, the mentality of our people and the special role that our country has always played in the Middle East.”

The over-all leader of Russian Orthodoxy, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, echoed this sentiment:

“Russia has taken the responsible decision to use the armed forces for the protection of the Syrian people from the calamities wreaked by the tyranny of terrorists . . . We associate this decision with the approach of peace and fairness in this ancient land.”

Predictably, the Muslim fundamentalists on social media grabbed hold of these statements to depict the Syrian intervention as a holy war against Islam. The Saudi public was especially exercised.

The Russian Embassies replied to these stories, frantically circulating a fact sheet.

It denied that Russia is engaged in a holy war. “There are no religious factors,” it said, driving Syria’s participation in the war. Rather, it comes at the request of the Syrian government (i.e. the al-Assad regime). If the Russians were hoping they’d get points for the indigenous character of the invitation, they’ll be mistaken.

It also quoted Putin as praising the contributions of Russian Muslims but warning against extremism.

This episode shows how vulnerable Russia is to propaganda pushback in Syria. About 5% of Syrians, or one million people, are Christians, mostly Eastern Orthodox, i.e. they are technically coreligionists of the Russians. The Christian priests in Syria and Lebanon have often been quite vocal about their fear of Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) and their preference, if they had to choose, for Bashar al-Assad.

Russian church leaders just made the intervention sectarian, and gave a big helping hand to ISIL and al-Qaeda recruiting efforts..


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Euronews: “Russian air strike hits terrorist training camp in Syria, say defence officials”

19 Responses

  1. A holy war is a war of Good against Evil, and no one surely disputes that Daesh is evil. Until the modern age all peoples viewed that eternal conflict in religious terms, and clerics still do. Granted Putin may not have had that in mind last Wednesday, but then, If you count your golden stars they are disallowed! A religious war is another matter.

  2. JC: “Remember when George W. Bush lapsed and”….

    …and that would be GW Bush, President of a country called the United States of America, correct?

    JC: “Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin said that”…

    …. that would be AP Chaplin, who isn’t the leader of a country called Russia. Correct?

    JC: “The over-all leader of Russian Orthodoxy, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow,”…..

    …..hmmm, I’m still not seeing anyone who has any claim to be any part of the Russian government, let alone the leader of that government.

    This all matters if PUTIN or LAVROV stood before a podium and mouthed the same sentiments as Chaplin and Kirill.

    Have they?

    JC: “It [the Russian Embassies] denied that Russia is engaged in a holy war.”

    Well, there you are then…..

    Church leaders in the USA say many objectionable things, but I don’t see anyone claiming that Obama has to apologize for some nonsense spouted by some redneck Baptist or some crazy-eyed Christian Fundamentalist.

    • Outside of America, state churches were the historical norm, in fact to the very beginning of civilization. The Russian Orthodox Church was the state church of the Czarist regime. Stalin rehabilitated it during WW2 into a submissive puppet. The fall of the Soviet Union began a process of restoring the Orthodox Church as the favored religion of the nationalistic government, which in turn is increasingly a dictatorship.

      To put this in context, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, during World War 1, called for the extermination of the Turkish people in retaliation for their genocide of Armenians, do you think the British government was free of responsibility?

      What secular reason could Putin possibly have for his massive gay-bashing crusade? Sounds like he’s doing a quid pro quo for the Orthodox Church on that one.

      • S390: “The Russian Orthodox Church was the state church of the Czarist regime.”

        That would be a Czarist regime that no longer exists, right?

        You may as well claim that the Kaiser’s obsession with creating an Imperial High Seas Fleet tells us volumes about Merkel’s view of Germany’s role in NATO.

        S390: “Stalin rehabilitated it during WW2 into a submissive puppet.”

        Yeah, and his regime is also long-gone.

        You would have just as much relevance arguing that Mao’s whacky ideas regarding Great Leaps Forward gives us insight into Xi Jinping’s current economic plans.

        S390: “The fall of the Soviet Union”….

        …oh, you noticed that, did you?

        S390: ….”began a process of restoring the Orthodox Church as the favored religion of the nationalistic government,”….

        A meaningless statement. I have a favourite pop star, but that doesn’t mean that Taylor Swift is my spokesperson.

        S390: …”which in turn is increasingly a dictatorship…

        Well, apart from those inconvenient elections that Putin keeps winning.

        S390: “To put this in context, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, during World War 1, called for the extermination of the Turkish people in retaliation for their genocide of Armenians, do you think the British government was free of responsibility?”

        Why, yes. Yes, I do.

        Unless you want to argue that the British Government is in the habit of including the Archbishop in cabinet meetings, or that one of the responsibilities of being the head of the Church of England is that of running the Foreign Office.

        S390: “What secular reason could Putin possibly have for his massive gay-bashing crusade?”

        Niiiiiiice Red Herring you got there.

        S390: “Sounds like he’s doing a quid pro quo for the Orthodox Church on that one.”

        No, it doesn’t sound like that at all.

        It *sounds* like Putin doesn’t bother consulting with church officials when it comes to military strategy and foreign policy decisions.

        Which would rather suggest that these two church leaders are speaking out of ignorance on topics over which they have no authority to speak, and are doing so in a venue that is utterly inappropriate.

        Or, in John McCain’s words describing Sarah Palin: She’s Gone Rogue!

        It happens. It is the despair of every political leader when it does happen, but it’s not their fault nor is it their responsibility.

        The *responsible* answer from the leader is to disassociate themselves from those who have no authority to speak out of turn.

        Oh, look, Putin and Lavrov have done exactly that.

  3. Seems a lot of very religious people want a holy war, maybe they could do everyone a favour and let the gods fight it for us. We should all step back and watch them go at it. Holy wars should be fought by holy beings, right?

    yes, I’m being sarcastic. Sorry.

  4. Clearly, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch has misspoken: in hoping to raise the morale of Russian soldiers, he has provided fodder for extremist voices to describe Russian intervention as a “Crusade”. It also doesn’t help that Russia has a history of intervention in Syrian-Lebanese sectarian conflicts, going back to 1860, on behalf of the Orthodox minority. It’s not at all surprising that Putin is trying to spin back the narrative, but a main propaganda point has been lost, and I now have greater fears for the Christians of Syria.

  5. I was starting to think Assad was done for but the Russians rode in like the U.S. Cavalry in the nick of time to save him. If god isn’t on his side, the Russians are and that’ll do for now.
    If you’re the average Syrian, one one hand you have Assad who among dictators really wasn’t that bad if you compare him to the regional norm. He didn’t persecute religious minorities but was ruthless with political dissenters.
    Then on the other hand you have ISIS who will blow up your cultural icons and torture or find sick ways to kill those who get in the way. They will persecute for any reason and are totally unpredictable. Didn’t they spit roast someone the other day? Looting Palmyra and blowing up what’s left. They seem determined to invent new, horrific crimes.
    If you’re the average Syrian, Assad is looking better all the time.
    The Saudis might have taken on ISIS, maybe even won but that situation seems to have changed. Putin’s hackles are up and he will crush ISIS and Al Nusra to the great consternation of the US and the Saudi.
    Maybe Putin can do something with it but the thing to keep in mind is that Syria, like California is being devastated by climate change. That’s the Joker in the deck.

  6. “Holy war” and “international law” are inherently incompatible. Consider where the supreme authority comes from for each.

  7. Hardly a “holy war” by the Russian government.

    It is estimated that about 60% of Russia is atheist or otherwise classified as “non-religious”.

    Russia’s ties to Syria are primarily economic as opposed to purely military presence.

    Russia is a supplier of billions of dollars in military hardware and other war materiel to the Assad regime. Russia has an even deeper relationship with Syria economically with development and maintenance of Syria’s infrastructure. This relationship has existed for decades between the two countries.

    That said, the Russian Orthodox Church undoubtedly has concerns over the those Syrian-rite Orthodox adherents who may be endangered by ISIS.

  8. At this point, who really cares which way the Daesh goons twist things? We already know these cockroaches will twist any words and situations to fit their sick narrative that anybody but them must die.

    Ultimately, it’s becoming clear that Daesh is really run by a handful of hard and insane criminals left over from Saddam’s regime, who have used this jihadi holy war narrative to lure in thousands of duped young men who will all be used as cannon fodder for their goal of power at all costs. We should be thankful they are still pouring in. Having them all in one place makes them easier to crush. Just like cockroaches.

  9. Qatar, Iran and Russia all have a common cause in Syria. Over 90% of Professor Cole’s “Phony Caliphate” is composed of non-Syrian fighters led by those who want control of the same “common cause” in Syria and Iraq.

    The very complex relationships and motivation can be found here in excruciating detail:

    link to theodora.com

    Russia has the on-tap fire power to perhaps determine who eventually gains control. President Obama predicts another quagmire situation for Russia. Hopefully, the next U.S.President will not draw our country into this quagmire, as well? A Republican President will with certainty.

    Sure is funny how religion falls by the wayside except for motivational purposes of the less-educated devout when the actual “common cause” becomes obvious?

    Greed trumps any God every time.

  10. With Jaw-droppingly tactless and unthinking friends like these, Putin doesn’t need enemies. They are neck and neck with the GOP hopefuls in the stupid stakes

  11. On the subject of foreign fighters and their motivation; Let us recall the Abraham Lincoln brigade in the Spanish civil war, 2,800 Americans and the government had no objection. We may find idealism misplaced but it’s not necessarily crazy.

  12. Two columnists at Asia Times differ from the mainstream media peddlers in Washington on Putin – a sign the former probably know what they are talking about:

    “Grading the Putin school of international affairs”: Codevilla By Angelo Codevilla – link to atimes.com


    “Russia outflanks Turkey in Syria” By M.K. Bhadrakumar – link to atimes.com

  13. Correction: About 10% of Syrians are (were) Christians. But they aren’t all Eastern Orthodox, and thus direct co-religionists of Russian Orthodox Christians. Some would be Oriental Orthodox, some might recognize the Pope under Eastern Rite provisions, others might recognize the Patriarch of Constantinople, a few might be Protestant converts, etc.

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