Monday, October 19, 2015

RLPB 332. Russia in Syria

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 332 | Tues 20 Oct 2015

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By Elizabeth Kendal

Many hundreds of Sunni jihadist groups are fighting in Syria, but virtually all are aligned with either al-Qaeda (represented by al-Nusra) or Islamic State (IS). While al-Qaeda and IS diverge on strategy, they have the same goals -- to establish a Caliphate and attack the West -- and the same attitude towards Christians, who must convert, submit or die. While the 'young guns' of IS excel in spectacular theatrics, the 'old guard' of al-Qaeda excel in strategy. While IS attracts more youths, it is also far more vulnerable. Also, though al-Qaeda is rarely mentioned in the media these days (for political reasons), it is just as dangerous as ever. In February, when it became apparent that the Iran nuclear deal would empower Iran, regime-changers Turkey and Saudi Arabia began escalating their assistance to rebels, in the hope they could oust Syrian President Bashar al Assad before Iranian funds were unfrozen and sanctions lifted. Subsequently, five Sunni jihadist groups announced an alliance. Led by al-Qaeda's al-Nusra and backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the Jaysh al Fateh (Army of Conquest) coalition includes US-armed and trained jihadists formerly associated with the Free Syrian Army. By late March Jaysh al Fateh had captured the provincial capital of Idlib and was threatening the Alawite* heartland of Latakia. [RLPBs 305 (15 Apr) and 307 (27 Apr)]. 

[* 'Alawite': the Assad family belong to the Alawite sect of Islam. Previously known as Nusayri, the Alawites, like the Baha'i and Ahmadiyya, follow a later prophet. Historically they have been persecuted, subjugated and killed as heretics. Shi'ites accept them as Shi'ites purely for geo-strategic purposes.]

As Jaysh al Fateh advanced through Idlib into north-west Hama and launched rockets into Latakia, IS seized Palmyra and started expanding towards Damascus. On 12 August, with Islamic jihadists advancing on two critical fronts, we appealed for the Lord's intervention [RLPB 322 (12 Aug)]. As the situation continued to deteriorate we prayed concerning the Christian crisis and appealed again for the Lord's intervention [RLPB 326 (9 Sep)]: that Christians might have safe haven and that the schemes of the wicked would be thwarted.

Institute for the Study of War
click on map to enlarge
In 28 September Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the UN General Assembly. Putin noted that foreign support for illegal regime change along with the arming of terrorists has reaped nothing but disaster and insecurity. Consequently he appealed for co-operation in the fight against terrorism, which, as he noted, is a threat to everyone. (Russia particularly is at risk with an estimated 2000 'Chechens' fighting with IS and with al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria.)  On 30 September Russia started bombing Jaysh al Fateh positions in north-west Hama and Idlib. Aided by Russian air-cover, the Syrian army has been able to roll back Jaysh al Fateh, thereby securing sanctuary in Alawite-dominated Latakia (which is also home to many Christians and thousands of refugees) and Tartus (where Russia has long had a naval base).

Saved by Russia.
A Muslim woman in Damascus
shows her appreciation
outside the Russian Embassy.
Russia has also been bombing IS positions from Palmyra (central Homs) and Ghouta (eastern Damascus) to the commercial capital of Aleppo in the north. Friday 16 October saw the launch of a new Battle for Aleppo. Danger looms for Aleppo's remnant Armenians and Assyrians, for not only have Sunni rebel forces acquired much US-made heavy weaponry which they will be firing into government-held districts, but Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani is on the ground in Aleppo leading an array of Shi'ite militias. Whilst the Alawite-dominated Syrian army has long protected Syrian Christians, how Iranian and Arab Shi'ite militias will respond to the Christians they come across is really unknown.

Meanwhile, the emir of al-Qaeda's al-Nusra, Abu Muhammad al Julani, has issued a video message [transcript] entitled 'The Russian Intervention -- The Last Arrow'. Referring to Russians as 'Eastern Crusaders', he called for mujahideen in the Caucasus (southern Russia) to match the killings in Syria: for every jihadi a Russian soldier; for every Syrian civilian a Russian civilian. He also called for greater jihadist unity in Syria and for an escalation in rocket attacks against Nusayri (Alawite) towns and villages. The conflict is sure to escalate. How bad it gets will doubtless depend on how long it takes the West to correctly identify the enemy.


* forge unity and co-operation in the fight against international Islamic jihad and the Islamic ascendancy and stop repeating the errors of the past; may we put aside the ambitions, interests and hatreds that since the mid-19th century have allowed Islam to play the West against the East. 

* shield, guide and provide for his existentially imperilled people as the Syrian conflict escalates and intensifies around them, praying especially at this time for remnant Armenian and Assyrian Christians in war-ravaged Aleppo.

'All nations surrounded me; in the name of the LORD I cut them off! They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side; in the name of the LORD I cut them off! They surrounded me like bees; they went out like a fire among thorns; in the name of the LORD I cut them off!' (Psalm 118:10-12 ESV)

* protect Russian Christians and Russian churches as jihadists respond to al-Qaeda's call for retaliation against the 'Eastern Crusader'.

Sanctify your Church, Lord. May we love one another as you have loved us (John 13:34). May our eyes be fixed on Jesus (Hebrews 2:2) and our trust be in Him (Psalm 56; Psalm 118).


The Syrian government has come under severe stress during 2015 as the al-Qaeda-led 'Jaysh al Fateh' rebel coalition has advanced into government strongholds in the north-west and as Islamic State (IS) has advanced towards Damascus. In July the government made a strategic retreat, abandoning the vast east to defend the main population centres at risk from al-Qaeda and IS. In September, as rockets rained down on Latakia (formerly Laodicea), and IS sat poised to fill any power vacuum in Damascus, Russia entered the fray, to defend its own assets and interests; to shore up sanctuary for Syria’s imperilled minorities; and to help the Syrian government in the fight against International Islamic jihad. In response, al-Qaeda has called for jihad against the 'Eastern Crusader', in Syria and Russia. Please pray for Christians at risk.


Elizabeth Kendal is the author of
Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today
(Deror Books, Dec 2012).

Her second book, ‘After Saturday Comes Sunday’: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East, will be published by Wipf and Stock (Eugene, OR, USA) in early 2016.