Dispatch

Russia’s Hearts-and-Minds Campaign in Syria Is Aimed at Home

The country's latest humanitarian efforts in the Middle East are designed to win over its own increasingly testy Muslims.

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MOSCOW — Earlier this year, Zakyat, a prominent Muslim charity based in Moscow, was dispatched from the Russian capital to the refugee camps of Lebanon, bearing gifts.

Its staff distributed bright pink mattresses, pillows, and Russian chocolates to Syrian children. Their work was later showcased by Russia’s grand mufti, Ravil Gainutdin, to a small crowd of mainly Muslim journalists inside Moscow’s new grand mosque, where 15,000 worshippers flock weekly for Friday prayers.

Since that trip in February, cash donations to Zakyat have flowed in from Russian Muslims. These, in turn, are making their way to the Middle East: A school is being built for the refugee camps in Lebanon, and plans are in place for Muslims from Chechnya to go to Syria to help rebuild historic minarets and establish shelters for orphans in the country.

“When our people see the situation in Syria, they seriously suffer, they really worry. They know they must help,” said Rifat Izmaylov, director of Zakyat. “As Russians, you could tell not everyone welcomed us, but as Muslims, praise be to God, everything turned out alright,” he told me in Zakyat’s recently refurbished offices, whose walls are elaborately decorated with quotes from the Quran.

One of the Kremlin’s biggest domestic challenges has always been to manage relations with Russia’s 14 million Muslims, who comprise one-tenth of the total population. This has only grown more difficult since Russia became directly involved in the Syrian war two years ago, with the goal of propping up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow has been protecting a Shiite government prosecuting a ruthless, largely sectarian war, despite the fact that Russia’s own Muslims are overwhelmingly Sunni (though sectarian identity has not, to date, been very salient in Russian Islam). Tens of thousands of Syrian civilians, many of whom are Sunni, have been killed in air campaigns by the Syrian government, with Russian support that some suggest amount to war crimes. Meanwhile, thousands of Russian speakers have gone to Syria to join the Islamic State.

Authorities from within Russia’s Muslim community have refrained from criticizing the Syria campaign publicly — the community officially adheres to government-prescribed notions of patriotism, which place country before religion or ethnicity.

But the relationship requires constant maintenance: The Kremlin has remained wary of alienating Muslims, particularly at a time when the influence of the Orthodox Church within the government is on the rise. Few have forgotten that Putin oversaw two extensive and bloody wars against independence in the Muslim-majority republic of Chechnya; Muslims are also not proportionately represented in the upper echelons of the Russian government, which does little to combat widespread social and economic discrimination against ordinary Muslims.

Wary of pushing tensions with its own Muslim population past the breaking point, the Russian government has combined its military escalation in Syria with efforts to help Russian Muslims coordinate a growing humanitarian effort to aid local victims of the war. Together with a raft of other carefully targeted PR measures, the Kremlin is hoping to demonstrate to Russia’s own Muslim population that the country operates “in solidarity with the Muslim world,” said Alexei Malashenko, chief researcher at the Moscow-based Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute and an expert on Islam in the region.

Muslim community representatives say there is no connection between their humanitarian efforts and the Russian government’s military involvement in Syria. But little is done here without the permission of — if not at the behest of — authorities, analysts say. “Nothing Russia does in the Middle East happens without government approval,” Malashenko said. “Islam in Russia is not just about mosques. It’s about politics.”

So far, the aid from Russian Muslims has been directed toward Syrian refugee children and women in Lebanese camps, and the distribution is fairly indiscriminate: Recipients have been victims of the Assad regime (and its Russian backers), the Islamic State, and rebel groups.

According to a major study released this month by the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of Russia’s Muslims said they feel a strong bond with other Muslims in the world, with 70 percent saying they have a social responsibility to help others who share their religion. Russia as a whole has not done much on the official level to help Syrian Muslims: It has taken in almost no Syrian refugees and has been criticized for providing little aid compared with other large countries, though the aid it does provide — typically fuel, bread, and sacks of flour wrapped in bags displaying the Russian flag and often doled out by servicemen and women in the regime-held areas of the Aleppo and Latakia provinces — is given widespread coverage on Russian state-run news outlets. The country’s Muslim leaders and clerics, such as Moscow Mufti Ildar Alyautdinov, have also visited the Syrian refugee camps on well-publicized trips.

With the military intervention in Syria, the relationship between Muslims and the Russian state has reached a critical juncture. “The Russian authorities want to show Muslims at home that they’re not against them,” said Akhmed Yarlikapov, senior researcher at the foreign ministry-linked Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). “The Syrian aid is not propaganda, but it’s a way of mobilizing people towards thinking a certain way without the use of force.”

Six thousand Russian speakers from Russia itself and from former Soviet Central Asia have joined the Islamic State, by Malashenko’s estimate, and the mood in Russia is becoming increasingly tense. Last month’s suicide bombing on the St. Petersburg metro, in which 14 people were killed, was carried out by a native of Kyrgyzstan who had ties with radical Islamists, and the country appears to be bracing itself for more attacks: After the St. Petersburg blast, large government-organized marches against terrorism were held across Russia, and the police presence on the metro in the Russian capital increased sharply. Russian state TV has taken to showing dramatic coverage of arrests of Central Asians allegedly connected to the bombing.

Raising money for Muslims abroad is not unique to Russia, but “the fact it is so organized, and suddenly directed towards Syria, is pure symbolism designed to benefit the Russian government,” said Malashenko. In addition to the aid push, the government has taken other measures to mollify Russian Muslims. In 2015, Putin opened Moscow’s sprawling Cathedral Mosque — one of the largest in Europe — whose golden minarets now punctuate the city’s skyline. Putin has also been vocal in his support of a major new Islamic academy slated to open in central Russia this autumn. Moscow authorities said this month they are considering a request to open a Muslim-only beach on the riverbank, where the genders would be separated.

Some of the Russian government’s efforts to facilitate ties between Russian Muslims and Syria are unambiguously in service of supporting the Russian war effort. In late April, an official delegation from Chechnya traveled to Damascus to meet Assad, after Syrian officials visited the Russian region in March. Chechnya’s strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has not gone to Syria since the war started, posted a photo to his popular Instagram account of Chechen Mufti Salakh-Haji Mezhiev, crowned with a lamb’s wool hat and flanked by a beaming Assad in a suit and tie and the Syrian minister for religious affairs, Mohammed Abdul Sattar. “The Syrian president … gave his gratitude to the Chechens for their help and support in these difficult days,” Kadyrov wrote under the picture in late April, adding that several promises “at my request” were also discussed, including the restoration of the historic and now destroyed mosques in Homs and Aleppo. Plans were also laid down for the opening of a branch of Damascus University in the Chechen capital of Grozny. The meetings follow the Kremlin’s quiet deployment several months ago of 1,000 Muslim special forces from Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia.

Russia’s Muslim North Caucasus region is also at the heart of a new Russian-Syrian film co-production. Palmyra, the psychological thriller will be shot in St. Petersburg and the ancient city in central Syria — security situation allowing — and is scheduled to come out next year. The film features a Russian Muslim protagonist — a man from Dagestan — who ventures to Syria in search of his wife, who has joined the Islamic State. “It’s a metaphor: If you save your family, you save the world,” said the film’s director and screenwriter Ivan Bolotnikov.

Russia’s ministry of culture, often the arbiter of state-approved narratives in art, is making the film with Syrian actress and stalwart Assad supporter Sulaf Favakerji. Known across the Arab world for her soap operas, Favakerji’s public backing of the Syrian regime has dampened her popularity in the region, but the raven-haired starlet has found a new fan base in Russia, where she was warmly welcomed last month when she officially signed off on the film. “Muslims are not portrayed in a negative light in the film despite the ISIS element,” Bolotnikov said. “In fact, they come out on top.”

In the Pew study, almost half of Russian Muslims polled said they give a portion of their wealth to those in need, a principle core of Islamic teaching. (By comparison, only 7 percent of Orthodox Christians in Russia perform tithe, or giving part of their salary to charity). In the grand scheme of Russia’s war effort in Syria, the amounts being raised by Russian Muslims can’t make much of a difference. According to Zakyat, $250,000 worth of donations so far this year will go toward children in Gaza and from Syria, mostly the latter. Besides distributing essentials to refugees, the funds are also going toward a mobile school that will open in August, roving between camps in Lebanon, where almost 2 million Syrian refugees live. Izmaylov said donors were “local, simple people” who worship at the new mosque in central Moscow, “carrying out their Muslim duty.”

Small charities in the Muslim-majority Dagestan region bordering Chechnya have also started collections for Syrian refugees, according to their profiles on Russian social networking site VKontakte. The Moscow-based Solidarity Fund, a nominally secular charity run by Muslim principles, widened its portfolio beyond Palestinians last summer to include $80,000 for Syrians, creating a computer lab for children in the Lebanese camps.

Its director, Lilia Mukhamedyarova, scoffed at the idea of the Kremlin playing a hand in whom it supports. “The desire (to help Syrians) came from society,” she said. “It’s not our fault that Muslims are so active in philanthropy.”

Photo credit: ALEXANDER UTKIN/AFP/Getty Images

Amie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent.

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