As the Arab 'Spring' continues to devolve into an Islamist winter for Moscow and the U.S., both find themselves increasingly on the horns of multiple dilemmas. Russia's dilemma is rooted in its previously forced bet in favor of the Islamic world's Shiite populations over the Sunnis––which has been anchored in Russia’s trading partner and periodic support for Iran, a Shia nation. Unfortunately for the Kremlin, this bet was staked out just as a wave of revolutionary Sunni Islamism/Jihadism was rising across the ummah (Arabic for “nation” or “community,” but not necessarily a common ancestry or geography).
Nowhere is this dilemma better demonstrated than in Syria, where Moscow has been lending diplomatic support to Iran's chief ally, the minority Alawite (Shia) regime of Bashar al-Assad.
A geostrategic calculus also influences Russia’s reticence about the downfall of the Assad regime. Syria has been Russia’s chief ally and weapons buyer in the Middle East for decades––and in addition provides the only warm water port in the region for the Russian Navy. Unfortunately for Moscow, which initially hoped the Syrian crisis could be resolved through negotiations or restabilization, the Assad regime appears to be doomed––and any new regime coming next is likely to seek revenge, especially if it is an Islamist one (which most likely it will be). This means the next leadership could be worse than the former.
In any case, an Islamist or outright Jihadist takeover in Syria poses a serious threat to Russia’s national security – one much greater than that posed to the U.S. or Europe.
Russia has been plagued by growing Islamist and Jihadist threats within her own borders for the past 15 years. Of all of these threats, the most potent today is the Caucasus Emirate (CE) developing across Russia. The CE was founded in October 2007 as the successor organization of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya (ChRI) that fought two post-Soviet wars against Moscow. The founding was the culmination of a decade-long jihadi, the Al Qa`ida (AQ) infiltration, and the jihadization processes in the ChRI. Today’s CE professes a radical jihadist theo-ideology. It considers not just Russia as its target––but also the U.S., the West, non-Muslims, and indeed all Muslims not practicing ‘true Islam,’ to be their enemies.
By the fifth-year anniversary of its founding in Russia, the CE had carried out or participated in more than 2,200 attacks and violent incidents that have killed approximately 1,800 and wounded 2,600 Russian police, military and civilian officials and servicemen and killed more than 450 and wounded 1,200 civilians. This record includes 46 suicide bombings (jihadism’s signature tactic) since November 2008. The CE includes some 1,500 fighters and some 10,000 auxiliaries and facilitators. Moreover, it has been slowly expanding its network and range of operations across Russia, including into Tatarstan, Bashkiriya, Moscow and elsewhere. Its operatives have drawn small numbers of Muslims from across Eurasia and the rest of the world to its front in the global jihad.
More recently, the CE has become an emerging global terrorist threat. Beginning in 2010 its operatives, or those it influenced, have been involved in plots uncovered in Belgium (2010), the Czech Republic (2011), Denmark (2010), Azerbaijan (2012), and Spain (2012). The CE maintains ties to other groups in the global jihadi revolutionary alliance in South and Central Asia and the Middle East, including AQ. Several of the above-mentioned plots ( Belgium and Spain ) were co-authored with AQ elements. Not surprisingly, the CE and its amir Dokku ‘Abu Usman’ Umarov were included on the U.S. State Department’s list of international terrorists in 2011 and 2010, respectively (despite frantic lobbying by pro-Chechen American activists and apologists).
The Syrian civil war is shedding new light on the CE’s increasing globalization and jihadism. Several CE-tied groups have joined the jihadists fighting for the Syrian rebels against the Assad regime. A Chechen jamaat of some 40 fighters under amir Abu Omar al-Shishani (al-Chechen) is fighting in Aleppo. Another CE combat jamaat, the ‘Katibatu Mukhadzhirin’ Jamaat (KMJ), is fighting in Syria ’s Sham area. Even an ethnic Tatar group, the ‘Bulgar Jamaat’, has reportedly left Waziristan, Pakistan to fight in Syria while it decides whether or not to return to Tatarstan and help extend the CE’s weak foothold in Russia’s Volga and Urals areas. Shishani’s Chechen jamaat has conducted several operations in Syria with the AQ-affiliated ‘Jabkhat al-Nusrah’ (JaN) group, which is also under consideration for inclusion on the State Department’s terrorist list.
The Syrian civil war is exacerbating Russia’s Circassian and jihadi problems simultaneously. First, Syria includes a large Muslim Circassian diaspora that was exiled from Tsarist Russia to the Ottoman Empire in the 19 th century. Syria’s Circassians are suffering badly from the civil war, and they have requested, along with Russia’s Circassian community, that Moscow receive what would amount to tens of thousands of Circassian refugees.
At the same time, the North Caucasus’s Kabardin and Cherkess Circassian subgroups have been infected by the CE jihad. The above mentioned KMJ hails from the CE’s so-called United Veliyat of Kabardiya, Balkariya and Karachai (UVKBK). Its area of operation includes Russia’s Kabardin-majority Kabardino-Balkariya Republic and the Cherkess-minority Karachaevo-Cherkessiya Republic. In fact, the CE’s first Shariah court judge and a prime mover behind the declaration of the CE’s jihadist project was an ethnic Kabardin – that is, a Circassian. To make matters worse, Russia’s 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics will be held precisely on the spot where Tsarist Russian troops massacred Circassian fighters. As a result, elements within the CE have vowed to attack the Games.
Another strike against Moscow in the region comes from its preference for secular regimes, rather than religious regimes, in addition to preference for political status quo. Moscow demonstrated little enthusiasm for the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt and Muammar Qaddafi’s in Libya. Aside from Moscow’s distaste for American and Western ‘humanitarian interventionism’ and ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine, there also exists a calculus that secular and semi-secular regimes like those of Mubarak and Qaddafi, are better equipped to contain the growing Islamist/Jihadist threat and to maintain stability amid these varied forces.
Moscow is now trying to compensate for its previous misplaced bet in Egypt. During Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent visit to Cairo in early November, he welcomed the election victories of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and President Mohammed Mursi and extended an invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Mursi to visit Moscow. Putin may believe that dialogue with the MB in Egypt can have a positive influence on both Egypt’s MB regime and any post-Assad Syrian regime, which is also likely to be dominated by the MB and perhaps Jihadists as well.
However, any effort to improve relations with the Muslim Brotherhood is fraught with risk for Moscow. Indeed, on 14 February 2003, Russia’s Supreme Court banned the MB in Russia and charged it with terrorist activity, including supporting the jihadi wing of the CE’s predecessor organization, the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya (ChRI).
This November the MB’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi called Russia “the number one enemy of Islam and Muslims” due to Moscow’s support for Assad. In recent years Qardawi had backed off his 2000 fatwah which called on the world’s Muslims to support the ChRI since it was carrying forth “one of the best types of jihad.”
On November 16 and 17, Ali al-Qaradagi, the General Secretary of the World Council of Muslim Scholars, the MB front organization (of which Qardawi is the Chairman), visited Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Dagestan. This Russian republic is the home of the CE’s most robust mujahedin network, the Dagestan Veliyat (DV), where there have been more than 800 insurgent and terrorist attacks in the past three years, including 12 suicide bombings. The DV also organized the March 2010 twin suicide bombings of the Moscow subway that wounded 40 and killed more than 100.
In his November 17th speech, Qaradagi relayed Qardawi’s greeting and did not reject the goal of the CE’s jihad. In fact, he explicitly stated that the CE and DV mujahedin are pursuing “a good goal” of creating Shariah law-based state but “the mistake is the (violent) means” they use. Qaradagi reiterated the MB goal of not just creating Shariah law-based states .... but that of restoring the Caliphate: “Our duty is to return again to the Muslim empire and its glory… We desire that the Islamic flag again proudly waves over those lands which were lucky enough to be Islamic in a certain period of time and where the voice of muezzin (the cryer who called to prayer five times a day) glorified Allah” (translated from Russian, see http://kavpolit.com/po-sledam-bogoslovskoj-konferencii-v-maxachkale/ <http://kavpolit.com/po-sledam-bogoslovskoj-konferencii-v-maxachkale/> ). In the long-term, Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood pose perhaps an even greater threat than do violent Jihadists.
Russia has also experienced jihadi trouble emanating from Libya. For many years it was not known whether the CE’s Chechen network, the so-called Nokchicho Veliyat (NV) had a Shariah court judge or qadi. In April of this year the NV qadi’s identity was finally confirmed when Russian forces captured the Libyan national and long-time jihadist Abu Walid, who had been serving as NV qadi. In November, a demonstration in Libya demanded that the Russians release Abu Walid from prison. Thus, Libya’s instability and Al Qaida’s growing presence there also bodes poorly for Moscow’s security from Sunni Jihadists.
So Moscow cannot seem to win. If it backs successful Western-hatched humanitarian interventions, it risks either enhancing Western influence at its own expense––or supporting a process that brings dangerous Sunni Islamists to power. If it resists interventions, then the outnumbered secularists and Shiites are even more likely to be crushed by the Sunni Islamists, leaving Moscow with a legacy that marks them as the new Islamist regimes’ enemy. In Syria, this could mean jihadists coming home to Russia's North Caucasus with chemical weapons in hand.
In sum, Russia lives in a highly unstable and dangerous part of the world––and as a result, the U.S. and the West are currently the least of its problems.
Russian leaders seek to avoid becoming the victim of the ‘blowback’ generated by American policies that tend to compound dilemmas and exacerbate situations that threaten Russia ... certainly much more than they do the West.