By intervening squarely on the side of Shiite Bashar al-Assad against his own mainly Sunni people and the entire Sunni Middle East, Russia may once again be the center of attention from the global Sunni jihadist movement. But, unlike the 1980s in Afghanistan, these mujahideen are much more experienced, much more sophisticated, much more capable, have a larger radicalized population from which to draw, and are able to strike anywhere, including Russia itself.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse October 2, 2015
This piece has also been published by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and was its Post of the Month for Oct/Nov
AMMAN — Anyone who’s been paying attention to the Syrian vortex of death, and Russia’s role in this vortex, knows that Putin’s motivations are not terribly difficult to understand and are, in fact, obvious. They generally run on three levels:
1.) Preserve the regime of Bashar al-Assad, since that regime
a.) hosts Russia’s only military base outside the states of the former Soviet Union in the form of a naval facility in Syria’s port of Tartus, without which Russia cannot be considered a global power, just a regional one (Syria has just given Russia at least one military facility, an airbase at Latakia, and maybe even more)
b.) is a customer accounting for roughly 10% of Russia’s global arms sales
2.) Stick it to the U.S. by challenging U.S. policy in a vengeful and forceful way unlikely to be matched by the U.S. that makes Russians feel good about projecting strength as the expense of their main rival
3.) Use this action to rehabilitate and increase Russia’s global power by
a.) framing the intervention as Russia taking a responsible and leading role in combating ISIS and preserving state sovereignty/the world order; this in turn can hopefully
b.) Relieve pressure/sanctions regarding Russian actions in Ukraine
c.) show regional dictators in the Middle East that, unlike the U.S., Russia will not be a fair-weather-friend even if virtually your entire country rises up against you and you slaughter well over 100,000 of your own people (Assad’s government forces have killed more Syrians than ISIS by far); this may possibly help Russia gain more allies in the region and/or spark the realignment of some nations towards Russia
Nothing complicated here.
2.) and 3.) are pretty abstract and mostly long-term in nature. So 1.) is the only thing that is likely to give Russia any actual benefits in the short term. The real question that needs to be asked is this:
Is 10% of Russian arm sales and the use of one or more military bases in Syria over the long term worth the risks of Russian intervention?
I am not sure if Putin has even seriously considered what he is getting into, or the wider risks.
Of Mr. Putin, we may ask: is he? Is Russia?
Whatever you think of Putin’s intervention in Ukraine, there is not likely to be any serious additional material consequences, other than the existing sanctions, which will be lifted in time. Russia and its people have clearly shown that they will put up stoically with the sanctions and blame them on the West rather than back down from their aggressive nationalism binge. There are few long-term risks for Russia’s position in Ukraine; they have the support of a significant minority in Ukraine (even a majority in many of the parts in which they are operating). It’s not like all of Catholic Europe will be sending holy warriors in a crusade to fight Orthodox Russia’s attempts to annex the ethnic Russian, Orthodox Christian sections of Ukraine.
Which brings us to the Middle East, and Syria. Perhaps you’ve heard of a place called Afghanistan? Perhaps you are familiar with the fact that when Russia invaded Afghanistan in a heavy-handed campaign, pretty much the whole Muslim world rose to condemn Russia’s invasion and many supported a globalized jihad that drove Russia out after the a long, fruitless, bloody war that killed about 14,500 Russians and likely well over one million Afghans, a war that lasted through most of the 1980s and precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall and then the entire Soviet Union.
As far as who learns from history, for now, the U.S. has a president in office now who campaigned on the fact that invading Iraq in 2003 was a colossal mistake, who, keeping this in mind, intervened only lightly in Libya and went out of his way to avoid being entangled in Syria. Meanwhile, Russia is placing a significant (though not huge) presence on the ground in Syria and we can only expect this to grow.
Russia may think it can accomplish the propping up of Assad with only a light presence. However 1.) this presence needs to be strong enough to potentially counter other rival forces in the region, e.g., US/West/Turkey/NATO and regional Arab states. Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton just recently called for a no-fly zone in Syria (as have I in the past) and she is not alone; Russia’s presence there is far too minimal to prevent this, which may actually incentivize a larger and more rapid buildup of Russian forces in order to make a Western-no-fly zone all but impossible.
Enter the jihad factor. Muslims have their heroes and villains. In the 1980s, the heroes were the jihadists in a fight against the villains in the form of godless Russian/Soviet communists invading Afghanistan; in the 1990s, to a much lesser degree, the villains were the post-Soviet Russians invading Chechnya and the Christians (Orthodox Serb and Catholic Croat) attacking Muslim Bosnians in the Balkans; in the last decade, the villains were the imperialist Americans in Iraq and their allies in the “apostate” Shiite regimes there. The two big culminations of these efforts in Iraq were in 2006, when Iraq nearly erupted into full-scale civil war, and in 2014, when ISIS nearly marched on Baghdad after taking much of the country from Maliki’s sectarian Shiite regime. Now, for the past few years, the big magnet for idealistic Muslims willing to use violence in the form of jihad has been the Assad regime: though secular in ideology (Ba’athist), it is headed by Arab Alawite (a sect of Shiite Islam that is a small minority in Syria) Bashar al-Assad and is controlled mainly by Alawate Shiites. It is backed by Shiite Persian Iranians and the Arab Shiite Lebanese militia Hezbollah. Sunni Muslims, in general, do not like Shiites, and that is an understatement; many Sunnis do not even consider Shiites to be Muslims. That is why so much money from rich Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar is going to fund, train, arm, and equip Sunni jihadist extremists like ISIS to go fight Assad’s regime, and this has been the case for a while now. It is part of the reason why the Syrian Civil War is so deadly, so intractable, and so long; it is about so much more than just Syria when you throw the age-old Sunni-Shiite sectarian rivalries into the mix, which have been red-hot since the Lebanese Civil War, continuing through the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, through the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and now through conflict in Yemen and Syria.
Recruits are coming from all over the world—even young girls from the West—to join ISIS in Syria (some 30,000 over the past few years, according to a recent major report). Some of the older people involved in this will have been veterans of the conflicts in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Iraq. All of those conflicts lasted about a decade; almost none of these guys quit easily. Some of them will have personal hatred of the Russians to bring to bear from one or more of these past wars. They can instill this in a younger generation. Some are even fighting today against Russia in, of all places, Ukraine.
See, here’s the thing: with Russia clearly siding with Shiite Alawite Assad and Iran against Sunnis, now more clearly than ever with the activities of the past week, there will be greater incentive for Islamic jihad against Russia than at any point since the 1980s. But the game has changed; it’s much more easier for these things now to go global, to hit home. The Chechens showed that the Russian home front was quite vulnerable in a series of horrific attacks over the years of their conflict. And unlike int he 1980s, you have many young Muslim men in Europe, part of a growing population, who are marginalized and angry; quite recently we have been seeing lone-wolf and small scale attacks flaring up in Europe, most notably with the Charlie Hebdo attack. Many of these young radicalized men are going to Syria; it won’t take much effort, if Russia is really seen as the new enemy, for people to sneak into next-door Ukraine or a little further into Russia itself. This restive population includes hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees now, most of whom will have legitimate gripes against Russia. Russia itself has a significant and growing Muslim minority that is often not treated well, which just increased to include thousands of Crimean Tatars in the illegally-annexed Crimea, taken from Ukraine by Russia just last year. And Russia is not the superpower superstate that inspires mass fear in its own population is was in the 1980s, able to control the media at home and limit what information its own Muslim population will see, whose religious practice and freedom were heavily repressed anyway. Then, Russia could clearly plan for a war in Afghanistan and not worry about sympathetic Muslims in its own population; before Glasnostand Perestroika encouraged open discussion and debate, it was keep your head down and be quiet or be arrested. While Russia is certainly no bastion of free press and free expression today, it still has a far more permissive atmosphere for troublemakers today than it did then. In the Middle East, if migrants can make their way as far as Europe illegally, jihadists will certainly be able to make their way to Russia, if Russia gives them enough motivation. However Russia frames this conflict, convincing many of the myopic RT.com crowd, most Sunni Muslims—and therefore the vast majority of Muslims—will see this as Russia supporting Shiites against Sunnis, supporting the government against civilians.
Imagine what the mujahideen jihadists of 1980s Afghanistan could have done with modern technology, using the internet and mobile communications to organize and recruit to an even higher degree, use the less-restricted travel and borders of the post-Cold War era to get to Afghanistan and even Russia with much greater ease.
AP/RIA Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press service, File
Russia needs to imagine this, and consider all of these factors. If Russia pursues major escalation in this conflict on the side of Assad, Putin and his people may soon be facing one of the great anti-Western jihads of Islamic history, and they might even not even know it. Are 10% of Russian arms sales and a few military bases—themselves obvious targets—worth the risk of a global anti-Russian jihad? Probably nyet.
See related article by same author, Grading Obama’s Middle East Strategy II: Syria’s Civil War
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