Despite the lukewarm relations at the best of times, it has been a geopolitical touchstone that Russia and the US could at least serve together as counter-terrorism partners.
But, as Michael Weiss reports in the Daily Beast, there is increasing evidence that Moscow may be helping to facilitate Islamic extremism in the Micdle East.
Moscow has faced a problem with Islamic extremism since a failed war of independence in Russia’s Chechnya in the Caucasus failed in the 1990s.
During the two brutal wars in the region, Chechens became increasingly militant as fighters from across the Arab world and Afghanistan poured in to fight the Russians. Today, Chechnya exists as a semi-autonomous state in Russia that continues to exist as a hotbed of religious and separatist sentiment.
Russia’s own problems with terrorism has made the country a seemingly ideal partner for the US — both countries have suffered from terrorist attacks and benefit from closer cooperation. However, in a round about way, Russia also benefits from a close cultivation of extremism in the Middle East, particularly in the form of ISIS.
Firstly, although ISIS is fighting against Russia’s erstwhile ally of the Syrian regime, the militant group functions as an ideal magnet for wannabe jihadists and militants in Chechnya. Citing the investigation of Russian journalist Elena Milashina in the Novaya Gazeta, Weiss writes that the Russian FSB domestic intelligence agency facilitates the travel of extremists from out of Chechnya and neighbouring Dagestan into Syria with the overall goal of reducing potential violence within Russia itself.
According to Milashina’s investigation, 1% of the Dagestani village of Novosasitili ‘s population has been funneled off into conflict in Syria and Iraq.
Notably, since local FSB agents and police in Chechnya and Dagestan started funelling potential militants into Syria, violence within those regions of Russia have plummeted dramatically.
“It is also 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 per cent,” Tanya Lokshina, 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.”
This strategy to steer potential terrorists and troublemakers out of a home country and direct them towards a warzone is not a new strategy. Instead, the FSB is merely adopting a counterterrorism strategy that Saudi Arabia itself had used against the Soviet Union.
“It’s perfectly conceivable that the FSB would take their most violent types and say, ‘Yeah, you want your caliphate? Go set it up in Raqqa.’ The Saudis did this in the ’80s with the Afghans. It’s sort of tried and true,” an unnamed CIA operative who had worked in Central Asia with the FSB told The Daily Beast.
A reduction in violence and potential extremists within Russia’s borders would conceivably be cause enough for the FSB to steer militants from Chechnya into Syria. But, by channeling militants into the Middle East, this strategy also gives the Kremlin a second advantage — it further hobbles the US’s power throughout the world.
“What’s the most significant policy decision we made to bring down the Soviet Union? Us sending foreign fighters into Afghanistan. This is the perfect form of payback,” Jamestown Foundation president Glen Howard told The Daily Beast.
“Create a quagmire in Syria, get us bogged down — all the while, offer your cooperation in helping to root out terrorism.”
The creation of a quagmire for the US again helps serves Russia in two ways. Firstly, it limits the overall power of the US at a time when the White House has to deal with political uncertainty in Ukraine, China, and Iran. Secondly, this same quagmire allows Russia to take a more decisive negotiating role for itself in a bid to see the violence in Syria end.
Since June, Russia has been meeting with officials from various Syrian rebel groups and other Middle Eastern government officials in an attempt to create a grand coalition including Syria’s Assad regime against ISIS.
So far, the Russian initiatives have been unsuccessful.
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