Emil Aslan Souleimanov, Katarina Petrtylova
Dr. Souleimanov is an associate professor of Russian and East European studies in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. Ms. Petrtylova is a PhD student of Sociology at Charles University. This study was carried out in the framework of the Program "Sciences on Society, Politics, and Media" at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University.
The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS, ISIL or IS) has once again brought the Middle East to the center of the international stage. This quasi-state's recent territorial gains, together with its harsh treatment of religious minorities, brazen media campaign and destruction of the region's unique cultural heritage, have all galvanized millions in the region and across the world against the group. The unprecedented number of youth from countries across the Muslim world as well as from Western diasporic communities volunteering to join ISIS has generated enormous security concerns for the governments of jihadists' home countries. It is believed that the subsequent reemergence of a large and increasingly dedicated, experienced and unified transnational jihadist force poses a challenge not only to regional security in jihadists' home countries, but also to key Western nations engaged in combatting the Islamic State and similar groups around the world.
Russia has assumed a unique position among the countries affected. Unlike Western nations, it has refrained from using direct force against the Islamic State or its allies in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, it has provided tangible support to the Assad regime in Syria, which these jihadists consider their main adversary. Moscow has also supplied weapons to the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq in order to halt the jihadists' advances into the central parts of the country. In addition, the participation of hundreds — possibly thousands — of Russian citizens in the Syrian civil war has brought the conflict from the remote Middle East closer to the homeland. Against this backdrop, some observers go so far as to claim that the rise of the Islamic State has the potential to spill over into Russia's volatile North Caucasus, where an Islamist insurgency is ongoing. Under certain circumstances, as alarmist analyses maintain, the Islamic State could endanger Russia's political and military interests in the Middle East, Central Asia and elsewhere. After all, as North Caucasian jihadists have come to occupy a number of important positions in the hierarchy of the Islamic State, some representatives of the organization have made explicit threats directed at Moscow.
This article illustrates the shortcomings of these dominant explanations. We argue that, while Russia faces limited and rather indirect challenges from the Islamic State, it has the potential to use the threat posed by the Islamic State — whether perceived or actual — to its advantage. First, the extent and nature of the threat posed by Russian-born jihadists to Russia's security is considerably overestimated. Facing increasingly united Western opposition to its controversial involvement in the Ukraine conflict, Moscow is eager to use its influence in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, as leverage in its relationship with key regional and Western countries, especially the United States. Over the last year, Moscow has consistently sought to direct international attention to the shared threat posed by the Islamic State, while simultaneously downplaying its actions in Ukraine. In spite of statements made by Russian politicians about the need to establish a common anti-jihadist front in Syria and Iraq, Moscow has exerted little effort toward a prospective international coalition. Moreover, even if, hypothetically, Moscow were interested in contributing to the liquidation of the Islamic State by concerted international efforts, its tools are limited. Finally, in providing background on Russian elite views of the Middle East crisis and Russia's role in it, this article also discusses mainstream Russian interpretations — largely unknown in the West — of the origins of the Islamic State.
RUSSIAN ELITE VIEWS
Since 2003, Russian elites have been among the staunchest critics of Western — particularly American — policies in the Middle East. According to prevailing Russian views, successive U.S. governments are responsible for instigating internal conflicts in Iraq and Syria that have since taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The Washington-led invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, coupled with the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime, eventually sparked a sectarian war in Iraq that turned the status quo on its head.1 The myopic foreign policies of the George W. Bush era towards Hussein's Iraq have since been supplemented by the Obama administration's similarly shortsighted stance towards the Syrian crisis. Since the onset of the "Arab Spring," Washington's policy of supporting the opposition has undermined the foundations of Syria's — or Bashar Assad's — legitimate regime.2
These failed policies are said to have contributed to the growth of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which later transformed into the Islamic State and has since caused widespread devastation in the Middle East. The Islamic State is thus considered an inevitable, although unfortunate, outcome of Washington's strategic failures in the region. In normative terms, this failure is often ascribed to America's constant interference in other states' internal affairs, exacerbated by Washington's notorious mismanagement of salient international security issues and its sense of entitlement to world dominance. Moscow, by contrast, claims to accept multipolarity.3 This latter argument has come to dominate Russia's public sphere, with fresh fervor following the onset of the recent crisis in Ukraine, which Russian intellectual and political elites have written off as a consequence of Washington's longstanding interventionism.4 Top Russian politicians, led by President Vladimir Putin, have frequently pointed out that America's strategic failures in the Middle East and elsewhere have come to pass in spite of Moscow's repeated warnings. Encapsulating much of Moscow's criticism of American policies in Iraq and Syria, Putin claimed in the fall of 2014 that "sometimes an impression is made that our [Western and American] colleagues and friends are constantly fighting the results of their own policies, throwing their whole strength to remove the risks that they themselves have created and paying an increasingly higher cost [for it]."5 According to some local sources, a recent joke indicative of the dominant opinion in Moscow vis-à-vis America's Middle East policies has been circulating among Russian officials: "How will the Yanks deal with the Islamic State? They will create 'Islamic State 2' — a bigger and better armed group — and let it deal with the original Islamic State. And what happens when 'Islamic State 2' turns against them, as happened with the original Islamic State? Then they will create 'Islamic State 3,' and so on."6
A not-yet-mainstream but increasingly popular view among Russian nationalists and some army and intelligence hawks is that the Islamic State itself is an immediate product of Western intelligence services. According to the proponents of this viewpoint, it is in the interest of the United States to create "manageable turmoil" by means of destabilizing the Middle East in a bid to redraw the geopolitical map. The ultimate goal of this strategy is to undermine local regimes, both friendly and hostile, in order to place them in Washington's firm control. In April 2015, for example, Franz Klintsevich — a member of the Defense Committee of the Russian Parliament, close to Russian intelligence services — referred to confidential information allegedly disclosed to him and his colleagues by Iranian Army Headquarters, according to which the United States has
fed the fighters [jihadists] with weapons. To this day I have no doubt that the Americans are just imitating a war against militant extremism. Many foreign observers have also claimed this,...the myth of the United States as the main enemy of the Islamic State.7
Perhaps even more important, Valery Gerasimov, the head of Russia's General Staff, asserted in December 2014 that the United States had provided technical and financial assistance to the Islamic State in the past.8 Indicative of a dominant opinion among the country's intelligence, military and policymaking circles, Gerasimov also stressed that "leading Western countries" — particularly the United States — are to be blamed for causing "disastrous consequences" in a number of Arab countries, including Libya and Syria, by engaging in what Gerasimov called "the overthrow of the legitimate authorities" in those states.9 Consequently, partially successful attempts led by Washington to undermine the Assad regime would almost certainly result in a "Libya scenario" in Syria. This would include the fragmentation of the country, the emergence of warring factions, and the ascent of jihadist groups challenging regional security — all with the potential of spillover to neighboring countries.
As Moscow's confrontation with Washington continues to gain momentum against the backdrop of the evolving crisis in Ukraine and Western-imposed sanctions on Russia, the conspiracy theories are indicative of growing anti-Americanism. They are becoming part of mainstream discourse, as they are increasingly shared by top politicians and media outlets. Characterizing the United States as a dangerous expansionist power that longs for global superiority, some pro-regime intellectuals have pointed to Washington's plans to use the Islamic State to destabilize Russia's Muslim-dominated areas in the North Caucasus and Volga-Ural area, as well as in neighboring Central Asia.10 In a recently aired documentary, Vladimir Putin even went so far as to blame Washington for having provided support to Chechen militants in the past.11
THE THREAT ASSESSMENT
Jihadists from Chechnya and the North Caucasus more broadly have often been referenced by Russian and international observers in their assessments of the scope of the threat posed by the Islamic State to Russia's internal security. According to a recent report by the Russian secret service (FSB), as many as 1,700 Russian citizens may have fought in the Syrian civil war in various jihadist groups.12 According to Alexander Bortnikov, head of the FSB, this figure nearly doubled over the course of a single year, from 2014 to 2015.13 If true, this would propel Russia into the top five "home countries" of transnational jihadists participating in the Syrian war, with natives of the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus dominating the list.14 Reflecting on the high number of Russian volunteers in the Syrian war, authorities and experts have expressed concern over the likelihood that Russia's domestic security would deteriorate if the jihadists returned to their home country.15 Meanwhile, a segment of the leadership of the North Caucasus insurgency, organized under the umbrella of the region's virtual theocracy, the Caucasus Emirate, has already pledged bayat (an oath) to the Islamic State, creating an unprecedented split in the ranks of local jihadists.16 When seen through the lens of Russian citizens' involvement in the Syrian civil war, the Islamic State may pose an imminent threat to Russia's security. According to some commentators, the potential return of jihadists to Russia from Middle Eastern battlefields may revitalize the debilitated insurgency by fueling the jihadist groups with experienced and determined fighters and their transnational connections.17
Since around 2011, however, Russian political elites have expressed fairly diverse opinions as to whether and to what extent the Islamic State poses a threat to Russia. In nearly all significant public appearances of the nation's top politicians, the participation of hundreds and even thousands of Russian citizens in the Syrian civil war has resurfaced as a central security concern. According to Sergey Lavrov, Russia's minister of foreign affairs, "ISIL is our biggest enemy at the moment."18 Putin, however, has voiced significantly less concern over the Islamic State. In a 2014 statement, he admitted that, although the Islamic State has "posed an unprecedented challenge to the international community, it still presents no direct threat to Russia," other than that "our citizens are found there [in Syria], receive training and can show up on our territory….Yes, we do understand this, take this into consideration and work on it."19 While Lavrov initially referred to the threat posed by the Islamic State in abstract terms, he later admitted that the possible return to Russia of hundreds of its citizens involved in the Syrian civil war is the main source of concern.20 In a similar vein, Russia's deputy minister of defense, Anatoly Antonov, revised his attitude towards the Islamic State as a key challenge to the country's security. In reference to Putin's recent remarks, he stated in April 2015, "I didn't say that ISIS is such an imminent threat to us."21 Nevertheless, some prominent figures in the FSB, including Bortnikov and Secretary of the Security Council Nikolay Patrushev, have repeatedly labeled ISIS a serious threat to Russia due to the prospective infiltration of North Caucasian veterans of the Syrian civil war, aided by transnational jihadists based in the Middle East.22
A number of factors indicate, however, that the participation of hundreds of Russian citizens in the Syrian civil war is unlikely to pose an imminent threat to Russia in the future. As illustrated by previous incidents of jihadist violence with extensive transnational participation, jihadists have a tendency to marry local women, integrate into the community and stay in their newly adopted countries. Having acquired a distinctly supranational sense of identity over the course of their military engagement in Salafi-jihadist units, they often choose to travel to other jihadist hotspots in an effort to continue the "holy war" with their brothers in arms. It is thus quite likely that when the hostilities in Syria and Iraq have ended — a fairly unlikely development in the foreseeable future — many veterans from the North Caucasus will volunteer in other areas of jihadist violence, while some will stay in Syria and Iraq. In addition, given the relatively small North Caucasian population — only a few million within Russia, with most regional jihadists stemming from Chechnya and, particularly, Dagestan — the reported figure of 1,700 Russian citizens represents a disproportionately large number.
One could argue that the Syrian civil war has drained the country of the vast majority of frustrated North Caucasian youth, who would otherwise have challenged the Russian state from within by joining the local insurgency. To a certain extent, this substantial number of Russian Muslims participating in the Syrian civil war is in Moscow's interest, given the previously mentioned considerations as well as the high number of casualties among Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq. According to some local sources, the flow of North Caucasians from Russia to volunteer in the Syrian civil war has, for the first time since the early 2000s, virtually stopped the inflow of new recruits into locally operating jihadist units.23 This may at least partially explain the somewhat relaxed stance of Russian authorities toward the recruitment of jihadists from within Russia.24
The social base of insurgent groups has grown increasingly limited in the North Caucasus, where local defiance of Salafi-jihadism and its proponents has effectively competed with opposition to the notoriously corrupt pro-Moscow local elites.25 While Salafi-jihadism has transformed into the dominant ideology of protest in the North Caucasus, with modern and secular opposition gradually sidelined and eradicated by local pro-Moscow elites, it still lacks widespread support from the local population.26 In the event of a return of North Caucasian veterans to their homeland, the general lack of popular support from local communities may curb the effectiveness — and even the very survival — of the regional jihadist insurgency.
Nevertheless, while the hypothetical return of Russian jihadists to their homeland from the Middle East may pose a smaller challenge to the Russian state than one may assume, it still should not be minimized; even a relatively small number of jihadist repatriates may generate significant security threats. That said, such security threats may still be dwarfed by the relative advantages arising from the prospective North Caucasian jihadists being redirected to remote areas. Against this backdrop, threats directed at Moscow last year by some individual Islamic State fighters27 are not to be taken too seriously given the theocracy's deteriorating situation, the geographical distance between the North Caucasus and Russia from Syria and Iraq, and the lack of tangible resources and motivation required to take over the challenge of "Russian jihad." The threat to Russia's domestic security posed by the Islamic State seems to be rather indirect and less than imminent.
RUSSIA'S POLICY TOWARD IS
Syria under the rule of the Assad family has traditionally been the focal point of Moscow's Middle East policy. Russia's only Mediterranean naval base is currently located in the Syrian port of Tartus; its importance has increased dramatically in the context of Moscow's deteriorating relations with the West over the Ukraine crisis, as Russia has sought to increase its naval presence in the Mediterranean.28 For more than four decades, Syria has been among Russia's most reliable and significant economic, military and political partners. The relationship has gained strength in the aftermath of the civil war in Syria.29 Moscow has consequently been eager to back its protégé in Damascus on the international scene. It has, for example, vehemently criticized what it considers to be illegitimate Western attempts to topple the Assad regime through the provision of extensive military support to the Syrian opposition or other means. More important, as early as 2012, Moscow vetoed a formal UN Security Council condemnation of the Syrian army's use of chemical weapons against civilians in the city of Homs.30 In the military sphere, since the beginning of the Syrian war, Moscow has dispatched significant quantities of sophisticated armaments to its Middle Eastern partner and has assisted the country in modernizing its weaponry.31 Consistent pro-Assad policies have rendered Russia, along with Iran, one of the major supporters of the regime, both internally and internationally, providing support vital to its survival.
Moscow's policy toward the Islamic State is thus inextricably linked to the Syrian crisis and Western attitudes toward it. The Kremlin has been suspicious of Washington's true intentions in Syria since the onset of hostilities. American condemnation of the excessive human-rights violations by the Syrian regime and calls to support the anti-Assad opposition are considered part of Washington's broader effort to redraw the geopolitical map of the region.32 Some senior Russian politicians have likewise voiced concerns that the Western-dominated fight against the Islamic State is a mere pretext to undermine the Syrian opposition and thereby Moscow's positions in Syria.
Pro-regime Russian politicians and intellectuals have recently expressed satisfaction over the course and international repercussions of the Syrian civil war, which has shifted Western outrage from the Assad regime to the Islamic State. It is, however, unlikely that the Kremlin truly considers Western efforts to neutralize the Islamic State as part of a general strategy masterminded by the United States to topple the Syrian regime. Moscow simply appears to be consistent in its use of non-interventionist rhetoric,33 while simultaneously pushing the West to work with the Assad regime as Syria's only legitimate government and an important ally in the common fight against the jihadists, the "true enemy" of the international community. Intriguingly, despite adopting such rhetoric, Moscow has on various occasions admitted that its armed forces are participating in the anti-Islamic State coalition. In early 2015, for example, Russia's representative to the UN Security Council, Vitaly Churkin, asserted that, while Moscow is in principle willing to enter the international coalition against the Islamic State, it first expects Western partners to achieve consensus over the Assad regime.34 Within Russia, however, politicians have hardly spoken of Russian military involvement against the Islamic State. According to Russian experts, such involvement is extremely unlikely given the lack of incentives for Russia. Military action, particularly through ground forces, would be too costly and the benefits too negligible for Moscow.35 Russia's practical contribution to an international anti-Islamic State coalition may also be rather insignificant, due to the absence of Russia's intelligence network in the area.36
Moscow's use of the threat posed by the Islamic State is thus intended to push key Western nations into a "reconciliation with Assad in order for the West to prompt the 'moderate' Syrian opposition to strike a compromise with his [Assad's] regime and, possibly, to the establishment of a [unified] Syrian government headed by Assad on a broader political foundation."37 If fruitful, such a move would be considered a pivotal success in Moscow.38
The ascent of the Islamic State and the threat it poses, both directly and indirectly through the return of thousands of European jihadist volunteers to their home countries, represents a convenient way for Moscow to redirect Western concern over Russia's involvement in the Ukraine crisis. Russian politicians, pro-Russian activists and politicians in the West have long called for a unified stance against the "true threat" of Islamist extremism, in general, and the Islamic State, in particular. One interpretation of Russian statements, emphasizing the immense challenge posed by the transnational jihadist force to the security of both Russia and the West, is that they are, at least partially, an attempt to bring the two sides closer. Russia's desired endgame appears to be for the West and Russia eventually to overcome their insignificant disputes over the Ukraine crisis in order to concentrate on the Islamic State. This would essentially give Moscow carte blanche in its "near abroad."
From this angle, an increasingly powerful Islamic State is in Moscow's best interest; its existence helps to deflect Western attention from the Ukraine crisis and the Assad regime to a third actor. Curiously, a segment of Russia's elite, including politicians, pro-regime intellectuals and intelligence officers,39 has supported this logic: whatever the origins of the Islamic State, it is in Moscow's interest to support it as the group poses a significantly greater threat to the West than to Russia's current policies in Eastern Ukraine. Indeed, one of the major reasons for such calculations is the asymmetry of damage that the Islamic State may inflict on both Russia and its increasingly vocal adversary, the United States. Thus, while Russia faces the possible return of hundreds of jihadist veterans — something that would hardly pose a substantial security challenge — the impact of the Islamic State's presence and expansion in a region key to Western interests might be enormous. Geydar Djemal, a hawkish, pro-regime Russian Muslim intellectual, summarizes this argument:
What ISIL is doing is pushing the West away from the Near East. If Russia is indeed confronting the West, it has to back this vector.…The very existence of Boko Haram makes the region unmanageable for the West….If the same is happening in dozens of other regions, then this [signifies] a collapse of America's international engagement....If we are to assume that the Russian government is indeed fighting a global Western presence, then ISIL is our best ally. [It is] at least better than China, which does not hide its profound connection to the United States.40
That said, if Russia were not concerned about the return of its citizens from the Syrian civil war, it would not need to collaborate with the West. Alternatively, the understanding that the threat posed by the Islamic State is rather marginal may prompt Moscow to be selective in collaborating with the West on related matters and enable it to force the West to make concessions over other issues. While supporting the Islamic State does not seem to be on Moscow's agenda, developments in and around Ukraine — rather than Western attitudes toward the Assad regime alone — would most likely shape Russia's stance towards international efforts to counter the Islamic State.
IRAQ AND CENTRAL ASIA
While Moscow has cast itself as an important ally of Syria's Assad regime, it has had a far less substantial relationship with Iraq. In recent years, however, Moscow has taken advantage of the threat emanating from the Islamic State's advances in Iraq to increase its efforts to export weapons to the country and to push for the participation of Russian companies in the extraction of Iraqi oil. In 2014 alone, a $1.6 billion deal was signed between Baghdad and Moscow to export Russian weapons to Iraq,41 and by early 2015, Moscow had to provide Iraq with weapons worth $6 billion.42 For its part, Baghdad has vowed to compensate Moscow for the $5 billion investment made by the state-owned Russian company LUKOIL to make operational the Western Qurna-2 oil base in southern Iraq. Importantly, LUKOIL is currently the leading company (with a 56 percent share) operating in the Western Qurna-2 field.43
Russian authorities have also used the threat of the Islamic State to strengthen the country's political clout and military presence beyond the Middle East, most notably in Central Asia. A vast, formerly Soviet, area bordered by the Caspian Sea, China, South Asia and Russia, Central Asia is considered within the geographical radius of transnational jihadist forces.44 According to Russian politicians, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and potentially Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are the states most vulnerable to a concentrated attack by the Islamic State or its local allies. Against this backdrop, Moscow has alerted local elites to the increasing presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan.45 According to Sergey Lavrov, agents of the Islamic State "have been spotted in northern Afghanistan, very close to Central Asia and therefore to Russia's borders. This is evident to me."46 It would, therefore, be in Russia's best interest to "fight the extremists while they are still far away from Russia. If you don't put a barrier against them, they won't stop automatically."47 Scholars admit that the lack of an Islamic State presence in Afghanistan may embolden locally operating jihadist units. It is, however, unlikely that the Taliban — the principal jihadist force in Afghanistan — would be willing to acknowledge the Islamic State's leadership. The al-Qaeda-affiliated Taliban has been at odds with the Islamic State, and there is nothing to suggest that this situation will change in the foreseeable future. Moreover, a massive exodus of Islamic State-affiliated fighters from Syria and Iraq to Central or South-Central Asia, including Afghanistan — the periphery of the Islamic world — is unlikely, for logistical, strategic and ideological reasons.48
Whatever the extent of the current or prospective threat the Islamic State presents to Afghanistan's northern neighbors, Moscow has taken advantage of the issue to reinforce its position in a strategically important region. Since 2014, regional elites have grown increasingly suspicious of Russia's expansionism in the aftermath of its annexation of Crimea, its ongoing hybrid war in eastern Ukraine, and its claim to being the protector of Russians abroad.49 As a result of Russia's deepening economic crisis and the devaluation of its currency, tens of thousands of Central Asian guest workers have returned home, somewhat curtailing Moscow's clout in the region.50 Against this backdrop, Moscow has referred to the common threat of Islamic State extremism to pressure Kyrgyz authorities to agree to the establishment of a new Russian military base in the city of Osh.51 The Russian military base on the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan is also being reinforced, with Russia having promised Dushanbe supplies of weapons worth billions of dollars. Such a move would further increase this poor Central Asian country's dependence on Moscow. According to local sources, Uzbekistan and formally neutral Turkmenistan have also been pressured by Moscow to collaborate more closely to deter the threat of the Islamic State.
Russian elites are united in their portrayal of the rise of the Islamic State as a consequence of the longstanding misguided policy of its Western partners, particularly the United States, in Syria and Iraq. According to the dominant position, the failure of Western policies in the Middle East is the strongest evidence of the need for key Western nations to acknowledge the Assad regime as the legitimate government of Syria. Instead of penalizing the Syrian government or providing support to its enemies, the United States should focus on collaborating with the Syrian army against the Islamic State as a common enemy and an imminent threat to regional and global security. While Moscow has provided substantial political and military support to its remaining ally in the region, helping the internationally isolated Assad regime to survive, it has had rather limited influence over Iraq. Even in its Iraq policy, however, Russia has made effective use of the threat posed by the Islamic State to increase the sale of weapons to Baghdad while simultaneously promoting the interests of LUKOIL in Iraq's lucrative energy industry. Beyond the Middle East, Moscow has tended to overemphasize the threat of the Islamic State in order to reassert its grip over Central Asian states, the elites of which have grown increasingly suspicious of Moscow's expansionism into the post-Soviet space.
In reality, the Islamic State seems to pose only a partial and indirect threat to Russia's security. This threat is embodied in the prospective return of hundreds of jihadists predominantly of North Caucasian origin to their homeland, which has the potential to threaten the security of the North Caucasus and Russia at large. While the number of casualties among the jihadists participating in the Syrian civil war has been high, and only some of the surviving jihadists would be willing to return to Russia, the exodus of hundreds of North Caucasians to volunteer in jihadist units in Syria has resulted in a sizable reduction in the number of recruits seeking to join weakened jihadist groups operating in their homeland. Episodic alarmist public statements notwithstanding, Moscow has had little to be concerned with in regard to the threat posed by the Islamic State.
In spite of the realities of the situation, Moscow has been eager to capitalize on this threat, not only to strengthen its standing in the Middle East and Central Asia, but also its relations with the United States and the West. Russian authorities have consistently emphasized the common threat in order to downplay the salience of Russia's ongoing involvement in the Ukraine crisis. Were the West to reconsider its assessment of the threat Russia's expansionism poses to Ukraine, and indirectly to Eastern European NATO member states, and focus its attention exclusively on the Islamic State, the painful economic sanctions against Russia might be revoked and diplomatic and political relations with key Western nations normalized. In practice, however, Moscow has little to offer the West in the fight against the Islamic State, due to its near-total lack of an intelligence network in Islamic State-controlled areas. Though Moscow is currently supplying weapons to Syria and Iraq, Russian elites have been unwilling to deploy military force in either venue. While Russia may not be profiting from the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, it has been able to capitalize on the threat to gain advantages in foreign policy.
1 According to the mainstream Russian intepretation of events, Hussein's highly competent army and police officer corps, comprised predominantly of Sunni Iraqis, has been sidelined by the country's newly established and American-backed Shiite elites, which then paved the way for some frustrated officers to switch over to the jihadists.
2 For an eloquent example of this line of reasoning, see "Russia: We Warned the Americans about Islamic State, " Al Jazeera English, September 15, 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/09/russia-warned-yanks-about-islam-201491165841895365.html.
3 That is, Washington's acceptance of the existence of Moscow's exclusive spheres of influence in Eurasia, primarily in the post-Soviet space, and of the fact that Moscow also has a say as an equal partner in international affairs. For an analysis of Russia's quest for multipolarity, see Thomas Ambrosio, Challenging America's Global Preeminence: Russia's Quest for Multipolarity (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005); and Andrey Makarychev and Viatcheslav Morozov, "Multilateralism, Multipolarity, and Beyond: A Menu of Russia's Policy Strategies," Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 17 (2011): 353-73.
4 Russian politicians and media have frequently pointed to the West's alleged cynicism, particularly that of the United States, which has often unilaterally broken the principle of national sovereignty while simultaneously pressuring Moscow to adhere to the same principle.
5 Vladimir Putin's speech at the Valdai Forum, October 24, 2014, aired by Russia Today, http://rus.delfi.ee/daily/abroad/video-putin-ssha-okazalis-nuvorishami-i-dzhinn-vyrvalsya-iz-butylki?id=70015645.
6 "Russia: We Warned the Americans about Islamic State."
7 "Klintsevich: Dannie Irana razveyali mif o SShA kak o glavnom vrage IG," [Klintsevich: Iran's intelligence refutes the myth of the USA as IS's main enemy], RIA Novosti, April 19, 2015, http://m.ria.ru/world/20150419/1059531508.html.
8 "Russia's Chief of Staff: U.S. Provided Financial, Technical Aid To IS," RadioFree Europe/Radio Liberty, December 10, 2014, http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-us-isis-islamic-state/26735838.html.
10 "IGIL: Stsenariy po unichtozheniyu Rossii" [ISIL: A scenario to destroy Russia], Pravda, October 7, 2014, http://www.pravda.ru/world/asia/middleeast/07-10-2014/1229947-stepanyan-0/; Vitaly Ar'kov, "Po pros'be SSha ISIS mozhet destabilizirovat' situatsiu v Kaspiyskom regione," [Vitaly Ar'kov: On USA "request", ISIS may destabilize the situation in the Caspian region], PolitRus, November 7, 2014,http://www.politrus.com/2014/11/07/isis-caucasus/.
11 "Putin Accuses U.S. of Directly Supporting Chechen Militants," PressTV, http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2015/04/26/408194/US-direct-support-Chechen-rebels-Putin-.
12 "Up to 1,700 Russians Fighting for ISIS, Says Head of Secret Service," Newsweek, June 5, 2015, http://europe.newsweek.com/1700-russians-fighting-isis-says-head-russian-secret-service-308206.
13 "FSB RF: V ryadakh boevikov v Irake voyuyut pochti dve tysiachi rossiyan" [In the fighters' ranks, almost two thousand Russians are combatting], Rossiyskaya gazeta, February 20, 2015: 12.
14 For an analysis of the phenomenon of North Caucasian volunteers in the Syrian civil war, see Emil A. Souleimanov, "Globalizing Jihad? North Caucasians in the Syrian Civil War," Middle East Policy 21, no. 3 (Fall 2014): 154-62.
15 Sergey Markedonov, "IGIL: staraya novaya ugroza dlya Severnogo Kavkaza" [ISIL: An old new threat to the North Caucasus], KavkazovedInfo, May 6, 2015, http://www.kavkazoved.info/news/2015/05/06/igil-staraja-novaja-ugroza-dlja-severnogo-kavkaza-ii.html; Mairbek Vatchagaev, "Moscow Begins to Grasp the Threat Posed by Islamic State," Eurasia Daily Monitor 12 (2015).
16 Emil A. Souleimanov, "Dagestan's Insurgents Split over Loyalties to Caucasus Emirate and IS," Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, April 15, 2015, http://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13177-dagestan's-insurgents-split-over-loyalties-to-caucasus-emirate-and-is. For an analysis of the local insurgency, see Emil A. Souleimanov, "The Caucasus Emirate: Genealogy of an Islamist Insurgency," Middle East Policy 18, no. 4 (Winter 2011): 155-68.
17 Carol Matlack, "Why the Jihadi Threat to Russia Is Getting Worse," Bloomberg Business, March 30, 2015, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-03-30/why-the-jihadi-threat-to-russia-is-getting-worse.
18 "Lavrov: 'IGIL – nash glavniy vrag na segodnashniy moment," [ISIL is our biggest enemy at the moment], Izvestiya, April 22, 2015: 7.
19 "Stenogramma" [Typescript of Putin's 2015 address to the Nation], http://moskva-putinu.ru/parts/report.html.
20 "Lavrov: 'IGIL – nash glavniy vrag..."
21 "Itogi konferentsii po mezhdunarodnoy bezopasnosti v Moskve" [A summary of the international security conference in Moscow], Ekho Moskvy, April 18, 2015, http://www.echo.msk.ru/programs/voensovet/1532464-echo/.
22 Yet on a whole, following Putin's 2014 comments mentioned below, they have tended to increasingly view the Islamic State as an indirect and rather marginal challenge to Russia's security, a tendency that has prevailed in their domestic appearances.
23 Huseyn Aliyev, "Conflict-related Violence Decreases in the North Caucasus as Fighters Go to Syria," Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, April 1, 2015, http://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13171-…; and Emil A. Souleimanov, "Caucasus Emirate Faces Further Decline after the Death of Its Leader," Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, April 29, 2015, http://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13188-caucasus-emirate-faces-further-decline-after-the-death-of-its-leader.html.
24 Emil A. Souleimanov, "North Caucasian Fighters Join Syrian Civil War," Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, August 27, 2013, http://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/12794-….
25 Emil A. Souleimanov, "Dagestan's Jihadists and Haram Targeting," Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, February 18, 2015, http://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13140-….
26 Jean-Francois Ratelle and Emil A. Souleimanov, "Retaliation in Rebellion: The Missing Link to Explaining Insurgent Violence in Dagestan," Terrorism and Political Violence, forthcoming, DOI:10.1080/09546553.2015.1005076.
27 Will Steward, "'This Message Is Addressed to You, Oh Putin': ISIS Now Threatens Russia over Its Ties to Syria's Assad and Promises to 'Liberate Chechnya and All the Caucasus,'" Daily Mail, September 3, 2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2741979/This-message-addressed-oh-Putin-ISIS-threaten-Russia-ties-Syrias-Assad-promise-liberate-Chechnya-Caucasus.html.
28 In spite of repeated calls by Bashar Assad, Moscow has nevertheless refrained from converting this repair-and-replenishment port into a full-fledged military base in order to avoid being dragged into a potential military confrontation with opposition forces should Tartus come under attack.
29 For a detailed analysis of Russia's Syria policy, see Roy Allison, "Russia and Syria: Explaining Alignment with a Regime in Crisis," International Affairs 89 (2013): 795-823.
30 In 2014, Moscow brokered a key international deal to deport and destroy Syria's chemical weapons, which, while important, has been rather inconsistently fulfilled. At the time, this was considered an important victory for Russian diplomacy as it helped Damascus to avoid air strikes implicitly promised by the Obama administration for crossing the so-called "red line" by deploying chemical weapons against its civilian population.
31 These have included 36 pieces of short- to medium-range surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft missiles, Pantsir-S1; and the missile complex Bastion with supersonic anti-ship cruise missile Onyx. Russia has also helped to modernize Syrian T-72 tanks and MiG-29 fighters. In the near future, Damascus will obtain 24 MiG-29M/M2 and eight Buk-M medium-range surface-to-air missile systems.
32 In the same vein, according to Russian authorities and mainstream intellectuals, the Americans have either directly provoked — as in the case of previous "color revolutions" in Eastern Europe — or taken advantage of the Arab Spring to push through their geopolitical agenda in the Middle East.
33 Symptomatically, having previously accused the pro-Western Ukrainian opposition and the West of toppling the legitimate regime of then-president Viktor Yanukovych, Moscow has, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, vehemently denied any involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Moscow has likewise also criticized the United States' recent aerial bombings of the jihadists' position in Syria on the grounds that they were not sanctioned by Assad.
34 Interfax, February 15, 2015.
35 Maria Dubovikova, "Why Doesn't Russia Join the Anti-ISIS Coalition?" Al Arabiya News, October 6, 2014, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2014/10/06/Why-doesn-t-Russia-join-the-coalition-against-ISIS-.html.
36 Hypothetically, however, should a unified front against the jihadists be established, Moscow may prompt Damascus to share intelligence with Western partners. Given the difficulties of cooperation between intelligence agencies, their unwillingness to share sensitive information with each other, and the level of mutual mistrust between Western intelligence services, on the one hand, and the major Syrian intelligence services — the General Security Directorate and Military Intelligence Directorate — on the other hand, such cooperation would be rather unproductive.
37 Online interview with Yury Fedorov, a prominent Russian political scientist and security specialist, April 2015.
38 In addition, in a bid to broaden the political foundations of the allied regime in Syria, Moscow has thus far organized two rounds of "inter-Syrian consultations" held in the Russian capital. The consultations, in which representatives of the Assad government and some rather marginal opposition groups have taken part, have had no tangible results.
39 Among these, a group referred to as "Orthodox chekists [spies]" is believed to have played a prominent role.
40 "Geydar Djemal': 'Vospol'zovavshis' voynoy s Yemene, IGIL pokhoronit sauditov,'" [Geydar Djemal: Taking advantage of the Yemen war, ISIL will bury Saudis], Business Gazeta, March 28, 2015, http://www.business-gazeta.ru/article/128962/.
41 These deals have included the shipments from Russia to Iraq of BM-21 Grad launch vehicles, 2A65 Msta-B howitzers, TOS-1 heavy Flamethrower System Solntsepek, Su-25 jets, and other weapons.
42 This is half the amount of U.S. military exports to Iraq.
43 With around 44 billion barrels of crude oil, Western Qurna is believed to be the second-largest oil field in the world.
44 Jihadists have historically had a strong presence in the area, particularly in Tajikistan — where an Islamist-inspired civil war raged in the early 2000s — and Uzbekistan, where jihadists from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan repeatedly attacked authorities at the turn of the millennium.
45 For an overview of Russia's mainstream position on the trans-regional threat of the Islamic State, see Maria Nebol'sina, "IGIL – ugroza gosudarstvam postsovetskogo prostranstva," [ISIL is a threat to the post-Soviet nations], MGIMO Reports, April 14, 2015, http://www.mgimo.ru/news/experts/document270349.phtml.
46 "Rech' idet ne o tom, chtoby kto-to pobedil v etoy voyne" [It's not about someone winning this war], Kommersant, December 25, 2014, http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2640571.
47 A direct quote from Nikolai Bordyuzha, secretary general of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization [CSTO], which in addition to Russia includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, quoted on February 18, 2014, on the website of the CSTO, http://www.odkb-csto.org/general_secretary/detail.php?ELEMENT_ID=3566&SECTION_ID=110.
48 For a more profound analysis of the threat the Islamic State poses to Central Asia, see Ryskeldi Satke, Casey Michel, Sertaç Canalp Korkmaz, "The Islamic State Threat in Central Asia: Reality or Spin?" Terrorism Monitor 13 (2015).
49 Slavomír Horák, "Russia's Intervention in Ukraine Reverberates in Central Asia," Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, March 19, 2014, http://cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/12935-russias-intervention-in-ukraine-reverberates-in-central-asia.html.
50 Nurzhan Zhambekov, "Russia's Regulation of Labor Migration Set to Hurt Central Asian Economics," Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, April 29, 2015, http://cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13190-russia's-regulation-of-labor-migration-set-to-hurt-central-asian-economies.html.
51 The city of Osh, located in western Kyrgyzstan's strategically significant Ferghana Valley, near the border with Uzbekistan, is inhabited by a strong Uzbek majority. In June 2010, the city witnessed large-scale anti-Uzbek riots that left 400 civilians, predominantly of Uzbek origin, dead.
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