Vladimir Putin looks like a winner in Syria these days. In just three short days, Russian air support for Syrian military forces helped expand Damascus’s control toward Aleppo, a feat that President Bashar al-Assad had not been able to accomplish for the past three years. Russia also became the main broker of the Syrian cease-fire.
But many observers have warned that Putin’s military campaign in Syria may backfire at home. Russia’s 144 million people include about 20 million Muslims; the overwhelming majority are Sunnis. Some analysts believe that these Russian Sunnis will recoil from Russia’s support for Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime and its attacks on Sunni rebels, and from Russia’s effort to lead a coalition of Shiite powers, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
What do Russian Muslims think about Syria?
We tested these speculations through a recent survey of Russian Muslims. The survey was conducted by the department of sociology at the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a non-governmental organization in Russia. We got answers from 1,200 people who were randomly sampled from Tatarstan and Dagestan, two Muslim-majority Republics within the Russian Federation.
This gives us opinions from two major historical centers of Islam in Russia: the Volga Urals region (Tatarstan) and the North Caucasus (Dagestan). Tatarstan is especially useful to survey; its 3.8 million people are almost equally divided between Muslim Tatars (53 percent, according to a 2010 census) and Orthodox Russians (40 percent). Our Tatarstan survey included members of both groups, allowing us to benchmark Muslims’ views on the war in Syria.
We asked all respondents to say which of these options they preferred:
- Russia should not have any military involvement in Syria
- Russia needs to participate in the Syrian war on Assad’s side
- Russia should join international military coalition in Syria with the U.S. and France.
If none of these appealed, respondents could fill in their own preferred response.
If pundits’ predictions were true, Muslims would be more likely to choose the anti-war response and less likely to support Putin’s intervention. But that’s not exactly what we found.
Pretty much the same thing that their non-Muslim neighbors think
As you can see, Muslims in both Tatarstan (24 percent) and Dagestan (22 percent) were more likely to oppose war in Syria than were Russian Orthodox people in Tatarstan (18 percent). But the difference isn’t large. What’s more, Muslims do support helping Assad. In fact, more Dagestani Muslims than Tatarstan Orthodox Christians supported intervening to prop up Assad (29 percent to 23 percent).
Russian Muslims and Orthodox Christians did split on the idea of joining a Western alliance to stop the Syrian civil war. Many fewer Tatar Muslims (18 percent) and Dagestani Muslims (11 percent) wanted to join a Western alliance, while 28 percent of the Orthodox Christians in Tatarstan did so.
So, there wasn’t a consensus among any religious group. Russian Muslims are split regarding the intervention in Syria, but more are pro- than anti-war. In addition, about 20 percent of the sample (both religions) said that they were unsure of their opinion.
These Russian Sunnis don’t see Putin’s support of Assad’s Shia as a sectarian intervention
Perhaps one reason why these result contract specialists’ predictions of a Muslim backlash against Putin’s intervention in Syria is that most of our respondents don’t see the Syrian conflict as sectarian. In other words, they do not perceive Russian intervention as Putin attempting to help an Alawite regime crush Sunni rebels.
As you can see, most respondents of both religions – about 40 percent — weren’t sure what the conflict was about. Most important, only 6 percent of Dagestani Muslims see the Syrian war as a conflict between Sunnis and Shias. And only 3 percent of Tatar Muslims see it that way.
About 25 percent of Tatar Muslim see the conflict as a fight against Islamic terrorists. But no other group rises to that level; only 20 percent of Christians see it that way, and only 15 percent of Dagestani Muslims. Those who do see it that way probably agree with the Russian media that Putin is intervening in Syria to fight Islamic State forces.
The rest of respondents pick the second option, and believe Assad’s regime is fighting the West. Many of those who provided their own answers also saw a geopolitical confrontation — but one between the United States and Russia. For instance, one respondent said, “It is America that destroys peaceful countries. They did it in Yugoslavia, in Iraq, in Libya. Now this is happening in Syria.”
More Orthodox Christians see the Syrian war as an East-West confrontation than do Muslims. But Russian Muslims also are more likely to see it as a geopolitical conflict or as a fight against Islamist terrorism than as a sectarian divide.
But did we find out what Russian Muslims really think?
We’re not sure, for three reasons.
First, respondents may be lying. In a recent study, Levada Center showed that 26 percent of Russians are afraid to express their opinions in surveys. Asking whether someone supports war in Putin’s Russia is pretty sensitive; some may feel lying is safer. So perhaps more Russian Muslims disapprove of Putin’s intervention in Syria than we know.
Second, as the war drags on, Russia is being accused of killing Syrian civilians — intentionally. As such allegations increase, Russian Muslims’ attitudes may harden — especially those who say they’re not sure what they think about intervention or who don’t really understand the conflict.
Third, even if more Russian Muslims support intervening in Syria now, that still leaves a minority who strongly object to the intervention and who hate the Assad regime. That might come back to haunt Russian national security.
Putin himself has estimated that there are “5,000 to 7,000 fighters from Russia and other CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] member states fighting for ISIS.” As Russia intervenes in Syria, that minority may become even more interested in joining the Islamic State. But Putin’s foreign policy often seems aimed mainly at boosting his domestic popularity. At least for now, his Syrian campaign is proving successful, even among Russian Muslims.
Egor Lazarev is a PhD candidate at the department of political science at Columbia University, working on a dissertation on how Russian law co-exists with shari’a and customary law in Chechnya.
Anna Biryukova is a head of the sociology department at the Anti-Corruption Foundation in Russia.
CORRECTION: The original version of this article mistakenly contained an editing mistake in the third paragraph of the section beginning “Pretty much the same thing…”. There was an extra “against” toward the end of the second sentence, which read “…but more are pro- than against anti-war.” when it should have read “but more are pro- than anti-war.”. The sentence has been corrected, but we apologize for the error.