A few days back (August 9), Turkish president Erdogan met with Russian president Putin in St. Petersburg, Russia. Only a handful of people know what was actually said behind those closed doors, but media accounts of the meeting suggest the civil war in Syria was not a major topic of discussion.
Russia is at a moment of maximum leverage over Turkey. Turkey has just gone through an abortive military coup, and is now busily decimating the ranks of its officer corps in response. It is suffering economically from a Russian travel ban and trade sanctions imposed in retaliation for Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet over Syria. Following the meeting, President Putin announced these sanctions will be lifted gradually, and promised the eventual “full restoration of ties with Turkey,” but not all at once. If ever there was a time for Russia to influence Turkish behavior, this is it.
We at Solidarity with the Persecuted Church believe, hope and pray that Russia, institutionally, cares about the Christian Church in the Middle East, and particularly in Syria. Certainly the Russian Orthodox Church cares about Middle Eastern Christianity, and the Putin government cares about its relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Turkey does not care in the least about the Christians of Syria, except to want to see them gone. We’ve seen how Turkey treats Christians at home – badly – and in Syria it is arming opposition groups which will impose Sharia law if ever they gain control of the country. There is no room for Christians in the post-conflict Syria which Erdogan envisions.
So there is an opportunity for Russia to play a constructive role in Syria, by defending the interests of Syria’s Christians. These are: one, to implement a meaningful ceasefire in collaboration with the United States; two, to ensure that the on-again/off-again UN-sponsored peace negotiations underway in Geneva yield a constitution and government arrangement which guarantees Christians equal citizenship in Syria; three, monitor the implementation of those negotiations so that Syria isn’t hijacked by bad actors.
Lastly, Russia can explain to Turkey how things are going to be in Syria, and make improved relations between Russia and Turkey contingent upon Turkey playing a constructive role in Syria’s emergence from its long nightmare of civil war as a pluralistic democracy.
To learn more about SPC’s efforts in the Middle East to ease the suffering of Christians, read about them here