Syria as a Terrorism Hub: Potential Threats to Russia

The Chechen conflict, which began as a liberation movement, ended in the formation of a vast terrorist network and the proclamation of an Imamate in the Caucasus. The situation in Syria is following the same path. If the bloody conflict is not resolved soon, it will ricochet to the Russian regions, primarily, the North Caucasus.

Syria’s transformation into a hub for international terrorists and Islamist activity are a major concern for Russia and the West. According to the French secret service, there are more Islamists fighting in Syria now than there were for the Taliban in Afghanistan. As recently stated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the continued bloodshed in Syria is fraught with unpredictable consequences for both Syria and the region. It also presents a danger to Russian regions, such as the Caucasus and the Volga Region. How great is the threat that Syria’s instability could spill into other countries and regions, including Russia? How do events in the Middle East impact Russia's Muslim community? These and other questions were discussed during media roundtable attended by Ambassador Andrei Baklanov , deputy chairman of the Association of Russian Diplomats; Leonid Syukiyaynen , PhD (Law), professor at the Higher School of Economics; and Ruslan Kurbanov , director of the Altair Foundation for Support of Humanitarian Initiatives and senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies.

According to Andrei Baklanov, two things set the situation in Syria apart from events in other Arab countries. First, the opposing forces are strong enough to ensure a long stand-off, which, in turn, provides fertile ground for terrorist groups of all stripes that could spread to neighboring countries. Second, Syria is in the heart of the Arab world. This adds new risks and has a direct impact on the situation in some of Russia’s regions.

Ruslan Kurbanov believes that there is a generational divide in Russian society, which is clearly pronounced in the Caucasus. Older generations in the Caucasus support the state, i.e. the regime, and want the bloodshed to end as soon as possible. However, there’s another powerful force that is gaining political and social clout: young religious activists from various Muslim denominations. These former students of Syrian universities are now preachers in mosques in the Caucasus. They are backed by tens of thousands of followers, and they make demands of the authorities. According to Kurbanov, these young activists are on the side of the Syrian opposition and vehemently criticize the official position of the Russian government. Unlike Afghanistan, which is seen as a provincial country in the Caucasus, Syria is a central and historically significant country. Vast numbers of princely families in the Northern Caucasus trace their origins back to people from ash-Sham, or Greater Syria (a collective name for Syria, Palestine and Lebanon). In Dagestan, for example, princes are referred to as shamkhals, a term believed to derive from the word ash-Sham. Large numbers of Arabs migrated to the Caucasus in the Middle Ages where they built villages. According to Kurbanov, Syria plays a central role in Islamic doomsday theology for these young Syrian activists. They believe the Prophet Isa will descend on the minaret of a mosque in Damascus after his second coming. For them, the battle for Syria has taken on eschatological meaning. Support for the Syrian opposition in the Caucasus takes many forms, such as online articles, flashmobs, rallies (for example, in Dagestan), and, most importantly, direct involvement in the Syrian conflict. Anyone can see online pictures of militants from the Caucasus posing over the dead bodies of Syrian government soldiers.

Kurbanov sees the armed conflict as a “direct path to the radicalization of young people.” This has been clearly illustrated by the Chechen conflict, which began as a liberation movement and ended in the formation of a vast terrorist network and the proclamation of an Imamate in the Caucasus. The situation in Syria is following the same path. If the bloody conflict is not resolved soon, it will ricochet to the Russian regions, primarily, the North Caucasus. According to Kurbanov, the rift in the Caucasus is taking on menacing proportions. The authorities are doing their best to keep the situation under control ahead of the Sochi Olympics. But once the Games are over, and the conflict in Syria reaches its climax, it will be more difficult to keep the situation in check.

Leonid Syukiyaynen also referred to the Islamic element in the Syrian conflict, noting that there were no Islamic slogans in the early stages of the conflict, be it in Chechnya, Egypt, or any other such country, but they were used widely later. The situation is similar in Syria. Russia was almost the only country to mention this early on. Of course, we should not overestimate the importance of statements proclaiming Damascus “the future capital of the Caliphate.” But we shouldn’t ignore them either, because Sharia courts are already in place in a number of areas where there are no government troops.

Syukiyaynen believes it is important to consider where the militants and radicals will go if they are squeezed out of Syria by government forces. He sees a great threat in this, as “Russia is nearby.”

According to Andrei Baklanov, Russia is looking to put an end to the military conflict in Syria in two phases:

1) suspending military operations (since no mechanisms of political decision-making can exist alongside armed conflict);

2) maneuvering, finding common ground, and forging compromises. During this phase, it is extremely important to restore confidence in international participation in the resolution of this conflict.

The question, then, is what should Russia do in these circumstances? Ruslan Kurbanov noted that the rapid Islamic revival underway in the world is creating a new face for the Islamic world and a new format for the Muslim community. International events show that the level of interaction with Islam, muftis and the younger generation of Muslims pursued by the Russian government in its domestic policies is insufficient. Both Syria and Russia have missed this train. Today, events are unfolding so quickly that only pro-active players can gain an edge. The West has had a degree of success in this.

The problem for Russia is that it only has so many points of access in Arab countries, such as the ruling regimes and official channels, whereas the Americans “are trying to play on several boards at a time” using regimes, opposition parties and civil society movements. If one of them fails to deliver, they make a bet on another one. If Russia wants to remain an active player on the global Islamic playing field, it should concentrate its intellectual, human and administrative resources and begin to form a “more proactive and aggressive strategy.”

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.