Russian President Vladimir Putin has within the past month moved sizeable military forces into Syria and has launched military strikes in that country. While the Kremlin states it is doing so to engage the threat from ISIS, the true reason is so that Putin can help in propping up the Assad regime against Syrian rebels. In trying to maintain Moscow’s influence in the Middle East, Putin may have thrown a rock at a hornets nest though. There has been widespread backlash from Sunni Muslim countries against Russia which does little to help the situation in Syria or in Russia itself which has a long history of radical-Islam inspired terrorism.
Russia’s Airstrikes and the Religious Aspect of the Conflict
Already the vast majority of Russian airstrikes that started a week ago have not been against ISIS but instead on rebels such as the Free Syrian Army and other groups that are backed by the U.S. This has deeply angered the West and regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia who are opponents of Assad. The primary immediate interest of the Kremlin is not the destruction of ISIS, rather ensuring the survival of the Assad regime.
Russia has a small navy base in Syria at Tartus which has existed since Soviet times in the 1970s. This base gives the Russian Navy a foothold in the Mediterranean Sea, though its value as a military facility is somewhat overstated as it is presently unable to handle any ships of significant size and prior to the Russian build-up, was manned by less than 50 Russian men and officers. Russia’s intervention is about more than simply protecting this base though. This is an opportunity for Putin to expand and strengthen Russia’s presence in the Mediterranean and the Middle East and ensure its future.
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In doing so, Russia has already faced international condemnation for supporting its longtime ally, Syrian President Assad. In the process, Putin has made the situation a bit more complicated from a religious perspective. Assad is an Alawite, a Shi’ite offshoot and is supported by Shi’ite majority Iran and Iraq. The majority of Syria though is Sunni and so the civil war is primarily one of that majority against a ruling Shi’ite minority. To the Middle East, it is a battle between Shi’ite Iran and the Sunni world. By siding with Assad and pursuing military strikes against Sunni rebels, Putin in a way has done more to enrage the Muslim world than the U.S. has with its own strikes.
Views on Russia from the Sunni World
The majority of the Muslim world is Sunni and in the Middle East, only Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan have Shi’ite majorities. Of those countries, Iran and Iraq are actively supporting Assad. Of the Sunni countries, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states along with Turkey are the major supporters of rebel groups in Syria. While the governments of Middle East Sunni countries have condemned Russia’s actions based on political reasons, there are widespread views that believe that the Kremlin has made itself a target for radical extremism due to its actions.
An online statement has been released in Saudi Arabia signed by fifty two prominent academics and clerics calling on “all those who are able, and outside of Saudi Arabia, to answer the calls of jihad” and to fight Russian and Iranian forces in Syria. While this petition is not affiliated with the Saudi government, it does reflect a growing anger in the country over Russian and Iranian involvement in the civil war. Saudi Arabia along with other Gulf States are long-time backers of several rebel groups in Syria, including several that are designated by the U.S. as terror organizations including the al-Nusra Front. The Saudi government has denounced Russia’s actions though, claiming that it will serve as a rallying call for extremist groups and encourage new fighters to travel to Syria as well as open new sources of funding for them.
Some have drawn parallels between the current conflict and Russia’s involvement and subsequent defeat in the 1980s Afghanistan Civil War. In that conflict, Soviet forces were forced out by rebels funded by the U.S., Saudis, and other governments. Mohammed al-Rashed, a Saudi commentator recently tweeted, “Did it [Russia} not learn its lesson from Afghanistan, which ripped apart the Soviet Union? Or Chechnya, which crushed Russian arrogance? Did Putin learn a thing?”
Meanwhile Turkey which is a strong opponent of Assad, is seeing its relations with Russia strained. Following reports of a violation of Turkish airspace by a Russian aircraft, Turkish President Erdogan has warned Russia that it is at risk of losing “a friend like Turkey”.
Russia itself has a sizeable Muslim population at about 14 percent of the population, the majority of which is Sunni. Among this population there is substantial distrust of Moscow and its actions in Syria though it is expected that open protests against the government will be limited out of fear of persecution. On the other hand, it is believed by the Soufan Group that nearly 2,500 Russian citizens are fighting with ISIS along with thousands more from other post-Soviet states such as those in Central Asia. Russians make up the largest non-Arab group fighting in Syria today.
Putin has a strong ally in the Russian Orthodox Church which has backed the intervention as a “holy war against terrorism”. Oddly enough he also has an alliance with Sunni Chechen strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, who fought against Russian forces in the First Chechen War. Despite the alliance with Kadyrov, the Kremlin is concerned about the number of Chechens and others from the North Caucasus who have went to fight in Syria. The North Caucasus have been a fertile breeding ground for extremists in the past and the bloodshed in that region has been constant.
Views on Russia from the West
Apart from official government condemnations of Russia, there have been those in the west who have voiced opinions on the possible backlash from the Sunni world that will emerge as a result of Putin’s actions.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told CNN, “He’s [Putin] going to have a very serious problem with the Sunni countries in the region, and that means that he could even become a target for those Sunni jihadis, so this is very complicated for him”. Before an audience at the German Marshall Fund, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, Victoria Nuland said, “There is an opportunity for Russia to be a collaborative, cooperative stakeholder in bringing stability….Or it can go in the opposite direction and it will not just be we who have difficulties – the entire Sunni world will be opposed.”
Matthew Henman, the head of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center has said, “An overt Russian intervention to further prop the Assad government may provoke a further increase in support for such [ISIS} hard-line militant groups…further intensifying the conflict.”
Already Russia has earned international condemnation for its actions in Syria. Worse though is the situation that it has created for itself. Russia is no stranger to religious terrorism. By entering the Syrian civil war, it may have just painted a large target on itself for future violence. Significant numbers of Russian citizens are fighting against Assad and with ISIS in Syria and there are many more who are ready to join the ranks. This will be problematic for Russia in the near future as the North Caucuses are already unstable due to religious extremism. Terrorism though in Russia has never been confined to just the North Caucuses; one is reminded of the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings and 2002 Moscow theater crisis to name just a few. By siding with a brutal dictator in its attempt to maintain a presence in the Mediterranean and Middle East, Russia has made itself into a target for Sunni extremism, arguably more so than the U.S. has done in the past year by bombing ISIS.