By Sergey Markedonov*
Why does Russia so stubbornly support the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad? This question is frequently discussed in media and political circles. Many American and European analysts consider Moscow’s policy a “phantom of the Cold War” or some kind of dictatorial solidarity. But realism plays a more important role in Moscow’s reasoning than anti-American hostility.
For Russia, Syria is a three-dimensional phenomenon. The first two dimensions are better known: Russia, along with China, has a long-running dispute with the West about the relationship between sovereignty and intervention in the domestic political process. That controversy has not been sparked by the current Syrian crisis; instead, it dates back to the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans in the early 1990s. Secondly, Moscow has economic and geopolitical interests in Syria, ranging from potential business contracts to Russia’s only naval facility on the Mediterranean Sea in Tartus.
The third dimension of Russia’s approach to Syria relates to the situation in the North Caucasus. The currently dominant discourse in Russia is that of a culture that incorporates both Western and Eastern influences while preserving its own distinctiveness. Thus the Kremlin identifies prominent threat to its vision of Russia as a civilization at the intersection of the Christian and Islamic worlds. The most important challenge to be faced is radicalized and militant Islamism.
Nowadays the situation in the North Caucasus no longer resembles the dynamics of the Chechen conflict. Contrary to popular belief, the insurgency in the region is not centered in Chechnya and ethnic secular nationalism does not play any significant role. In each year since 2005, the incidence of recorded violence in Chechnya has been less than or equal to the levels of violence observed in the neighboring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan. And although the situation in Chechnya can by no means be described as secure or resolved, the vast majority of violent incidents in recent years have taken place outside of the Chechen Republic itself.
The role played by Islam in the societies across the North Caucasus has steadily increased in importance since the late 1990s and early 2000s, especially in comparison to ethnic nationalism. Although the influence of Islam is by no means a novel phenomenon in the North Caucasus, it has become a political tool only in the past decade. Political Islam in the region is a multi-faceted phenomenon. Ramzan Kadyrov, the young Sufi Muslim Chechen leader who is heavily supported by the authorities in Moscow, has used religion to consolidate his power by appealing to an important common thread tying together Chechen identity. In Dagestan, however, deep fissures have developed between the Sufi Muslims who consider religion to be a part of their ethno-national heritage, ultra-religious Salafis who exhibit different levels of radicalism, and outright Jihadists.
The growing influence of the notion of Jihad in the region has been particularly troubling. The Beslan tragedy of September 2004 marks the turning point where the main anti-Russian vocabulary in the North Caucasus switched from one of nationalism to the language of radical Islamism. Though the Jihadist leaders in the North Caucasus often demonstrate a very shallow knowledge of Islam, evidence at times by laughable spelling errors, they have managed to utilize the Islamist discourse effectively to tap into and mobilize the extremist potential in the region.
Since 2011 the number of terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus decreased seriously (especially in Ingushetia). Russia’s special services provided a very effective work on the eve and aftermath the Sochi 2014 Olympics. However the weakened Caucasus Emirate (established in October, 2007) being the most dangerous challenge to Moscow for a long time has been replaced by so-called “Islamic State” (or ISIS).
In November and December last year, some North Caucasian jihadists swore allegiance to Islamic State’s latter-day “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The «inner circle» of ISIS contains more than a few natives of the Greater Caucasus region (one of the most colorful characters, Tarkhan Batirashvili, hails from Pankisi Gorge, Georgia bordering on the Russian North Caucasus). Islamic State is by no means the only force opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — and besides fighting him they are also fighting each other. There are many anti-Assad groups (which are also fighting ISIS) with radical Islamist slogans on their banners. If Assad does indeed fall, do not expect the ideals of European democracy to spring forth in this part of the world.
All aforementioned factors pushed Russia to be more active in Syria and now Moscow does not choose between bad and good options. Its choice is about different sets of challenges. Thus Russia’s interests in Syria should not be viewed solely as elite complexes or imperial fantasies. They are to a large extent pragmatic and relate to a wide spectrum of issues involving domestic security. But despite this pragmatic approach, Russian diplomacy is unable to clearly articulate the country’s national interests. Its spokesmen rely more on emotions than on facts and strict arguments—sometimes exploiting anti-American rhetoric for no good reason. While some in Western circles would criticize Russia for its flawed diplomacy, they should also be careful not to oversimplify Moscow’s positions regarding Syria. Doing so would be unproductive: the North Caucasus jihadists and their potential allies will continue to promote anti-Western views in what will likely remain a problematic Syria, no matter who is in power there.
*Associate Professor at Russian State University for the Humanities, Ph.D.in History
** This article was first published in Analist monthly journal’s November issue in Turkish language.