- REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
There may be more at play with Russia’s expanding role in Syria than just influence in the Middle East.
Kremlin authorities reportedly have an ulterior motive other than supporting the regime of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad: getting jihadists out of Russia, where they may attack the homeland, and sending them into Syria.
Russia recently escalated tensions with the US by sending elite soldiers, prefabricated housing for at least 1,000 people, a portable air-traffic-control system, and other items that could be used to create an air base for combat operations in northwest Syria.
Russia has also reportedly been sending jihadists from the North Caucasus into Syria, according to The Daily Beast and the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
And this move isn’t even necessarily helping Assad – many of these jihadists join radical Islamist groups, including ISIS, that are fighting the Russian-backed Assad regime.
Daily Beast senior editor Michael Weiss explained it this way: “It may sound paradoxical – helping the enemy of your friend – but the logic is actually straightforward: Better the terrorists go abroad and fight in Syria than blow things up in Russia.”
Russian-American journalist Julia Ioffe made a similar point on Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast last week.
“Russia is actually supporting both sides, and so it’s ensuring that the war drags on and on,” she said. “It’s in Russia’s interest to export Islamists who might attack Russian targets.
“This has been a continuing concern from the mid 1990s when Chechnya tried to split off from Russia and Russian actions in Chechnya created a wave of terror attacks inside Russia in the 2000s,” Ioffe continued.
“So there’s this constant fear of Islamist terrorism inside Russia, and it’s in their interest to get these guys out of there.”
- Google Maps
And interestingly, fighters from Russia’s Chechnya region are fighting on both sides of the war in eastern Ukraine.
Of course, Putin insists that Russian moves in Syria are made to fight terrorism as opposed to stoking it to get jihadists out of Russia.
“We are supporting the government of Syria in the fight against a terrorist aggression, are offering and will continue to offer it necessary military-technical assistance,” Putin said in televised remarks on Tuesday.
“Without an active participation of the Syrian authorities and the military, it would be impossible to expel the terrorists from that country and the region as a whole and to protect the multiethnic and multiconfessional Syrian people from destruction.”
Putin doesn’t mention the fact that the Assad regime’s relentless bombing, torture, and rape of civilians is actually the biggest driver of terrorism in Syria.
The Assad regime, according to a recent note from the strategic security firm The Soufan Group, “is a terrorism generator of epic proportion, engaging in state terrorism against its own people and inciting terrorism from its opponents.”
Sources who talked to The Daily Beast noted that the flow of Russian jihadists to Syria was probably more of a desperate effort from local authorities and security agencies rather than a well-thought-out strategy from Moscow, but it’s significant nonetheless given how much the Kremlin controls about Russia’s domestic and foreign policy.
“It is … evident that [Russian] law enforcement and security agencies are proud of the fact that the number of casualties in armed clashes between insurgent forces and security has declined very significantly by some 50 percent,” Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director and a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Beast.
“Officials attribute it to the success of the government in fighting the insurgency; in reality, it seems the drop derives from the fact that all the aggressive, competent fighters are no longer fighting in Dagestan but are in Syria as part of ISIS.”
While it’s in Russia’s interest to export its extremists, it’s also in the country’s interest to continue supporting Assad, who gives Russia the bulk of its influence in the Middle East. In addition to allowing jihadists to leave Russia and fight with various extremist factions in Syria, Russia has reportedly sent some of its soldiers to fight on behalf of Assad.
- REUTERS/Sergei Chirikov
“You want to prop up Assad because [the Syrian regime] and the Iranians are really the last guys you have in the region who you have any sway over,” Ioffe said. “It also undermines American policy, which is a great plus. Russia loves to do that.”
Ioffe went on to say that if Assad is eventually ousted in a political agreement, a strong Russian presence in Syria gives the Russians more leverage regarding who succeeds him and how the successor views Russia.
Russia has been throwing resources behind the violent Assad regime as it struggles to maintain its grip on power, even as the years-long Syrian civil war adds to the worst refugee crisis Europe has seen in decades.
American officials recently acknowledged to The New York Times that Russia had begun using an air corridor over Iran and Iraq to transport military equipment and personnel to Syria despite US attempts to guard this airspace.
- CBS News
Michael B. Kelley contributed to this report.