by Gordon M. Hahn
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war could be a fateful one for Russia’s jihadist threat both at home and abroad. Russia seeks to preserve the Syrian state and at least temporarily the Assad regime by means of a Shi’a-dominated alliance. This has the potential to alienate some of Russia’s largely Sunni Muslim population and mobilize against Russia old and new radical elements in and out of the corridors of power in the Sunni Muslim world, especially in its non-secular or least secular states and societies. This, in turn, could strengthen the global jihadi revolutionary movement both inside and outside of Russia and thus negate some or all of the gains against the global jihad made by Russia’s Syria intervention.
The Russian-Shiite Coalition
Having little choice, Putin has initiated his effort to rescue the Syrian state and the Assad regime by means of a Shi’a-dominated alliance in the Levant consisting of Iran, Iraq, and Hezbollah and Shi’a and secular Baathist Syrian Alawi regime allies abroad. Some might argue the Syrian civil war is more than a Shi’a-Sunni confrontation. To be sure, the Alawis are more secular than they are Shiite Muslim and have some support among Syria’s Christian minority. The conflict also involves sub-conflicts, including an intra-Sunni conflict between jihadists, Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood), and a few moderate and secular Muslim groups. It also involves a Kurdish national separatist movement. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the Levant’s and Persian Gulf’s Shi’a-dominated and Sunni-dominated states had lined up on opposite sides in the conflict, making it a de facto Shi’a-Sunni proxy war, with the West allied with the Sunnis and Russia with the Shi’a. There have been proxy conflicts elsewhere in the region in Bahrain two years ago, in Yemen, and more recently in southeast Saudi Arabia.
Putin’s Sunni Vector
Since Putin’s arrival to the Russian presidency, he has conducted a multi-vectoral foreign policy targeting every region of the world as a strategy for achieving his goal of building a multipolar world in place of the American-Western unipolar structure. More recently, the Russian president has carried out a clever diplomatic offensive among the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Egypt and others in order to impress upon them Moscow’s seriousness about being a player in the region and the trade and defense benefits that ties with Moscow can afford those willing to make compromises. This diplomatic campaign now has the veneer of preparing the diplomatic battlefield for Russia’s forward role in Syria if not its military intervention. However, it remains unclear whether that diplomatic offensive can contain Sunni angst inside, near and outside the corridors of power in Sunni-dominated Islamic states.
The Levant-Gulf Sunni states cannot ignore Moscow’s growing ties to Iran and policies that protect Tehran’s interests to the detriment of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states. We know that Saudi elements close to the ruling family have been involved in financing and even coordinating the organization of Al Qa`ida (AQ) attacks in the past, including 9/11 and the aborted 2000 Frankfurt Airport plane hijacking plot, involving AQ in Afghanistan and jihadists within the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya, now defunct and replaced by the AQ-allied Caucasus Emirate mujahedin (CE) (Gordon M. Hahn, “Chechnya-Caucasus Cells in Europe are Two Decades Old: The Chechen Republic and the 2000 AQ Frankfurt Airline Hijacking Plot,” Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, 2013, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/02/03/chechnyacaucasus-cells-in-europe-are-two-decades-old-the-chechen-republic-of-ichkeriya-and-the-2000-aq-frankfurt-airline-hijacking-plot/). It is very likely that such elements will be energized to counter Russia as a result of Moscow’s military intervention in Syria. Countering Russia can be undertaken by stepping up support for IS and/or AQ forces in Syria and Iraq and/or hitting Russia at home. Given the backing of a number of Gulf States or elements within for IS and/or other jihadi groups against Syria and Iraq, the possibility of similar support against Russia can in no way be excluded or ignored.
The Home Front
Hitting Russia at home through jihadi proxies based in the North Caucasus would be an option for angered Sunnis. There are now two global jihadi revolutionary organizations operating in Russia after the defection of some 70-80 percent of the CE amirs and mujahedin to the Islamic State (IS or variously ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh). This summer they officially founded the ‘Caucasus Vilaiyat (Governate) of the Islamic State (CVIS), giving IS a direct affiliate inside Russia in Russia’s North Caucasus. The CVIS’s amir is the Dagestani Avar, ‘Abu Mukhammad’ Rustam Asildarov, who was the amir of the CE’s powerful Dagestan Republic network, the so-called Dagestan Vilaiyat. Thus, Dagestan is one place the CVIS is most likely to begin striking. The other is Chechnya, from where several powerful IS operatives hail – most notably ‘Umar al-Shishani’ Tarkhan Batirashvili, the amir of IS’s Northern Front where IS’s Syrian capitol is located – sent to Syria by the CE in 2012 and then having moved on to IS in 2013-14. Also, the bulk of the CE’s Chechnya network, the so-called Nokchicho Vilaiyat, has also switched its allegiance to CVIS and IS. Asildarov and his CVIS remain in the North Caucasus, and IS’s Batirashvili and his associates have always maintained they plan to return to there in order to continue the jihad at home.
With CE and CVIS/IS plots in Russia surely in the works and recruiting efforts continuing, Putin’s intervention in Syria has the potential to alienate some of Russia’s 17 million-strong Muslim population, which is 95 percent Sunni. This could improve the recruiting prospects for the CE and CVIS in Russia, with the caveat that the sharp reduction in the number of jihadi attacks in Russia – by some 90 percent from 2010 to 2014 – is largely a result of a mass exodus of Islamists and jihadists to Syria and Iraq beginning in late 2011. Thus, in addition to, or instead of successful CE and/or CVIS recruitment within Russia, Putin’s Syria intervention is sure to increase the number of extremists heading from Russia and other places in Russia to the Levant to join IS or the CE’s allies in Syria, including not just AQ’s ally Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), but also numerous other groups, including the Caucasus Emirate in the Levant (Sham) or CEL (CES). Moreover, Russia’s air strikes against IS, JN, and other jihadi groups in Syria (and soon perhaps in Iraq) are sure to increase the number of jihadists willing to travel north to join the CE or CVIS and attack targets in Russia.
Russia’s stated support for talks between Assad and elements of the ‘rational opposition’ and stated openness to the possibility of Assad stepping down at some point in the future once the Syrian state and regime are reintegrated and re-stabilized, respectively, holds a key to possible exit routes for Putin out of the Shi-a-Sunni dilemma. Moscow should be willing to support one of two possible political compromises that would assuage Sunni concerns. First, it could support a coalition government that would include Sunni Arabs and Kurds as well as Alawi Shi’a and Baathists. In lieu of any viability for the survival of a united Syrian state, Moscow could back a partitioning of the state that would leave Assad in power in a rump Alawi Baatthist state encompassing much of central and perhaps southern western Syria and create separate Sunni and Kurd states in central eastern and northern Syria, respectively – granted there will be difficulties with Turkey regarding the latter. The survival of some form of Assad regime would be vital for Moscow, since one of the few positive sides of the Baathists is their protection of the Christian minority which is at risk of genocide should the jihadis gain the upper hand in Syria’s civil war.
In the meantime as operations continue and political ducks are gotten in row (or not), Moscow will need to step up its diplomatic offensive with Sunni-dominated countries to an unprecedented level both at home and abroad. It will need to build on such measures as the building of the new central mosque in Moscow which holds 10,000 worshippers and is the largest mosque in Europe surpassing the recently built central mosque for Grozny, Chechnya. Public diplomacy such as Putin’s attendance and speech at the new Moscow mosque’s opening and the invitation and acceptance of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan at the ceremony need to be matched. Russia’s official Islamic clergy will need to mobilize. Ravil Gainutdin, perhaps Russia’s most influential official Muslim cleric and chief mufti of the Council of Russia’s Muslims, one of the largest Muslim umbrella structures in Russia, recently condemned attempts to view the conflict in Syria as a Sunni-Shi’a clash. Such arguments will need to be made repeatedly by Russia’s Muslim clergy on an ongoing basis.
Russia’ military intervention in Syria puts Moscow directly at odds with theocratic-oriented Sunni Muslim states, risking growing increased Shia’-Sunni conflict in the Levant and Persian Gulf regions and between Moscow and the Sunni world both inside and outside its borders. Should any of the Sunni theocratic states or Sunni-dominated states with secular regimes such as Egypt enter the Syrian conflict or worse still should a region-wide Shi’a-Sunni war develop involving Saudi Arabia, Egypt and/or others, then Moscow will come under even greater threat. This has implications not just Russia’s political stability and the war against jihadism, but it also potentially even greater implications for nuclear, chemical, biological, and radiological proliferation, given Russia’s possession of the largest stockpiles of these weapons and materials in the world. To this supply, the jihadi demand is now about to increase. Add in the recent reports of four interdicted attempts by a former FSB colonel to sell Cezium on the black market since 2010, and we have a recipe for disaster.
Many have commented that Putin’s intervention in Syria has imparted a tectonic shift in global geopolitics, and this is no doubt true if he can register something that looks like success. However, one side of this shift involves several sub-texts of potential threat and destabilization for the Levant and Persian Gulf regions, Russia and Eurasia, and Europe as well as in the functional area of non-proliferation and mass destruction terrorism.
The new configuration in the Levant has implications across Eurasia, in Azerbaijan and South and Central Asia in particular, where Iran and Sunni-dominated states compete for influence. In Azerbaijan, of the 90 percent of the population that is Muslim, 85 percent are Shiite, and only 15 percent are Sunni. The Sunnis are concentrated among the ethnic Lezgin population that straddles the border between northern Azerbaijan and southern Dagestan. CVIS amir Asildarov was involved in the CE’s foiled 2012 plot to attack the Eurovision music festival in Baku, which would have involved an attack on the concert hall, truck bomb attacks at hotels, and the assassination of President Ilham Aliev. There are Azerbaijanis fighting for IS (www.facebook.com/803638119690873/videos/871839199537431/). Thus, Azeri and Russian secret services should be on the lookout for CVIS activity in Azerbaijan which also is a transit point for mujahedin traveling between Russia and the Levant.
In Central Asia, the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan and the rise of IS in the region pose a new and heightened threat matrix. In that matrix, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan are now most directly under the mounting jihadi threat from across their southern borders. Farsi-speaking Tajikistan is especially threatened, given the Taliban’s recent move into Kunduz just over 40 miles from the Tajik border and is a focus of Iranian ambition in the region. Therefore, Russia can also be expected to be involved in these regions as well, perhaps in coalition with Iran and China through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which has become increasingly ‘securitized’ in recent years.
It would be better if Russia, the West, and Eurasia writ large (including China) – perhaps NATO, SCO, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – were to join efforts so that that a broad alliance, rather then competing coalitions, acts in concert to prevent these potential worst case scenarios from becoming all too ‘kinetic.’
For the history of the Caucasus jihadists’ interaction with jihadists in Syria and Iraq, see:
Gordon M. Hahn, The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (Jefferson, NC: Mcfarland Publishers, 2015)
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; and Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, MonTREP, Monterey, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.