Russia, the Houla massacre, and the Christians of Syria

It’s good to be the President

When I rail about “the Russians” and Russian policy in Syria, I mean the regime of Vladimir Putin, not the many Russians who are clearly nauseated by Putin’s actions in Syria (and elsewhere, including Russia).

One example is a stinging rebuke from Aleksandr Shumilin, the director of the Center for the Analysis of Middle East Conflicts at the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. (The Institute for the Study of the USA and Canada during the Cold War was home to the USSR’s “Americanologists”). Shumilin wrote a piece for last week’s Moscow News, which I’m posting below.

Before reading the Shumlin piece, however, one more bit of news. NPR last week did an interview with Father Paolo Dall’Oglio a Jesuit priest who has finally been expelled from Syria after 30 years there. Father Dall’Oglio’s comments are important, considering the number of people who are buying the Russian line — supported, tragically and wrongly, by the Russian Orthodox Church — that Moscow is, among other things, defending the lives of Christians trapped in Syria.

(Just as an aside, if people in the West who oppose aiding the Syrian rebels really cared about attacks on Christians, they’d be spending more time dealing with Boko Haram in Nigeria than staking out this piece of political turf, but that’s a subject for another day.)

According to NPR’s report on Father Dall’Oglio’s expulsion:

The government says it protects religious minorities — the Christians, the Alawites and others — against what it says is an uprising of Muslim fundamentalists. Dall’Oglio rejects this picture as simplistic, but acknowledges the tensions.

Fr. Paulo Dall’Oglio

“So there is, in some parts of Syria, in a real civil war — we know that,” he said.

Dall’Oglio also knows Syria’s minority Christians have real fears, but he says it is a generational issue. Older Christians have no experience with democracy — not in the family or in the community. Many younger Christians have joined the revolt because, he says, they believe democracy is better protection than the regime’s violence and oppression against the Muslim majority.

“Many Christian youth believe in a better world. We should pay attention to them. Something new has happened,” Dall’Oglio said. “I’ve been with Alawites for democracy, Sunnis for democracy, Christians for democracy — these people are real.”

In other words, the threat to the Christians of Syria is the civil war itself, which as Shumilin points out in his piece, will continue for as long as Assad remains in power. Herewith Shumilin’s piece from last week (© The Moscow Times), via the invaluable Johnson’s Russia List.

Russia’s Role in the Houla Massacre
By Alexander Shumilin

The Syrian problem has become a vicious vortex sucking the Russian ship downward into its maw. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week sent a few subtle signals that the Kremlin might be trying to distance itself from Syrian President Bashar Assad, but to no avail. Assad turns to Russia for support, and the Kremlin involuntarily obliges. Russia has become a captive of the situation that it has created itself.

This became clear immediately after the tragic massacre of civilians in the Syrian village of Houla on May 25 that left about 116 civilians dead, including dozens of children. Lavrov cannot deny the evidence presented by the United Nations that the heinous crime was committed by government forces. At the same time, however, he cannot turn his back on Assad and his regime. His solution was to try to sit on both sides of the fence: recognizing the involvement of government forces in Houla while demanding a full investigation into the role played by rebel forces in the tragedy.

Nobody denies the role that the rebels have played in the Syrian conflict. A civil war is raging in the country, and the opposition openly refers to itself as a militia. The question is not whether the opposition fired first, but how the government’s army responded. Is it admissible to retaliate against enemy fire by intentionally bombing civilian neighborhoods and killing innocent women and children simply because that population is sympathetic to the opposition?


As a result, the Foreign Ministry cannot provide any evidence backing up its oft-repeated claim that Moscow is only defending the principles of justice for the Syrian people and that it has not supported the Assad regime against the rebel forces. No sooner does the Foreign Ministry try to position itself as a neutral player cooperating with the UN than another massacre takes place. Assad then appeals to Moscow for support, and the whole cycle begins anew.

Defending Assad had always been part of President Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western campaign rhetoric to curry favor with his conservative constituency. Moscow’s support for Assad had disastrous results, particularly between Feb. 4, when Russia vetoed the UN draft resolution on Syria put forward by the Arab states, and March 5, when Putin was elected president. During this period of Russian protection, Assad’s regime escalated the conflict by bombing major population centers considered to be strongholds of opposition rebels.

In a campaign stunt designed to vex Western governments and win votes at home, Putin had additional weapons delivered to Assad during this period. As a result, by March 5, government forces had decisively broken the backbone of the rebels and began to feel that they had established control in the country.

Assad is obviously incapable of restoring order with anything but heavy guns. There is no hope for a peaceful solution as long as he remains in power. But what will be the outcome of Russia’s attempts to whitewash and justify his crimes? How can Russia prove that it is not defending a bloody dictator?

By all indications, the Kremlin does not view events in Syria as a serious crisis and intends to play its Syria card in negotiations with the West in an attempt to wrest concessions on key issues in the U.S.-Russian dialogue, such as missile defense in Europe or a softening of the West’s moral and political support for the protest movement in Russia.

Since these types of concessions from Washington are unlikely, this means that Russia will probably continue its reckless course of supporting the Assad regime – until there are a few more massacres like Houla.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook4Share on Google+0Share on LinkedIn2Email this to someone
Print Friendly


  1. If Assad loses, it’s clearly got major blowback for Putin, like in Libya. He’s such an old school hardcase, that’s the way to get him to swerve it would seem like,”What’s in it for Volodya,” or, other more traditional methods, but never anything but the nineteenth century, ever.

  2. Tom,

    I think you’re a bit quick to disregard in toto the role of the ROC here. Moscow is simply harping on a theme that the Tsars did in the 19th century a lot; the only difference now is that only the Russians make any public noise about protecting Christians in the Middle East, while 100+ years ago it was a talking point for London and especially Paris as well.

    I have no way of knowing what’s in Putin’s soul – it may say “K, G, and B” per John McCain, or it may say “Lord, have mercy” – and neither do you. It is a fact that Putin has long employed Orthodoxy as a political talking point domestically, and now abroad too. Whether it’s sincere or not makes little difference in terms of policy.

    The esteemed sociologist of religion, Peter Berger of BU, made some thoughtful comments on this issue, which are a nice counterpoint to your take:


  3. That’s a good point about Orthodoxy in a very Huntington kind of way, whichd didn’t go well when Nicholas tried that.