Lessons from the past: the Ottoman-Russian War of 1878

Lessons from the past: the Ottoman-Russian War of 1878
6 min read
15 Oct, 2015
Comment: The world has ignored the ethnic-cleansing of the Ottoman-Russian War of 1878, allowing it to play out again over a century later in Syria and Iraq [AFP]
Sectarianism-tinged violence has forced millions of people in Iraq and Syria from their home [AFP]

"Russia's immediate purpose in attacking the Ottoman state had been to create a Bulgaria entirely dependent on it that could be used as a Russian outpost in the Balkans and an outlet to the Mediterranean through Salonica." - Kamal Karpat, The Politicization of Islam

The Ottoman-Russian War of 1877-78 was a turning point for the Ottoman empire and pan-Islamist ideas, according to the esteemed Turkish-Romanian historian Kemal Karpat. As Russian troops and Bulgarian armed bands crossed the Balkan mountain range, they eradicated any Turkish towns or trace of Ottoman presence they found. 

Around 300,000 Muslims (mostly Turks) were killed in the ensuing carnage, while one million more fled for their lives most of whom never returned to their homes. Nearly 140 years later and the Syrian regime and their Iranian and Russian allies have killed a similar number.

Almost 250,000 Syrians have been killed while more than ten million have been forced to flee their homes due to the threat of punitive raids by regime forces and heavy bombing by the Syrian air force. Just as the Ottoman-Russian War of 1878 marked a cataclysmic change in Ottoman and Pan-Islam history, Persian-Russian actions in Syria likewise open a new chapter in the region's history and threatens the last vestiges of pan-Arab ideas.

Russian interests in Syria

Russia has three major interests in propping up President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. First, Russia wants to protect its only Mediterranean naval base in Tartous. Second, Moscow wishes to maintain a loyal arms buyer in Assad, particularly after the US signed a number of major arms deals with its partners in the Gulf. 

The last interest is more difficult to decipher: are the Russians interested in saving the Syrian state or in supporting the creation of an "Alawite" state? 

It has become clear that the US is antipathetic towards maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria, notwithstanding rhetoric to the contrary. 

Has Russia accepted the inevitability of a Syria break-up?  Well, they certainly appear prepared for it. Over the past few weeks, Russia has made its presence in Syria more aggressively felt. 

Last week, I discussed how Iran was using the Islamic State group as a prop to bolster its counter-terrorism credentials and cleanse central and southern Iraq of its Sunni populations. 

Russia is doing the same in Syria. It has used the threat of IS as a pretext to bomb rebel groups who have been engaged not only in a war against Assad forces, but also for the past year against IS. 

In reality, as has become obvious, Russia's main interest in Syria is to buttress the Assad regime or at least give him enough time to consolidate his gains in western Syria. Assad's strategy has largely mirrored Iran's in Iraq, where Tehran attempted to control the territories between the capital Baghdad and the southern port city of Basra.

The Syrian regime has attempted to solidify the populated rump between Aleppo and Damascus, Syria's two largest cities.  This axis includes Hama and Homs, and is the backbone of the Syrian economy.  

More importantly, it gives the regime access to the sea and Lebanon (an important goal in its own right), while pushing the opposition out to the sparsely inhabited eastern desert areas, which have been essentially given up to IS. 

Russia is thus inclined to defend Assad's positioning on the most valuable chunk of real estate in Syria, but it is unclear where this will lead the country to.

Sectarianism: the name of the game

"Because the Muslim population constituted the majority in the Danube province, which occupied most of the territory of the future Bulgaria, Russia has decided to secure the numerical superiority of the Bulgarians by forcing out the Muslim population. - Karpat

Although it might have been preferable for Iran and Russia that Assad remains in power, and for the Syrian state to survive, this is no clear outcome. 

Tehran and Moscow appear to be preparing for a consolation prize in a future "Assad-state" in "useful" Syria. The creation of this entity, which will most likely have an "Alawite" identity, would require the expulsion of thousands of Sunni Muslims from this territory and it is a process that has been underway throughout the five years of the Syrian war. 

One reason the Syrian conflict has been prolonged is that Assad's patrons have been giving him just enough time to change Syrian society to suit his needs. But what does this mean for the region? 

Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria has increasingly sectarian overtones, and the emergence of an independent Kurdish territory in these two countries (it should be noted that both the US and Russia are arming Kurdish separatists) is also becoming a political reality.

This ultimately means that the region is breaking apart and the largely civic-based Arab states are collapsing. Notwithstanding popular propaganda, Iraq was a place where Sunnis, Shias and Kurds were well integrated, intermarried and part of a vibrant middle class. 

Though Syria was not as integrated, because intermarriage was not common, few Syrians identified the Syrian state as Sunni or Alawite. Both Iraq and Syria were simply states - though authoritarian, for Iraqis and Syrians - people who shared a set geographic space, historical heritage, common cuisine, customs and the like.

What about the United States?

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, sectarian identity has become privileged over civic identity in the region. The US had allies that helped foment sectarianism in Iraq - namely Iran.

This has resulted in Iraq lacking development, suffering from both incessant violence and increasingly superficial political platforms. Politics is a discourse negotiating the relationship between economy and governance, but in the Arab world it increasingly means "sect-based" privileges. 

Should Syria break up, the two or three states that would emerge would likely be active in instutionalising and projecting a strong sect-based identity. This would likely mean inquisitions, purges, skewed and unreliable education curricula, and fostering an environment of constant fear of the other.    

What was different about the environment of the Balkans in 1878 was how they responded to outside threats. Karpat notes that when Muslims confronted Russian atrocities in the Balkans, they came to believe that "salvation laid not in the idealistic, yet selectively applied, 'universal' principles of Europeans civilisation, but in the self-defensive unity of the believers".

Likewise, the Arabic-speaking peoples are no longer looking to fraternal relationships based on common language, culture and common history to bring about some form of material and political cooperation.  

Some groups in Iraq and Syria are looking to Iran to find "sect unity".

Naturally, as Iraq and Syria fragment, the people will become more dependent on outsiders like Russia, while the states that emerge will lag behind in political development.

They could eventually become more oppressive than the region's current regimes.


Laith Saud is a writer and scholar. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam for the 21st Century (Wiley-Blackwell). Twitter handle: @laithsaud.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.