Russia’s Counterterrorism Gamble in Syria and the Caucasus

October 8, 2015

Once again, Russia has turned to the counterterrorism card to seek a way out of its precarious situation at home and in the international arena. During his address to the UN General Assembly, President Vladimir Putin stressed the importance of fighting against terrorism: “Relying on international law, we must join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing, and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism.” Two days later, Russian forces in Syria began airstrikes against a panoply of anti-Assad groups. While Russian strikes have targeted the Islamic State and Putin continues to justify the campaign on the basis of fighting that group, most strikes have hit other rebel groups that had been advancing on the Alawite heartland.

The timing of the strikes could not have worked better. Floods of Syrian refugees in Europe, growing contradictions among anti-Assad groups, and the indecisiveness of Western powers have allowed Putin the upper hand. At the United Nations, the Russian president pointed out the gross miscalculations of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State. Referring to the transfer of weapons between the Syrian oppositional groups, Putin declared: “It is hypocritical and irresponsible to make declarations about the threat of terrorism and at the same time turn a blind eye to the channels used to finance and support terrorists.”

Predictably, Putin offered his own solution for resolving the situation in Syria. In his vision, Russian airstrikes will continue until the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are ready to once again go on the offensive. Triumphantly, the Russian government declared that unlike the actions of the anti-Islamic State coalition, the Kremlin’s response fully adheres to international norms. Russian Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matvyenko explained that “interference into the territory of a sovereign state can only be carried out on authorization of UN Security Council or on request of official legitimate authorities.” Accordingly, Russia is acting in response to President Assad’s letter requesting help. Lastly, Russia’s Federation Council unanimously voted in favor of Putin’s initiative to further legitimize the involvement of the Russian forces, just as it did in 2014 in Crimea.

This isn’t the first time Putin is banking on counterterrorism to advance his interests, a strategy he used to overcome the challenges he inherited from the Yeltsin era, too. After the terrorist attack on 9/11, Putin was the first foreign leader to reach out to President George W. Bush to assure him of Russia’s commitment to fighting terrorism. Counterterrorism became instrumental for the Kremlin to subdue domestic criticism about the lack of security and stability in Russia. Counterterrorism also secured a green light for Putin’s regime to continue military action in Chechnya. As a sign of approval, then-U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice stated: “We know that there are terrorists in and around Chechnya and we urge Chechen leaders to disassociate themselves from the criminals who might be found in their ranks. We cannot fight international terrorism in Afghanistan and welcome it in Chechnya.”

Russia today faces a deepening economic crisis as a result of Western sanctions and lower oil prices, while the situation in Ukraine remains a stalemate. In this situation, just as in 2001, counterterrorism once again holds promise as a way to prove both domestically and internationally that Russia remains a great power. Through supporting Assad against the Islamic State, Putin is sending a message to the rest of the world that Russia is an important player in the international arena and remains a critical country for dealing with global crises.

Russia’s turn to counterterrorism has not been sudden. Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, Russian authorities have been reporting numbers of Russian citizens joining the ranks of the Islamic State. The most recent figure, according to the Russian security services, ranges around 2,500 people. As a result, the Islamic State was proscribed in Russia as a terrorist organization, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has named the Islamic State as Russia’s main enemy. This declaration was followed by a phone call between Putin and Obama during which the presidents discussed the group as a mutual threat.

Since 1999, Russia has been conducting counterterrorist operations in its very own North Caucasus. Despite the government’s repeated declarations of victories over terrorists, the North Caucasus insurgent factions established the Caucasus Emirate in 2007 and have been challenging Moscow’s legitimacy in its efforts to establish an independent Islamic state. Since the start of the war in Syria, Caucasus Emirate founder Doku Umarov was cautious towards jihad there and tried to prevent his fighters from leaving the Caucasus through a fatwa issued by Abu Abdurrahman al-Maghribi.

Russia’s security services, on the other hand, have done seemingly little to stem the outflow of Russian citizens to Syria. The online presence of the Islamic State in Russia has been surprising, given the government’s tight control over extremist propaganda. As the now famous case of Varvara Karaulova demonstrates, the Islamic State has been successful in recruiting Russian followers through social media. The group even published its own Russian-language magazine, Istok, on the internet.

Rather than tackling the terrorist problem, Russia’s counterterrorist strategy in the North Caucasus has been focused on the displacement of terrorist elements to Syria while the security services target the leaders of the Caucasus Emirate. Doku Umarov was eliminated in March 2014, and his successors Aliaskhab Kebekov and Muhammad Suleimanov were both killed this year. Yet this leadership decapitation strategy has not secured Russia’s victory in the North Caucasus; rather, it has broken the Caucuses Emirate into factions, some of which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State as early as November 2014. This development culminated in the Islamic State’s announcement of the founding of its province Vilayat Kavkaz in the Caucasus.

While Russia trumpets its commitment to counterterrorism, its rhetoric does not seem sincere. So far, most of the airstrikes in Syria have largely targeted opposition groups other than the Islamic State. By supporting the Assad regime in Syria, Putin is merely trying to divert attention from the collapsing economy at home and the unfinished business in Ukraine. While Putin’s long-term intentions in Syria remain unclear, the return of fighters from Syria to Russia appears inevitable. Individuals who fought with the Islamic State have already started coming back home and present a grave security threat for Russia. In the 2000s, China attempted a similar displacement counterterrorist strategy against Uighur militants by pushing them to Pakistan. In Pakistan, Uighur terrorist elements partnered with al-Qaeda, only to strike back against China with renewed vigor. Russia is facing the same risk today, especially once it openly started its fight against the Islamic State in Syria.


Dr. Elena Pokalova is an Associate Professor at the College of International Security Affairs at National Defense University. The views expressed here are her own.


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