The Caucasus and Russia's Syria Policy

The Caucasus and Russia's Syria Policy

Those who ignore Russia's internal worries won't understand its Syria policy—or spot a common ground.


The United States and Russia are both running out of options in Syria, and their joint initiative to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control and destroy them is only a potential and unlikely solution to one part of the Syrian crisis. The plan pushed by Russian president Vladimir Putin will probably not solve the chemical weapons problem and could very well exacerbate it and the real challenge of the Syrian crisis—the jihadist threat.

President Barack Obama and his administration missed the moment two years when it was possible to support a moderate opposition in overthrowing the brutal regime of Bashar Assad. The Obama administration then compounded matters. It rushed to judgment about the world’s obligation to punish Assad for allegedly crossing a poorly thought out ‘red line’ by using chemical weapons without providing any concrete evidence to allies and potential partners that Assad had done the attack. According to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in a September 15 interview, the Obama and Putin administrations had been discussing the danger of Assad’s chemical weapons falling into jihadi hands since the June 2012 G-20 summit in Los Cabos, and the Obama administration had even contacted people around Assad on the issue. Thus, Secretary of State John Kerry’s seemingly spontaneous musings about a fictional agreement under which Assad would turn over those weapons that was picked up on by Putin functioned as a ‘dog whistle,’ if unintended.


Until Putin jumped on that signal and intervened with his proposal to bring Assad into talks, the administration was confronted with following through on its pledge to punish the Alawite regime in the face of almost universal, including Russian, resistance to such action. The U.S. administration’s failure to get its ducks in a row before declaring its military strike policy by lobbying properly for international support exposed allies like British prime minister David Cameron and offended competitors and occasional partners like Putin, transforming them into neutral observers or interested opportunists, respectively.

Meanwhile, evidence emerged from German intelligence sources showing that Assad may not have ordered the chemical strike, suggesting that local commanders acted on their own in exceeding previous controlled chemical strikes in recent months. This comes on top of a UN official's remarks that the rebels were behind a similar but more limited attack in March and the still nagging sense that not everything about the August attack is known, a sense reinforced by the Obama administration’s to make its evidence public, past U.S. intelligence failures on issues such as Saddam Hussein’s WMDs, and recent falsehoods issued by President and other administration officials with regard to the NSA’s spying programs. Given the Obama administration's mishandling and ensuing isolation on the issue, the Putin plan has gotten Obama and the world off the hook, but only temporarily.

Why Did Putin Act?

Putin’s motives for intervening in the Syrian crisis and for giving President Obama what amounts to a ‘mulligan’ in his handling of the Syrian chemical weapons crisis have been subjected to all manner of suspicions and attributed to all kinds of ulterior motives, from trying to embarrass the United States, revive Russian influence in the Middle East, support its Syrian ‘ally’, and the like. The fact is that the main reason is that the United States, Russia, and their respective allies in the region have the most to lose in Syria and have a common interest in removing chemical weapons from the Syrian equation.

In addition, Putin is trying to address two Russian national security problems currently presented by U.S. policies in general and in the region specifically: Western-dictated ‘humanitarian intervention’ and ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrines and the possible strengthening of the Caucasus Emirate (CE) mujahedin as a result of the growing jihadi threat not just in Syria but across the Muslim world. These issues are especially relevant now, given the recent and unfolding history wherein the United States has intervened and then withdrawn, leaving states in the region in the lurch to deal with the jihadi threat by themselves—as is occurring in South and Central Asia and the Persian Gulf region with the imminent U.S. and Western military intervention and withdrawal from Afghanistan and the past intervention and withdrawal from Iraq.

The first problem is well known and has been much discussed. Specifically, Russia (and China and other states) has no interest in legitimizing a Western-defined ‘humanitarian intervention’ and ‘right to protect’ doctrines, given the way these have been used against Russian allies in Yugoslavia and Serbia in the past and the way they could be applied to potential similar separatist crises in Russia and/or along its borders.

Less known here—even in the wake of the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks—is Russia’s jihadist threat. Putin has no need for a rise of jihadism near his southern border in general, but especially in the run-up to the February 2014 Winter Olympic Games to be held in Russia’s North Caucasus resort city of Sochi. Russia is faced with a global Sunni jihadist insurgent and terrorist group on its own territory in the North Caucasus and the likely rise of growing jihadism emanating from across its southern periphery from Central and South Asia in the southeast to Syria and Iraq in the southwest; the former being intensified by the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the latter by Sunni and Saudi efforts against the Shia in Iraq.

Now add in the Syrian situation. A robust U.S. air assault on Syria resulting in the demise of the Assad regime in Syria could significantly undermine stability in Russia’s North Caucasus, strengthening and provoking concerted action by the Caucasus Emirate (CE) mujahedin to carry out attacks before or during the Games in Sochi and/or elsewhere in Russia afterwards, including attacks with chemical weapons acquired as a result of jihadi advances in the Syrian civil war. The CE mujahedin, or at least elements among them, have been promising to attack the Games since 2010, and this summer CE amir Doku ‘Abu Usman’ Umarov called on the mujahedin to attack Sochi in order to prevent the Games from being held and to attack the Games if they begin.

Moreover, as many as several hundred fighters from Russia are fighting in Syria under the Al-Qa`ida-tied Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Jabhat al-Nusrah (JN) in a subunit of some 1,000 foreign fighters, called the Jeish Mujahirin va Ansar (The Army of the Émigré Jihadists and Helpers) or JMA. The JMA’s amir is an ethnic Chechen from Chechnya calling himself Abu Umar al-Shishani. His top ‘naib,’ or deputy, is also a Chechen. Moreover, he is the commander of the ISIL’s northern front, making him and his Caucasus mujahedin major players among the Syrian jihadi rebels. In other words, the CE and associated Russian-speaking jihadists from the North Caucasus, the rest of Russia, the South Caucasus (in particular Azerbaijan), and Central Asia are playing the leading role among the foreign mujahedin, who hail from across the world, and a prominent role in the jihadi wing of the anti-Assad forces in Syria, now the central front in the global jihadi revolutionary movement. The Syrian failing state is thus incubating a new jihadi force centered around the CE that is bound to turn on Russia and the rest of Eurasia should the Syrian outcome resolve on terms favorable to them, yielding them weapons of various sorts, stronger combat readiness, and greater ties to jihadists from across the globe.

Initially, CE amir Umarov was ambivalent about the Caucasus mujahedin fighting in Syria since they were draining the CE’s capacity back home, especially so this summer, the seasonal peak of CE operations typically in any one year. However, he blessed their role this summer and even appointed a CE representative to work among them. Soon the Caucasus mujahedin there began to openly declare their CE origins. Apparently, Umarov came to understand that while in the short- to mid-term the drain of fighters from the Caucasus into Syria would damage his jihadi front in the Caucasus. In the long-term, the CE could benefit greatly in terms of: more battle-hardened cadres; new recruits, ties, and cache; new supply channels; and perhaps the acquisition of chemical or biological weapons with which he can attack Sochi or other targets in Russia proper.

Thus, the jihadi threat emanating from Syria—with the worst-case scenario being a pro-AQ jihadist regime in Damascus—makes stirring up the hornets’ nest in Syria even further an extremely dangerous proposition for Russia. Unfortunately, President Putin has not been able to articulate so specifically this threat to Russia connected with the situation in Syria because such a statement by him would be an uncharacteristic acknowledgement of vulnerability for a Russian leader and also would probably tell on the success of the Games by raising fears among potential attendees.

The Risky (at Best) ‘Putin Plan’

But Putin’s plan is fraught with technical difficulties and even catastrophe. The former include the difficulties of finding all the weapons currently being dispersed across the country, cataloguing the weapons quickly and accurately, destroying them, and of transporting them quickly enough so that they are all out of Assad’s hands before an existential threat to his regime from the rebel forces prompts him to deploy them in a last bid effort to save his regime and Alawites from extinction.