The fallout of Russia’s Syria campaign in the North Caucasus

Throughout spring 2016, the news coverage on war-torn Syria had been without doubt overwhelmingly dominated by the strong symbolic message sent by the Damascene regime by gaining ground against Islamic State as it recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. Within the broader picture, the incident also provides valuable insight into a less tangible strategic enterprise of Russia.

The Damascene regime has recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. By the same token, yet markedly unnoticed by the international media, Islamic State’s Caucasus governorate, proclaimed in summer 2015, claimed a terror attack on Monday March 28 that killed a local Russian police officer and left several others wounded in the republic of Dagestan, located in the North Caucasus region. The timing of the two events was particularly delicate, highlighting the ramifications of Russia’s involvement ever since it openly embarked on its blitz campaign in September 2015 in an unprecedented effort to turn the tide in favor of the al-Assad loyalist camp.

First and foremost, it was the continuous raids by the Russian Air Force that ushered in the liberation of Palmyra, revealing the overrated significance of the reduction in the Russian military in Syria. Therefore, the Dagestan roadside bombing was likely a manifestation of Islamic State’s lethal inventory, still capable of sending a bold retaliatory message to Moscow, and heralding more attacks of its kind toward the end of 2016.

Russia’s strategic backyard

Within the broader picture, the incident also provides valuable insight into a less tangible strategic enterprise that Russia is currently pursuing. Russia fears a further disintegration and erosion of stability in the North Caucasus region, even a threat that is potent enough to menace the swath of former Soviet Central Asian republics. Hence, Moscow is availing itself of the Syrian conflict in order to restore a cordon sanitaire in the periphery along Russia’s volatile southern rim, the Caucasus. Russia’s interference in the Levant thus hardly results solely from the currently often alleged neo-Tsarist power ambitions. Rather, propping up al-Assad has a lot to do with Putin´s unyielding adherence to the concept of state sovereignty.

Since Russia has undisputedly reemerged to relevance as a key stakeholder in the fate of Syria, it must reckon with grave internal political repercussions from the scenario of eroding stability across the region. For the Kremlin, the prospect of what it considers a looming insurgency in its immediate southern vicinity serves as a wake-up call in view of its historical experience with armed Islamist groups in the North Caucasus striving for national autonomy. Foreign fighters of Chechen, Dagestani, and Ingush origin operating at the forefront of the remaining battlefields in Syria and Iraq continue to gain notoriety by fighting fiercely among the ranks of both Islamic State and the 2 Analysis: The fallout of Russia’s Syria campaign in the North Caucasus Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front.

The numerous reports accusing the Russian Air Force of predominantly targeting Islamist factions are therefore not necessarily surprising, as many battle-hardened North Caucasian fighters – who draw from significant experience gained in the past wars over Chechnya – operate in senior positions across Syria and Iraq. These countries, in Russia’s eyes, represent an interlinked issue of external and domestic security. While the Kremlin somewhat deceptively pacified its southern flank by slipping it under the firm control of its security apparatus at the end of the 1990s, it nonetheless fears the negative fallout of religious extremism in the form of erupting violence at home. In that regard, the heavy blood toll exacted by Chechen Islamist separatists in the Moscow theater hostage crisis of 2002 and the Caucasian Emirate-claimed Domodedovo International Airport bombing in 2011 still reverberate vividly in the nation’s psyche today.

Sensitive geopolitics

Russia’s concerns are particularly relevant to its dealings vis-à-vis its Caucasian territories of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Karachay-Cherkessia, Adygea, and Kabardino-Balkaria. The latter, for example, received extensive coverage in Russia’s news (though overlooked by Western media outlets) on November 22, 2015, as the Kremlin’s special units reportedly neutralized about a dozen Islamist militants in the mountains in close proximity to the Kabardino-Balkar city of Nalchik, militants who were allegedly planning terrorist activities in both Syria and the North Caucasus. Perhaps the most telling example is the conflict-prone area of Dagestan, whose economic trajectory is shaped by the significant dependence of the autonomous province’s fiscal stability on Russia’s federal budget and by the substantial pauperization of and subsequent unemployment in the easternmost parts of the country, not to mention the devastating destruction left behind in the wake of two insurgencies in Chechnya. These conditions, considered broadly, provide a breeding ground for the spread of illicit activities, further encouraged by their traditional roots in the Caucasus region.

The topical incident in Dagestan highlights the prominent role that Russia’s North Caucasian Federal District plays within its overall security architecture in the region. In geostrategic terms, this role is underpinned by the fact that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the North Caucasus has become the most exposed border region of the Russian Federation, rendering the exertion of the Kremlin’s grip there a challenging task. The land mass it is delicately located between the strategically important Caspian and Black Sea coasts, serving as a gatekeeper to both Sunni Turkish and Shi’ite Iranian spheres of influence.

Within close range of the adjacent post-Soviet space of the South Caucasus across the former republics of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, other external, opposing power projections can also be felt. The recent escalation over the disputed mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh between the Turkey backed Muslim-majority country of Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia will further require a nuanced diplomatic balancing act on the part of Moscow, as it maintains vital strategic and geoeconomic interests in both countries. In addition, secessionist tendencies, with perilous sectarian overtones, add to the overall picture of a troubled environment on both sides of the Caucasian mountain range.

Returning foreign fighters: Terrorists in waiting?

Nowhere did Russia’s expansion into this Muslim-majority region and its subjugation of the local Analysis: The fallout of Russia’s Syria campaign in the North Caucasus 3 people face more sustained resistance and retribution than in the North Caucasus. After all, although the ethnic composition of the population across the Muslim southern periphery of Russia remains comparatively heterogeneous, and despite non-negligible intra-Muslim animosity, a large number of the region’s people adhere to customs whose roots lie in shared Islamic traditions.

As a result of the ongoing Russian emigration from the region, the share of the native Russian population – tellingly labeled “citizens living internally abroad” – is rather marginal, further fueling the polarity between the disproportionally impoverished local Muslim Russians and the “ethnic Russian” population that, regardless of its numerical minority, maintains its firm grip on the region’s economic powerhouses, the cities of Krasnodar and Stravropol. It is, therefore, in precisely this sensitive context that we should understand Russia’s embarking on an extraterritorial counterinsurgency campaign with the explicit goal of degrading the ranks of Russian jihadists in Syria.

Moscow fears the outlook of dealing with returnees harnessing jihadist militancy on Russian soil and aspiring to transition it into a terrorist hotbed. As Syria and Iraq continue to occupy center stage in the regional power struggle, still luring vast numbers of foreign combatants onto the battlefields, the Russian presence appears to be a double-edged sword: while Moscow achieved unprecedented momentum internationally by shaping the military dynamics –as a matter of fact partially aimed at degrading Islamic State – and stepping to the fore as an at the very least temporary ally to the increasingly regionally assertive role played by Tehran, its intervention will likely spur hostile action, further roiling the region as a whole.

The crash of a Russian airplane over the Sinai Peninsula, caused by an Islamic State–attributed bomb, and the described terror attack in Dagestan serve as the latest reminders of this danger. Quite paradoxically, when resurgent Russia justifies its meddling in Syria with, inter alia, the pretext of protecting religious minorities, its rhetoric places it on a dangerous path that carries an inherent, homegrown risk: the likelihood of exacerbating a widening societal rift, which may well resonate among its own disillusioned and socioeconomically struggling Muslim constituency in its volatile strategic backyard, the North Caucasus.

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