Putin's War in Syria: Why Russians Don't Seem to Care About It

The head of the Syrian Association in Russia, Wail Dzhinid, center, sits next to his wife and his son during an interview in his flat in Moscow on October 7, 2015. Syrians living in Russia remain divided between those hoping Assad will wipe out the opposition in addition to the Islamic State, and those who oppose the Assad regime. Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty

Updated | It's a murky afternoon in northern Moscow when I meet "Rafiq" at the cramped offices of a refugee assistance center. A Syrian national, Rafiq fled his homeland to escape the civil war and moved to Moscow with his Russian-born wife. Today, he's extremely cautious when he talks about the Kremlin's support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—so cautious that he doesn't want me to use his real name.

"State media tells Russians that their military is only killing Islamic State fighters in Syria," he says.

"Do you believe this is true?"

He grimaces and gestures for me to switch off my recorder.

It's an understandable reaction. Rafiq's not only afraid of Syrian intelligence officers; he's also worried about Russian authorities who are increasingly intolerant of dissent. "If Russia really was just destroying Islamic State, that would be great," he says. "But this is not the case, unfortunately. It is also killing many civilians and moderate rebels. My people are suffering every day from Russian bombs."

Rafiq and I spoke less than a week after the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, whose network of activists compile information about the war, said Russian airstrikes had killed nearly 4,000 civilians, including more than 900 children, since President Vladimir Putin ordered his military into Syria just over a year ago. The grim news came as Syrian and Russian warplanes pounded rebel-held areas of Aleppo, once Syria's commercial hub, with napalm, phosphorus and bunker-buster bombs, despite the presence of some 300,000 civilians. Critics likened the devastating assault to Russia's flattening of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, during the early 2000s, not long after Putin came to power.

Yet most Russians are paying scant attention to what's going on in Syria. "Aleppo?" says Svetlana, a Muscovite lawyer, when I question her about how people feel about the war there. (She didn't want me to use her full name.) "I've never heard of it."

Russia's social media users, who played a major role in countering Kremlin propaganda during the Ukrainian revolution, have largely been silent on Aleppo too. "People don't give a crap about Syria," said Irina Khakamada, a liberal politician and former presidential candidate, in a recent interview with Radio Liberty. "Crimea, Donetsk and everything that is happening with Ukraine is important for them."

Even Russia's vocal anti-Putin opposition movement has yet to condemn the assault on the Syrian city. While roughly 30,000 gathered to march against Putin's war in Ukraine in 2014, no one has even attempted to stage a similar protest over the Kremlin's support for Assad. "It's more advantageous for us to focus on domestic politics and the pitiful state of the economy," says Ilya Yashin, a leading opposition figure.

Kremlin critics spent far more energy this month defending the right of Anton Nosik, an influential blogger, to call for genocide against the Syrian people than criticizing the consequences of the Russian military's bombardment of Aleppo. Nosik, a Russian-Israeli citizen, was found guilty of extremism by a Moscow court on October 3 and fined 500,000 rubles ($8,000) for his blog post titled "Wipe Syria Off the Face of the Earth." While Russian opposition figures, including prominent Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny, condemned Nosik's statements, they insisted he had the right to express his opinions without fear of criminal charges.

"For Russians, Ukraine is a place where we all have close relatives and friends. But for most people, Syria is far away and abstract," says Svetlana Gannushkina, a well-known Russian human rights activist and contender for this year's Nobel Peace Prize. "Unfortunately, Syria's population is seen by most people in Russia as an amorphous mass."

Opinion polls indicate that a majority of Russians support their country's military campaign. But that support, some analysts say, is lukewarm and largely dependent on Russian casualties remaining low. Most people here have lingering memories of the Soviet Union's costly nine-year war in Afghanistan, which claimed the lives of some 15,000 Red Army soldiers. "People remember Afghanistan," says Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the Moscow-based Levada Center polling company. "And they don't want a repeat of this."

To counter those fears, the Kremlin has produced a sophisticated propaganda campaign that stresses the aerial nature of Russia's involvement. And while Western media outlets frequently highlight the horrors of the Syrian war and its complicated, shifting alliances, Russian state TV has portrayed the campaign as part of a straightforward battle between Assad, Syria's "legitimate" leader, and "international terrorists" such as the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). Russia also says no civilians have died as a result of its airstrikes, while government officials refuse to accept the existence of what Western countries call a "moderate" opposition.

"The war is widely seen as a good and necessary cause," says Alexander Shumilin, a Moscow-based Middle East analyst. "And the victims are just viewed as unfortunate collateral damage."

Smoke rises from Bustan al-Basha neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, October 5. Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters

Until the Kremlin's propaganda machine went into overdrive last fall, 69 percent of Russians opposed any military involvement in Syria, according to a Levada Center poll. Yet just weeks later, following almost daily media reports on the threat posed by ISIS, 72 percent of Russians were in favor of the war. Some analysts suggest that apathy and conditional support might suit the Kremlin fine, at least for now. "For the authorities, it is not so much the support of the population that is important as the absence of any discontent over the war," says Volkov.

The reaction of Russia's Muslims has also been muted. Although Kremlin-backed muftis have backed Putin's war in Syria, no one really knows what the country's 20 million Muslims—around 14 percent of the population—think about the conflict. Unlike Assad, who hails from the minority Alawite sect, Russia's Muslims overwhelmingly belong to Islam's dominant Sunni branch, something they have in common with the rebels battling for control of Syria's cities.

Yet there have been no public protests against the bombing of Aleppo in Russia's mainly Muslim North Caucasus region. That's at least partly due to fear of the consequences of speaking out, says Gregory Shvedov, editor-in-chief of Caucasian Knot, an independent online news service. "People are afraid to protest about this, because any statement about Syria, including online, can easily lead to extremism charges," he says.

It also remains to be seen how the increase of anti-Western rhetoric over Syria will influence Russian public opinion. Since the collapse of a brief cease-fire deal, Russian officials have threatened to shoot down U.S. warplanes if they target forces loyal to Assad. Also, an article published by the website of the Russian Ministry of Defense's TV channel, Zvezda, has alleged that "schizophrenics from America are sharpening nuclear missiles for Moscow."

As for Rafiq, the Syrian refugee, he is torn between a fondness for his wife's homeland and disgust at the Kremlin's brutality in Syria. "I love Russia, and I love its people," he says. "I just wish it would stop bombing my country."

This story has been updated to better reflect the timing of Russia's aerial assault during the second Chechen war.