On Wednesday, March 2, three panelists spoke at The Institute of World Politics about the current situation in Syria involving the U.S. and Russia as part of a conference co-sponsored by Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy and IWP. This particular panel was the last of three in a conference entitled, “Providence, Military Women, and Syria.” The prior two panels were: Panel on Women in Combat and ISIS, Religion, and Today’s War.
Rebeccah Heinrichs, a Fellow at the Hudson Institute and Visiting Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, spoke extensively about Syrian refugees and whether the U.S. should permit them entrance in the country. Ms. Heinrich noted that in 2016, many Americans have argued that it would be “un-American” for the U.S. to deny entry to refugees. They believed — and still believe — that Syrian refugees would be grateful for U.S. intervention. Going back to 2011, President Obama stated that the U.S. would only help civilians in Syria if Assad were to use chemical weapons. Since then, 11 million Syrians have been forced from their homes, and 1,005 civilians, including 426 children, have been killed by chemical weapons, all at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad.
President Assad was mistakenly painted as an uninvolved straw man, but this is far from the truth, Ms. Heinrich argued. President Assad is a dictator who began murdering his own people, and then disseminated misinformation to the West that he had no involvement in these murders. President Obama organized U.S. spies to infiltrate Syria, to gather proof of Assad’s involvement. Despite Russia’s alliance with Syria, Vladimir Putin sided with President Obama, and claimed he would eliminate any and all chemical weapons in Syria. Chemical weapons were removed from Syria by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, but only those that were disclosed by the Assad regime.
Ms. Heinrich cited numerous polls showing that many Syrian refugees do not hold the U.S. in high regard, and believe ISIS to be the product of foreign involvement, not something that arose in its absence. One poll in particular indicates that 23% of refugees in Europe are not necessarily hostile to ISIS. There are also significant, reasonable reservations to the unqualified belief that assimilation is possible with these refugees in particular in the United States. She believes that the most plausible alternative is for Syrian refugees to turn to overseas aid and assistance by NGOs.
Dr. Paul Coyer, IWP Research Professor and contributor at Forbes, discussed the role religion has played in Russia’s involvement with Syria. Putin positions himself as a defender of Christianity, a role Russian leaders have long played, dating back to the Byzantine Empire. In fact, many Russians refer to Putin as the “holy, orthodox Czar.” In many respects, the church acts as Russia’s soft-power arm. Examples of Russia’s past usage of Christianity include the Ottoman and Crimean wars, and WWI. Putin has harnessed the power of the Russian Orthodox Church to deflect pressure and attention from Russia’s internal economic problems and focus it onto instilling Russia with a sense of religiously infused nationalism, which has been a key element in motivating Russia’s continued emphasis on foreign policy involvement in Syria. It is also an important shared identity between Russia and the Christian minorities of Syria.
Putin uses propaganda to convince Russia that the U.S. is ignoring the plight of Syrian Christians. Dr. Coyer believes that Putin’s affinity for Christianity is feigned; he sees the Church as an instrument of policy. For example, Russian Patriarch Kirill met with Pope Frances in Cuba to dissuade the Vatican from taking a stance counter to the activities of the Russian church with regards to Syria. Dr. Coyer concluded that if the U.S. cannot effectively counter Russia’s religious influence in the Syrian conflict, it will be unable to grasp similar truths about the way the conflict is evolving, and the strategies the U.S. needs to address it in the future.
Susannah Black, freelance writer and section editor at Solidarity Hall, read from a piece she wrote called, “Getting Less Wrong about the Caliphate.” Ms. Black explained she would be speaking not as an academic, but as a journalist. Ms. Black’s experience has been that, “understanding the Islamic State is essentially a process of revising one’s earlier oversimplified ideas, in light of the almost infinite number of ways one can be wrong.”