The risk of the Islamic State’s ideology spreading across Russia and the CIS is very high. Exporting radical Islamic ideology and armed groups to Central Asia will cause serious destabilization in the region that the US government might use to its advantage.
The roundtable discussion, “US Intervention in Syria May Send the Situation in the Region into a Downward Spiral,” was held at the Rossiya Segodnya Press Centre. The participants included Valdai Club experts, such as Ambassador and Deputy Chairman of the Association of Russian Diplomats Andrei Baklanov, President of the Institute of Religion and Politics Alexander Ignatenko and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for International Security Alexei Fenenko. The meeting participants discussed the spread of terrorist threats in the Middle East, US interests and involvement in the region, and risks involved in the Islamic State ideology spreading across Russia and the CIS.
According to Andrei Baklanov , the situation in the world is reminiscent of a lull before the storm. Even an event of minor importance might lead to a sharp aggravation of the Middle East conflict and engage force factors that have not been previously, fully in play. President Barack Obama authorized reconnaissance flights over Syria to gather information about the positions of the Islamic State terrorist group for subsequent air strikes against them. According to US media, the Syrian authorities will not be asked for permission to use Syrian airspace. According to Baklanov, the possibility of such flights should be considered as a provocation and a violation of the country’s airspace. Responding to such actions should be based on the recently adopted pro-Syrian Resolution 2170.
Baklanov points out that any action against terrorists must be undertaken in compliance with international law, including respect for state sovereignty. The Russian side must support Syria’s legitimate actions to prevent the deterioration of the situation in Syria, or elsewhere in the Middle East.
Baklanov sees the growing Islamist threat as another sinister plot – the way it was in Chechnya. According to him, a scenario that does not involve Islam, or any other religion for that matter, is very likely. These assumptions are supported by the mobilized public opinion within the Islamic State over the past two or three weeks, which focuses on overthrowing the leaders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Baklanov believes that using Islam as a front, an international mafia is taking root in the region that employs the same tactics used in Chechnya. It’s a 100% criminal group that has nothing to do with politics. Baklanov concludes that the forces that are gaining power in Iraq and Syria should not be underestimated. A prolonged counter-terrorist effort involving Arab countries might be needed to combat the spread of the terrorist threat.
Unlike Baklanov, Alexander Ignatenko believes that the groups that have recently become active in Syria, Iraq and the entire eastern part of the Arab world, as well as North Africa and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, cannot be referred to as a “mafia.” They form a single network led by the Islamic State formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Qaeda in the Country of Two Great Rivers (the Tigris and Euphrates). In the late 1990s, this group, whose roots date back to Jordan, was called Monotheism and Jihad. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the group’s most violent terrorists, moved from Jordan into Iraq even before the US and Western coalition’s invasion of Iraq.
Ignatenko refers to the current situation in the Middle East as “a suicide of the Islamic world," as chaos, where everyone is fighting everyone. In turn, the United States played an important role in creating the situation that initially led to the creation of a terrorist group acting under the abovementioned names. A large number of differently named small groups, which, in fact, were squads run by Al-Qaeda – the actually existing international network organization – operated in Syria for three years after the onset of the Syrian crisis directed against Bashar al-Assad. The United States played a major role in arming and training rebels in Jordan. Ignatenko points out that thousands of foreign mujahideen are now fighting in Syria. The Islamic State has about 50,000 fighters in Syria, of whom 10,000 are foreigners. The United States is going to combat the genie that they let out of the bottle. They use a “plausible" – in the eyes of the international community and American people – excuse, the genuine threat of terrorism in Syria, Iraq and the entire Middle East, to invade the region.
Speaking about future possibilities, Ignatenko notes that the entire world should unite in combating the global terrorist threat, but the situation is complicated by the fact that the threat of terrorism in other countries is rising daily. The issue concerns countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, whose citizens are fighting in Iraq. Sooner or later, whether the Islamic State will thrive or decline, they or their families will go home and be a threat to the civilian population. According to Ignatenko, this danger might become a real threat for Russia as well. The Islamic State has already committed acts of terror in Volgograd and the North Caucasus.
Alexei Fenenko sees the situation in Syria as a result of the implementation of the US concept of the Greater Middle East, which the US government has been trying to implement over the past several decades. According to Fenenko, following the invasion of Iraq, in 2003-2004, the administration of George W. Bush said that it had a specific goal in the Middle East, namely, the forced democratization of Middle Eastern regimes. Depending on the circumstances, the borders between the countries might have to be revised. Obama upholds this concept.
In a keynote speech on May 19, 2011, the US president said that deep down the idea of a Greater Middle East is good, but George W. Bush failed to materialize it in a proper manner. Obama relies on the masses, that is revolutions, rather than loyal regimes, Fenenko further explains. This policy culminated in Arab Spring, which, in the first place, toppled the regimes that were capable of opposing radical movements, such as Al-Qaeda or Islamic State.
According to Fenenko, following Arab Spring, all of the regimes were divided into two groups – the ones that succeeded in maintaining their political stability (Egypt) and the ones that saw their stability forcibly destroyed (Libya and Syria).
In 2004, the Greater Middle East concept’s focus shifted to Syria and the conflict intensified in 2011. With the assistance of France and the United Kingdom, the United States began to provide support to the “democratic" and the radical opposition forces in Syria through the Persian Gulf monarchies, which helps to legalize these groups. In the autumn of 2013, it became clear that Bashar al-Assad will remain in power, at least in the near future, and the group immediately fled to a more radical Iraq where it established a quasi-state. In turn, the United States began to actively take advantage of the factor of terrorism.
Fenenko believes that the United States will benefit from an increased terrorist threat in the region. First, it justifies the presence of US troops. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, threatened by the radical Islamic State, will now try to keep the US presence at all costs. Second, it provides an opportunity to legalize the breakup of Iraq. In 2006, the United States began to discuss the scenario of dividing Iraq into three states – Shia, Sunni and Kurdish – where Kurdistan will enjoy greater autonomy. Third, the current situation allows the United States to control Iran and Turkey to some extent. If attacks on Shiites continue, Iran will be forced to intervene and have a major war on its hands near its borders. Turkey has been rubbing the United States the wrong way over the past 10 years with its increasingly independent political course. The conflict in Iraq and stronger Kurdistan will create a problem for Turkey, thus making the Turkish government more flexible.
Fenenko concludes that all of the above considerations give the United States a pretext for a creeping intervention, as in Bosnia. Constant instability and the Islamic threat are maintained in Libya and that weakens the position of France and Italy, which seek to be independent from NATO in the Mediterranean.
According to Fenenko, the risk of the Islamic State’s ideology spreading across Russia and the CIS is very high. Primarily, this is due to terrorism spreading from Afghanistan to Russia’s allies in Central Asia. On the one hand, the United States believes that Russia’s hands are tied by the conflict in Ukraine. On the other hand, exporting radical Islamic ideology and armed groups to Central Asia will cause serious destabilization in the region that the US government might use to its advantage. The countries that may be involved include primarily Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.