Will U.S. journalists spot the religion ghost in Putin's mixed motives in Syria?

It's hard to write a post about news stories that do not yet exist. However, based on the emails I'm getting, I expect to see major newsrooms writing about "this story" sooner rather than later. Do we really have to talk about religion "ghosts" in Syria?

So what is "this story"? 

Look for up-front use of the term "Holy War" in connection with Russia's involvement in Syria, where President Vladimir Putin is doing everything he can to save the territory most crucial to President Bashar al-Assad -- which certainly starts with Damascus. I expect prominent play to be given to the supporting role of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kirill, for reasons that our own Ira Rifkin mentioned in one of his "Global Wire" pieces the other day.

At the moment, your typical religion-haunted story on Russia's push into the Syria war focuses on politics, airplanes and hardware and the assumption that Putin is acting purely out of motives to maintain a power base in the Middle East and embarrass the United States and President Barack Obama. Please hear me say that there obviously truth in that assumption. In a current New York Times story, this is what that sounds like:

Although in its early stages, the coordinated attack has revealed the outline of a newly deepened and operationally coordinated alliance among Syria, Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, according to an official with the alliance, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military strategy. ...
For Mr. Assad’s supporters and opponents alike, regionally and internationally, Russia’s increasing willingness to throw its full military power behind him is a game-changer.

But might there be religious logic to Putin's bold move, even if -- thinking cynically -- it is at the level of rationalization?

Just the other day, a Times story -- "Russian Soldiers Join Syria Fight" -- added a very brief reference to another layer of the conflict, well down into that text. Spot the ghost?

In this quote, the term "insurgent factions" is used to describe the groups -- not the Islamic State -- fighting in opposition to Assad.

Forty-one insurgent factions said in a statement that Russia’s “brutal occupation has cut the road to any political solution,” the latest challenge to diplomatic efforts by a special United Nations envoy, Staffan de Mistura.
Separately, in a statement laden with sectarian language, a group of prominent Saudi Arabian clerics called on Muslim and Arab countries to support a jihad, or holy war, against Mr. Assad and his Russian and Iranian patrons -- even comparing the Syrian war to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and the jihad against it that drew fighters from around the world.
The statement followed a declaration from the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, blessing the Russian fight in Syria.

The reference to Patriarch Kirill refers to the following, which drew coverage from Agence France-Presse:

Russia’s powerful Orthodox Church on Wednesday voiced support for Moscow’s decision to carry out air strikes in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, calling it a “holy battle.” ...

The Patriarch, who often weighs in on political matters in support of the Kremlin, said armed intervention was necessary since “the political process has not led to any noticeable improvement in the lives of innocent people, and they need military protection.” He cited the suffering of Christians in the region, the kidnapping of clerics and the destruction of churches, adding that Muslims “are suffering no less.” 

Church spokesman Chaplin said that the decision on military action “corresponds with international law, the mentality of our people and the special role that our country has always played in the Middle East.”

The situation on the ground is so complex that many Americans may not realize that the U.S. backed factions have, in the past, been almost as hostile to the region's ancient Christian communities as the armies of the Islamic State. For several years now, Orthodox Christians (my own church, of course) have been praying for the safety of  two bishops kidnapped by insurgents fighting against Assad, including the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front. Some of these insurgents are now supported with U.S. aid.

You want more complications? That highly unstable and complex collection of 41 anti-Assad insurgent groups has also declared its opposition to ISIS, which poses the ultimate long-range threat to Christians and other surviving religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. And the Saudis? As this Reuters story noted:

Riyadh's state-affiliated clergy have already termed the war a jihad for Syrians, but they have also denounced Islamic State and al Qaeda and said that Saudi citizens must not go abroad to fight or give the rebels money except via government channels. ...
Their letter, which used sectarian terms for both Iran and Assad's Alawite sect, a Shi'ite offshoot, also portrayed Russian involvement as part of an Orthodox Christian crusade, and attacked the West for denying the rebels anti-aircraft weapons.
"The Western-Russian coalition with the Safavids (Iran) and the Nusairis (Alawites) are making a real war against the Sunni people and their countries," the statement said.

So, what would it take for American journalists to cover "this story," by which I mean Putin's strategic move and the overall threat of extinction of Orthodox, Eastern Catholic and other Christian bodies in what remains of Syria? As I noted in a column several years ago, the Orthodox in the region know all about Assad and they know he is a monster. However, at the moment, there are other monsters who are working harder to crush them, monsters that offer a more immediate threat to their survival.

In that column, I quoted a sermon by Bishop Basil Essey of Wichita, Kan.

Anyone who prays for peace in Syria must acknowledge, at the beginning, that "vicious wrongs" have been done on both sides and that "there's really no good armed force over there. No one we can trust. None," concluded Bishop Basil.
"So the choice is between the evil that we know and that we've had for 30-40 years in that part of the world, or another evil we don't know about except what they've shown us in this awful civil war."

In addition to watching for reactions from the Damascus-based Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East (located on the Street called Straight), and the Russian Orthodox Church, reporters should watch for subtle changes in the language being used by Pope Francis and the Church of Rome. He has spoken strongly about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. What will he say if Putin becomes their only defender, fighting against both U.S. backed insurgents and ISIS? No one wants to see the horrors of the Nineveh Plain repeated, with more ancient churches and monasteries being ground into rubble, with local believers being killed or driven into the river of refugees.

As The Catholic Herald in England recently stated:

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.

At some point, the ghosts are going to break into the headlines. Watch for "Holy War" language in the headlines.

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