Much ink has been spilt on the reasons behind Russia’s military intervention in Syria – unsurprising in light of the many possible motives that might explain Putin’s Damascene gambit. Many commentators see Russia’s intervention as an effort to divert attention away from its costly involvement in Ukraine; others point to the importance of the naval base in the Syrian town of Tartus for Russia’s continued presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. Some speculate that Moscow was eager to preserve its relevance in the Middle East, following the conclusion of the Iranian nuclear talks. Most notable is the notion that Russia’s intervention was meant to preserve the Assad regime – one of Russia’s key Middle Eastern allies – as the Syrian government faced imminent collapse. Despite the wealth of theories, most observers agree that Putin’s “September surprise” turned the tide in Damascus’ favor, at least for now.
Few, however, point to the links between Syria and the North Caucasus and the broader Soviet space as motivating factors in Moscow’s intervention. And yet, the connections between these two cases are numerous: jihadists from the “Caucasus Emirate” – an Al Qaeda affiliated group – have been active in the Syrian conflict since its early stages. Over 4,000 ISIS militants are of Russian, or more accurately, former Soviet origin. This contingent includes some of the most high-ranking operatives within the terrorist group, including Abu Omar Al-Shishani, a field commander with Georgian-Chechen roots.
Beyond these obvious connections, however, Russian strategies in both instances display ominous and important parallels: in spite of the Caucasus conflicts’ domestic nature and Syria’s heavily internationalised context, the Kremlin has, in both cases, aimed to marginalise moderate opponents in its efforts to deal with insurgency. The goal has been to create “fait accomplis,” whereby the world would be left to choose between actors acceptable to the Kremlin, and the radicalised – and therefore unpalatable – remnants of the opposition.
Russia’s involvement in Syria came three months after ISIS had announced the existence of Wilayat Qawqaz, a province in the North Caucasus. In fact, in April 2015, Russia’s foreign minister described the terrorist group as Russia’s “greatest security threat,” when it became apparent that an increasing number of Caucasian Jihadi groups were transferring their allegiance to ISIS at a time when the group was expanding operations in Afghanistan. This was uncomfortably close to post-Soviet Central Asia, where Russian troops had to support the secular government in Tajikistan against an Islamist rebellion as early as the 1990s.
Many commentators dismiss Moscow’s claims that its intervention is “directed against the Islamic State” as propaganda, a smoke screen for its support for the Assad regime. As they correctly point out, most Russian bombing raids have concentrated on the forces making up Syria’s moderate opposition or other less radical Jihadist groups, rather than the Islamic State itself. Syrian opposition groups have themselves angrily accused Russia of effectively providing air cover for the regime, dismissing recent reports of air raids in support of the moderate oppositionist Free Syrian Army as “propaganda” and “lies.”
Undoubtedly, Moscow has exploited the presence of a particularly virulent Jihadi group for the broader geopolitical, propagandistic objective of saving the Assad regime. But a complete dismissal of Russia’s anti-ISIS motives risks underestimating the Kremlin’s genuine fear of jihadist ideology as a threat to Russia’s national security. To Moscow, jihadist violence is a far more direct and acute menace to statehood than it is to Western states. Radical Islamists’ aims in the West are broad and distant, fitting into an overall narrative of civilizational struggle. Islamists’ goals are far more concrete in the North Caucasus, however, where an ever more radically Islamist form of separatism has challenged Russia’s rule for the past two decades.
The main difference between the West and Russia does not consist of the latter being less committed to destroying ISIS than the former. Rather, the difference rests in their analyses of the problem at hand and the solutions required. Russia has never subscribed to regime change as a response to internal conflict. The very real dangers of jihadist ideology has not prevented Russia from manipulating that threat for its own purposes, particularly as related to the North Caucasus; rather, it has exploited the ubiquitous fear of jihadism to discredit challenges to its own authority. Central authorities in Moscow ruthlessly suppressed what began as a classical, secular-nationalist movement in the North Caucasus through a combination of brute force – the flattening of Grozny and the assassination of two Chechen de-facto presidents – and the co-optation of local elites, including the Kadyrov clan.
The increasingly radicalised rebel groups became easier to dismiss as participants in global terror rather than local opponents to Russian rule. In the end, this enabled the Kremlin to turn the choice – both for local populations and the international community at large – into one between its continued control in Chechnya, or the violent Jihadism of the likes of Shamil Basayev. The residual jihadism that spread to other North Caucasus republics following Chechnya’s imperfect “pacification” has now come to be seen as an unfortunate, but preferable and manageable by-product of that strategy.
In a sense, Moscow may be manufacturing the same scenario in Syria. It is helping to eliminate any “acceptable” alternatives to the Assad regime in order to present the West with a stark choice between aggressive universalist jihadism and secular dictatorship. The assumption in Moscow is that a complete collapse of the Assad regime would almost inevitably result in either a Libyan situation – with an ineffective moderate government whose writ would not extend beyond the capital – or an outright jihadist takeover. Degrading Syria’s opposition to a point where only the regime and the most radical jihadists remain is an aim the Kremlin arguably shares with Assad. But it is also a high-risk strategy that assumes both parties will be able to repress or contain the ever-more radicalized groups that emerge from this divide-and-rule approach.
The crucial difference between the North Caucasus and Syria is the far more internationalized nature of the latter conflict. Conflict in the North Caucasus is a domestic struggle involving the central government, its separatists, and a jihadist movement limited in its international scope. In Syria, the international element in Moscow’s two-level game is far more important. Apart from the negative element of pulling the opposition apart, Putin’s strategy also includes a positive move towards making the Assad regime less unpalatable to the West.
Hoping for a wholesale conversion of Assad’s Western and non-Western opponents is unrealistic, to say the least. It would require a complete reconfiguration of Middle Eastern politics. It would involve the West acting against the wishes of Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia – all of which are dead set on the removal of Assad – and in effect allying itself with the dictator in Damascus in a Machiavellian “enemy-of-my-enemy” bargain. But sowing division among those opposed to the Assad’s continued hold on power is already yielding advantages for Russia. France’s Russian overtures in response to the Paris attacks, the thinly disguised irritation in some Western capitals at Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet, the United Kingdom’s lacklustre response to the Litvinenko killing, and a much-diminished emphasis on regime change among some in the West indicate that Russia’s strategy might not be so far-fetched after all.
Those in the West who dismiss as dangerous Russia’s advocacy of the Assad regime do not understand that Moscow fails to see repression and destruction as disqualifiers for continued rule. After all, the restoration of Russian authority in Chechnya was itself predicated on the indiscriminate destruction (and subsequent lavish rebuilding) of Grozny. In the starkly realist mode-of-thought penetrating the Kremlin’s halls of power, democracy and representative government count for exactly nothing in the geopolitical game, whose only objective is to uphold forms of domestic and international order that are in Russia’s national interest. To Moscow, “democratization” and “regime change” are, more often than not, by-words for chaos, to which repressive – but predictable – order is almost always preferable. Ending civil wars using repressive means becomes palatable and conveniently compatible with Russia’s overall aim of keeping Assad in power.
As in the Caucasus, the risks posed by the exploitation of jihadism for its propaganda value can be seen as manageable by Moscow. True, the emergence of ISIS in the North Caucasus was the logical continuation of a process of radicalization that began with the fall of the Soviet Union and the proclamation of Chechen independence. This conflict involved the “metastasising” of a low-level insurgency towards the region’s other republics. But Russia may very well believe such a low-level insurgency would be acceptable in Syria, as long as the civil war is forcefully brought to an end and the regional interests of the Kremlin – guaranteed by the Assad regime – are safeguarded. Just as in the Caucasus, Moscow and its Syrian ally would be faced with an irritant rather than a real threat; an annoyance that Putin and Assad could live with as long as larger geopolitical objectives are maintained.