Why is Russia in Syria? Part 7 Combating Terrorism and Other Reasons
Read Part 6 Here.
Combating Terrorism and Fighting ISIL
An important aspect of the Syrian Civil War has been the prominence of rebel Sunni Islamist groups who are tenaciously battling against Bashar al-Assad’s regime and against other Islamist groups. At times understanding the rebel movement is confusing as there are a plethora of groups. ISIL, also known as ISIS, IS or Daesh, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Jabat al-Nusra, Jaish al-Fatah, Jaish al-Haramoun, Ahrah ash-Sham, and the Jesus Christ Brigade, are just some of the groups found in Syria.
A common meme heard in the media is that of the ‘moderate’ rebel, and whether or not such a category of rebel actually exist in Syria is beyond the scope of this post, but whether or not there are moderate rebels it is clear that their are extremist ones. The latter are a danger to any one who does not completely accept their conception of Islam. America, Europe, Russia and even the Sunni Gulf Coast Arab states, who in varying degrees support them, are all threatened by these radicals.
ISIL and the other Sunni radical groups in Syria are a potential direct threat to Russia, which has had its own problems with radical Islam stemming largely from the Caucasus region, particularly from Chechnya. ISIL is a danger to Russia because of its desire to form a transnational Caliphate, parts of which encompass Russian territory and because many of its fighters are Chechen. It has been claimed that there are 2,500 Chechens in ISIL, some of which, such as Omar al-Shishani are important leaders.
Putin is concerned that these Chechens and other Caucasians will return and wage jihad in Russia. As Putin has said, “More than 2,000 fighters from Russia and ex-Soviet republics are in the territory of Syria. There is a threat of their return to us. So, instead of waiting for their return, we are better-off fighting them on Syrian territory.” While many in the West have questioned whether Putin is in fact attacking ISIL, whether or not fighting ISIL is a primary motivating factor, there is little doubt that ISIL is the enemy of Russia, and it makes perfect sense for Russian forces to confront Islamist fighters in Syria as opposed to waiting for them to attack Russia.
A recent incident illustrates the threat Islamists pose to Russia. The FSB has stated that they have arrested 10 people some of whom had received training in Syria with ISIL. Five kilograms of explosives were also captured and reportedly the terror cell intended to strike Moscow’s transportation system. One can expect more such arrests and even successful attacks as Syrian Islamist groups have called for terrorist attacks within Russia. Abu Mohamed al-Jolani, the head of Jabat al-Nusra, responding to Russian airstrikes said “If the Russian army kills the people of Syria, then kill their people. And if they kill our soldiers, then kill their soldiers. An eye for an eye.” While even before Russia’s air campaign in Syria, ISIL issued the threat “with the permission of Allah we will liberate Chechnya and all the Caucasus. The Islamic State exists and it will exist and it will expand with the help of Allah. Your throne is already shaking. It is in danger and it will collapse when we get to you. We are on the way with Allah’s permission.” For these reasons it is highly likely that the tragic and inexplicable crash of Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 into the desolate ground of the central Sinai peninsula, was likely a terrorist attack by ISIL and their affiliates.
An interesting consequence of the Russians attacking the rebel Islamist groups in Syria, is that if these attacks are successful, then it is likely that these groups will flee to neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. This possibility was brought up in an article by Andrew Korybko. In this context the author considered the exodus of rebel fighters out of Syria to be an unintended consequence of the Russian operation. However, one cannot help but think, especially considering the cunning of Putin, that maybe the Russians had anticipated this ‘consequence’ and that they were hoping that by intensely bombing Islamist targets in Syria that the Islamists would flee to countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, thereby destabilizing these countries. It is interesting that these two countries are allies of the unipolar hegemon America, so their destabilization would be to the geopolitical benefit of Russia. Of course this is just imaginative speculation.
As such it makes sense for Russia to battle ISIL and other jihadi groups in Syria, killing them there, before they have a chance to bring violence directly within Russia. However, Russia may not intend to wipe out ISIL, which may be a difficult task, but to significantly degrade it and to kill as many of its Chechen contingent as possible. By propping up Assad, who along with the Kurds are the only groups “truly fighting the Islamic State [ISIL] and other terrorist organizations in Syria.” according to Putin, Russia will, at the least, prevent the terrorist groups from becoming more powerful, which is to the benefit of Russia.
Other Reasons for Russian Intervention
There are some other reasons why Russia would want to intervene in Syria. An important one is because of the Russian naval base at Tartus. If Assad was defeated, then Russia would no longer have access to this their only Mediterranean port. Such a scenario would diminish Russia’s ability to project naval power in the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East, undermining its position as a world power and as a challenger to America as the world’s hegemon.
Russia’s close relationship with Assad’s regime involves the transfer of considerable amounts of Russian weaponry to Syria. We have already detailed some of the more recent weapon transfers to Syria from Russia. Over the years the totality of these transactions amounted to billions of dollars. If Syria were to fall this source of income for the Russian military industrial complex would be gone, and as such it is in Russia’s interest to maintain Assad as an ally who will continue to buy Russian armaments.
There is another possible reason why Russia has involved itself in Syria. According to Mnar Muhawesh, the Syrian Civil War is fueled by competing countries wanting access to oil and gas resources and wanting to build gas pipelines through Syria and to deny their competitors from building gas pipelines. On one side there are the countries of America, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and on the other side Hezbollah, Iran, Iraq and Russia. There is a proposed Qatar-Turkey pipeline which starts in Qatar, traverses Saudi Arabia and Jordan, cuts north through Turkey and onto Europe. The key piece to this project is Alawite Syria which is enemies with the other Sunni countries that are apart of project. Since Syria is enemies with these countries it will not agree to the project, hence the reason that America, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are assisting the rebel factions. Conversely there is another project, the Islamic pipeline which starts in Iran and traverses Iraq and Syria. The countries involved in this pipeline are all Shiite and allies so an agreement to build it should not be difficult for them to agree upon. But the project will not succeed if Assad falls. Since Assad was on the verge of defeat, Russia was the only ally powerful enough to reverse the situation, and to help their friends Iran they had good reason to escalate their intervention in Syria.
The final possible reason that we will present, a rather speculative and nonessential one, is that Russia is using intervention in Syria as a testing operation for its military. If one has been following Russia’s intervention in Syria, it is interesting at the wide variety of military assets that Russia is employing. Marines and Spetsnaz, missile cruisers and nuclear submarines, a wide variety of fighter/bomber aircraft have all been deployed. Just recently Russian warships in the Caspian Sea launched 26 cruise missiles that flew over Iran and Iraq and struck their targets in Syria, an operation that requires a considerable amount of coordination. The logistics and command and control needed to execute Russia’s war in Syria are not trivial operations. Such demanding operations will test Russia’s ability to fight a modern war in a land distant from its borders. Furthermore with Russia’s opposition to American global hegemony, it is conceivable that at some point in the future Russia may come into conflict with either America or NATO, a conflict in which it must war against modern armies. Thus if the Russian military can acquit itself well in Syria, it would have greater confidence in facing a modern army. And if it does not, then lessons can be learned and reforms made to improve its future war fighting ability. While it is highly doubtful that Putin decided to military intervene in Syria merely to test out his army, it is highly likely that he and his generals do see this operation as a useful test of Russian military capabilities.
Read Part 8 Here.