Continued air strikes by the Russian and Syrian governments against civilians in Aleppo sparked hostile reaction from Muslims in Central Asia. Speeches made by imams in Kyrgyzstan during Friday prayers and comments posted online in regard to carpet bombings aimed at residential neighborhoods in Aleppo demonstrate that many Muslims in Central Asia feel negatively about inhumane military operations carried out or supported by the Russian military in Syria
Well-known Central Asian religious scholars have begun considering the Syrian civil war in relation to inter-Islamic disagreements. In particular, as the Syrian conflict escalates, the issue of the relationship between Shiites and Sunnis in the Islamic world is increasingly visible for Central Asian Muslims.
In private conversations many Muslim clerics say that the bloody regime of Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to the Alawi sect affiliating with the Shia, is committing genocide against Syrian Sunnis. The fact that many of those killed in the conflict are Sunni, and social infrastructure, hospitals, kindergartens, schools and houses of civilians are being destroyed as a result of strikes by Russian air forces, is deeply troubling for Central Asia’s Muslims. More than 90 percent of Muslims in Central Asia are Sunni.
Russia — which has tight political, economic and cultural relations with Central Asian countries — has allied with Assad’s government and Shiite Iran.
Central Asian Muslims are faced with the fact that Russians, with whom they lived with for more than 70 years within the Soviet Union, show de facto support for Shiites against Sunnis in the Middle East.
Russian TV channels, news websites, and print media often echo the voice of the Kremlin and have significant influence in Central Asian. But many view such media as Russian propaganda, and distrust the filter information. People receive alternative information from other sources including preachers from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan, and Egypt, which have charity organizations in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. Information on the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites is received through young imams, who are studying in Islamic education institutions in Sunni countries.Central Asian countries annually send more than 1000 students to study at Cairo’s University of Al-Azhar, Islamic University of Madinah, University of Imam Saud in Er-Riyad and the International Islamic University of Islamabad.
Despite the fact that pro-Kremlin mass propaganda says the target of Russian bombardment is exclusively ISIS extremists and Jabhat al-Nusra, many in Central Asia take into consideration that Vladimir Putin is supporting Assad and is purposefully destroying the Syrian opposition, which consists mainly of Sunnis.
During recent Friday prayers, Chubak Ajy Jalilov, the highly respected former mufti of the Spiritual Body of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan, elaborated on issues around the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in Syria. His message, which was addressed to Muslims in Kyrgyzstan, was instantly disseminated online and published in a local newspaper.
He said, “President of Syria Bashar al-Assad is not Muslim. He belongs to Alawite sect of Shia, which does not recognize Our Prophet.” He went on to note that Alawites account for only 10 percent of the Syrian population and called Assad’s regime a “Kafir dynasty.” Jalilov commented on government corruption, a failed justice system and public revolve in Syria
“During the last five years the President Bashar Assad has been purposefully and violently killing our Sunni brothers,” he said. Jalilov mentioned the millions of displaced Syrians and hundreds of thousands killed by government forces. “The war targeted almost every Syrian family,” he said. “That is why, if there is a possibility, please provide humanitarian assistance to Sunni brothers in Syria. If there is no any such possibility, then let’s by gritting our teeth pray for them.”
According to Jalilov , Russia, which is assisting the Syrian government and is conducting airstrikes against civilians in Aleppo, is also a “criminal” and an “enemy to Syrian Sunnis.” It is noteworthy that he is also against the Islamic State and urges youth not to join their jihad in the Middle East, but openly shows his support to Sunni opposition in Syria.
The civil war in Syria and clashes between Sunni and Shiites in the Middle East have had an impact on interreligious issues in Central Asia. During the last two years in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan hostile attitudes towards Shiites has increased and the fragmentation of the greater Islamic community has been exacerbated. Imams in mosques have begun to speak more about issues regarding relations between Sunni and Shiites. Jalilov, who enjoys respect and support both among ordinary Muslims and increasing number of religious scholars, often makes speeches to thousands of followers on the threat of an uncontrollable flow of Shiite ideology into the country.
According to Jalilov, if state authorities do not stop the increasing influence of Shiite ideology, then civil war may take place in Kyrgyzstan like in Syria. In particular, he has pointed to Aga Khan, the leader of the Ismaili community of Shiites, whose charitable organizations operate in the country. Prominently, Aga Khan funds supported the opening of a new University of Central Asia campus in Naryn. Jalilov characterizes this as spreading Shiite ideology.
Jalilov’s openly anti-Shiite and anti-Russian position regarding the Syrian conflict has caused serious concern for Kyrgyz high officials. Due to the increasing anti-Russian opinion among Muslims, Kyrgyz authorities have decided to prohibit Jalilov from making public speeches on TV and radio. This was confirmed by Jalilov. Despite the prohibitions, he continues to make speeches in mosques during Friday prayers and has not changed his political and religious views.
Pressure on Jalilov likely emanated, in part, from the office of President Almazbek Atambayev. He is the only Central Asian leader who, in October 2015, publicly supported military intervention by Russia in Syria.
Only a few religious leaders and a segment of Muslims in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan open stand in with solidarity with Syrian Sunnis. Strict controls over the religious matters, repression of the IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) and supporters of the party “Hizb-ut Tahrir” in Uzbekistan, in addition to the banning of the Islamic Renaissance Party and judicial oppression of its members in Tajikistan makes it difficult for Muslims to openly voice strong opinions with regard to Syria’s Sunnis. Behind closed doors, however, they condemn air strikes aimed at the Sunni opposition, which is fighting against both Assad and ISIS. The fact that Russian aircraft are attacking districts in which there is no significant number of ISIS fighters, causes concern among Central Asian Muslims.
The Syrian conflict is the largest Russian military intervention in the Middle East since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Central Asians remember well the ten-year Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, which accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Anti-Russian sentiment is slowly creeping into Central Asia, particularly among those who now see themselves as part of the Sunni world. Central Asian Muslims’ self-awareness is also influenced by a sense that the fight by opponents to the Assad regime is associated with the protection of Islam. Therefore an increasing number of Muslims leave for the Middle East not just to fight for Islam but also to fight against “Shiite aggression.”
In September 2013, Balbak Tulobaev appealed to the public through the newspaper “Ayat” with a message to support U.S. efforts in establishing peace in Syria. According to him, only the military capacity of the United States is able to prevent a genocide of Sunnis in Syria and to bring Assad to justice for his crimes. “The cradle of culture and great civilization Aleppo and other cities have turned into ruins. Due to the fault of dictator Bashar al-Assad, millions of people are under the pressure. Let’s support effort of USA, we wish that it would stop [the] dictator who is exterminating his own people. There is no alternative choice.”
To many, Russia’s involvement in Syria is driven by its own strategic ambition. Moreover, Syria diverts attention from Russian policy and actions in Eastern Ukraine and the annexing of Crimea. Russian ambition to become a global player in the Middle East may lead to failure in Central Asia. Putin considers the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia as Moscow’s strategic zone of influence. But awareness is growing among Muslims within the region that Russia is not a peacekeeper in the Syrian conflict. Tactical and strategic mistakes by Moscow in Syria further alienate Central Asia from Russia.
In 2015 and 2016, Russian held rallies and demonstrations against the war in Syria and Putin’s decisions to retain throw in with Assad at all costs. Polls showed that opponents of military intervention in Syria are Sunni from Tatarstan (24 percent) and Dagestan (22 percent). According to Aleksey Malashenko, of the Moscow Carnegie Center, military intervention has not only exacerbated the problem of internal relations between the state and Russian Sunnis, but also increased the threat of terrorist acts inside Russia.
The main threat for Moscow is that its unilateral support of Assad’s bloody regime may lead to the escalation of tensions in ethnic and religious relations in the post-Soviet space. When John Kirby, the U.S. State Department spokesman, warned Moscow about the severe implications of the Kremlin’s policy in Syria and possible terrorist attacks in Russian cities, his words were accepted with hostility. The Russian Foreign Ministry compared the warning of their American colleagues with a command to “attack.” But in the context of the Sunni-Shiite conflict in Syria an increased threat of terrorist attacks within Russia itself is an evident fact.
In order to put an end to the civil war in Syria the next U.S. president will have to develop and use a more effective strategy, capable of not only addressing Assad, but also of bringing him to justice. Recently, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the President of France Francois Hollande, said that both the Syrian and Russian governments should be investigated for war crimes.
Uran Botobekov has a PhD in political science and is an expert on political Islam.