Analysis

Putin Wants to Save Syria's Jews — to Keep Trump From Coming Back

The Jews of Syria have become part of Russia's religious diplomacy, which partly aims to reassure American evangelicals and keep U.S. forces away

Vladimir Putin at a conference of the Israeli foundation Keren Hayesod in Moscow, Russia, September 17, 2019
Pool/Reuters

On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin parted with an important secret. At a press conference with his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban in Budapest, he said that Russia maintains a close relationship with Syria's Jewish community, and is even helping to restore its synagogues.

Putin did not go into detail regarding the identity of the community members receiving assistance, how much money the Russian government is contributing, or what synagogues they are actually restoring. He also did not mention whether the Israeli government is involved.

But if Russia is indeed offering assistance, it is probably doing so in coordination with its close Syrian government ally. And it would not be the first time Russia has facilitated some kind of cooperation between the Syrian government and Israel in the last few years. In April 2019, it returned the remains of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel, who had been declared missing after the battle of Sultan Yacoub in Syria in 1982. In 2016, Russia also returned a tank that took part in that battle and had been seized by Syrian forces.

The number of Jews remaining in Syria is unknown since the last wave of emigration in 1994, launched after Syrian President Hafez Assad’s decision to allow Jews to leave his country following the Madrid peace conference. According to Syrian law, population censuses do not report on ethnic segmentation, and it is not permitted to report on the condition of various ethnic groups, in an attempt to prevent civil tensions.

Some of the Jews of Damascus, that numbered around 1,200 in 2013, moved to the city of Baniyas in the Tartous district after the Great Synagogue in the Jobar quarter was destroyed that year, apparently by the Free Syrian Army. Some also moved to the city of Qamishli in northern Syria, where a market established by the Ezra and Nahum families in the 1920s still exists – although most its stalls were sold to Kurds after Jews emigrated.

Syrian Jews celebrate Passover at the al-Firenj Synagogue in downtown Damascus, Syria, August 2008
Bassem Tellawi/AP

Various media reports mention a few dozen synagogues, most of which have been destroyed, confiscated by the authorities or fallen into the hands of rebel militias. Jews reportedly owned a great deal of property in Syria, including shops and villas, with an overall value estimated in the millions of dollars. Those were sold or confiscated by the authorities.

Samuel Zion, who manages the Facebook page of the Jews of Syria, told the website Al-Mudun in June 2014 that official Israeli representatives have been in contact with the Jewish community in Syria. They reportedly tried to obtain ancient Torah scrolls, but community leaders had rejected the overtures. According to Zion, the community supports President Bashar al-Assad and opposes Israel’s policies. 

Making sure the U.S. stays home

Putin’s open support for Syrian synagogues is inseparable from the religious patronage Russia extends to non-Muslim communities in the region. “The situation of the Christians in the Middle East is tragic. They suffer from oppression, rape and plunder,” Putin said at the Budapest press conference, adding that Russia was seeking ways to protect Christians from harassment and to that end it had invited the heads of Christian communities to a meeting with him on the sidelines of the state visit.

This is not pure altruism on the part of the Russian leader, who, throughout the years of Russia’s military involvement in Syria, had not been especially moved by the killings of civilians of any religions. But the protection of Christian civilians, who constitute some 16 percent of the population, is important political leverage that could be instrumental as parties negotiate a diplomatic solution to the end of the war. Christians are generally considered favorable to the regime, and most of them did not enlist in rebel militias. According to a draft of the constitution, they are expected to be given suitable political representation when the new regime is established.

Moscow is also closely watching evangelical Christian protest in the United States against President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria. Evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson, Tony Perkins and Franklin Graham have warned Trump the move could spell the extinction of the Christian community, given the aggressive character of the Turkish invasion. American clergy who have recently met with Syrian Christians from Turkish-occupied areas report harassment by Turkish forces, and more widely by the militias assisting them. Some even compared the abuse by the invading forces to the massacre of the Armenians in 1915.

Evangelical leaders warned Trump that failure to protect the Christians in Syria might lead to him losing the “mandate of heaven,” as Robertson put it. Russia could fear that this kind of pressure would push Trump to reverse his decision and increase the number of American troops in Syria. In order to head this possibility, Putin decided to place the Christians at the top of his public agenda and help Trump overcome harsh criticism at home.

Putin’s religious diplomacy recalls the policies adopted by the great powers in previous centuries, when they extended their patronage over non-Muslim communities in the Ottoman Empire. This led to these communities achieving major political and diplomatic status while simultaneously allowing these powers to intervene in events in the Ottoman Empire by claiming that they were protecting their protégés. The irony is that Trump, the darling of American evangelicals, now has to rely on Russia as the leader of Mideast Christians, as only it can now stop the wild behavior of the Turkish forces and their allies in Syria.