Kremlin Crosses Russia’s Sunni Muslims by Joining Syria’s Shia Alliance

Posted June 19th, 2013 at 8:45 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

“Chilly” was how some described Obama and Putin’s discussion of the civil war in Syria during their bilateral meeting Monday at the G-8 in Northern Ireland. Photo: AP/Evan Vucci

Vladimir Putin got out of the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland without any broken china on the floor.

In the lead up, Syria’s civil war loomed like a polarizing issue capable of turning the meeting into seven against one. But Putin checked his aggressive instincts. The Russian leader knew he will host the next G-8, in Sochi, Russia, in June 2014.

Now that Putin no longer has to try to smile for Western cameras, he can revert to form – threatening to send to Syria ship-killing and aircraft-killing missiles, and then complaining about “western interference.”

Now Putin is free to revert to the old Soviet foreign policy role of playing the spoiler. (UK Prime Minister David Cameron reminded Putin that Britain also has a veto vote in the UN – something most people forget because the British don’t revel in obstructionism).

Putin, a child of the Soviet 1960s, seems to live by the old Soviet drinking toast: “Let them be afraid of us.”

The Kremlin is back to the old zero sum game of the Soviets: West up, Moscow down; Moscow up, West down.

But, this time, in the case of Syria, the Kremlin might take a step back and look at the big picture.

Like it or not, the Muslim world is re-dividing along the old Sunni-Shiite schism.

Egypt’s decision to break off ties with Syria on Saturday lays bare a Sunni alliance that unites such diverse countries as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

On the other side, there is the Shia alliance stretching from Iran, through Shia-influenced Iraq to Syria and to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, on the Mediterranean. Despite all the smoke and mirrors in Moscow, Russia has now joined that alliance.

So what?

Well, there is an inconvenient fact Moscow strategists feel they can ignore: 15 percent of Russia’s 144 million people are Muslim. And 95 percent of those are Sunni.

Because of draft dodging by Russia’s urban middle class, Russia’s army now is now 20 percent Muslim, according to a government survey last February. By the end of this decade, Muslims are expected to account for 20 percent of Russia’s overall population.

No room at the mosque: thousands of Russian and Central Asian Muslims join Eid al-Fitr prayers marking the end of Ramadan last August, outside Moscow’s main Mosque. Photo: AP/Mikhail Metzel

From the point of view of many Russian Muslims, the Kremlin has placed itself on the wrong side of the Sunni-Shia divide.

But Moscow foreign policy makers have a long history of ignoring domestic “constituencies.”

Most of Russia’s 1 million Buddhists follow Tibetan Buddhism. Yet, for fear of irritating China, Russian diplomats routinely ignore visa requests for the Dalai Lama to visit Russia.

Of course, since a dozen big energy and mining companies account for more than half of the budget revenues of the Russian Federation, it is easy to overlook the millions of little people.

Russian law recognizes Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism as the nation’s four historic religions. But after that perfunctory nod, the official attitude toward Islam is often one of denial.

Moscow has four mosques and an estimated Muslim population of 2 million people. Do the math.

When the Islamic fast of Ramadan ends in August, there will be tens of thousands of men praying in streets around the mosques. Applications to build mosques in Moscow are routinely denied. The argument usually runs that half of Moscow’s Muslims are guest workers, from Central Asia or Russia’s Caucasus. They will eventually go home.

Last August, more than 200,000 Muslim men gathered outside Moscow’s four Mosqes to perform Eid al-Fitr prayers marking the end of Ramadan in Russia. Photo: AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr

In this environment, the leadership in Moscow can blithely ignore the sentiments of Russia’s Sunni millions and treat Syria’s civil war as a geostrategic power game. Something like the board game of Risk, except for the 93,000 dead.

But things get delicate down in Russia’s overwhelmingly Muslim Caucasus.

On Saturday, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin ally who runs Chechnya, ordered Chechen officials and clerics to “constantly educate the youth about the real nature of Syrian events, to prevent possible recruitment of young people for participation in the war.”

He said that “five or six” Chechens have been killed fighting in the ranks of Syria’s Sunni opposition. Russian security officials estimate that about 200 Russians are fighting with the Syrian rebels. The fear is that one day they will bring their fighting skills back to Russia. (On Friday, President Putin told attendees of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum that at least 600 Russians and Europeans are fighting in Syria with the rebels).

Although Russians and the outside world pay little heed, a slow motion war is burning in Russia’s Muslim majority borderlands. Last year, this violence created 1,225 civilian and military casualties – 700 killed and 525 wounded. By contrast, 310 American soldiers were killed last year in Afghanistan – a nation with six times the population and six times the territory of Russia’s southern Caucasus.

The causes of Russia’s violence are varied and deep.

But one step toward reconciliation might involve adjusting the Kremlin’s foreign policy to take into account the world views of a sizable minority of Russia’s population.

Why do you think that every American President since George H.W. Bush has visited Africa? Could it have anything to do with the fact that African Americans account for 14 percent of the U.S. population? Think about that next week when President Obama flies to Africa next week for a five-day trip to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

One response to “Kremlin Crosses Russia’s Sunni Muslims by Joining Syria’s Shia Alliance”

  1. Gennady says:

    1. I agree that Mr. Putin is a child of the Soviet 1960s in all his pursuits. For such children, there is “an internal” truth to brainwash the Russian people and “an external” truth for the world to see, get puzzled and wondered. So, the Kremlin being run by Mr. Putin hopes to keep millions of Russia’s Sunni Muslims UNAWARE of the Kremlin’s international stance. Unfortunately, the children of the old Soviet days forgot or try not to remember the painful historic lesson with the Soviet propaganda’s fanfares promising the Russian people to overtake the USA in science, technology and economy, and condemning China for “revisionism” of the soviet version of Marxism. Contrary to the fanfares, the results for such a blunder are widely known: the dramatic demise of the USSR in 1990s and the rise of China. My explanation to the painful historic lesson: nobody can cover the sun of reality with a palm of his hand.

    2. With this historic lesson in mind, I wouldn’t dramatize that the Kremlin openly joined Syria’s Shia Alliance (“an external” truth) and crossed Russia’s Sunni Muslims (“an internal” truth). The consequences of the blunder will be inevitable. Even more. The Kremlin’s alliance with Syria’s Alawite sect, to which the Assad clan and its security forces belong, isn’t strictly speaking Shia and the war waged in Syria isn’t a religious one. According to, Bashar al-Assad is head of an ostensibly secular Baathist regime and many Shia think that Alawites are heretics. So, is the emperor once again without his clothes on?

    3. To my mind, it would be much better for the Kremlin not to get involved in foreign policy games while Russia is plagued by the whole host of huge internal problems: looming demographic crisis in Russia, scientific and technological backwardness with screwdriver-production, undeveloped transport and logistic infrastructure, almost zero-entrepreneurship activity with economy sliding into economic recession, high flight of the capital from Russia that unexpectedly accelerated in the month of May 2013.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



June 2013
« May   Jul »