Will Islamist Blowback Derail Russia’s Gambit in Syria?

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Dan De Luce
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Russia’s military intervention in Syria has been relatively painless for the Kremlin so far. But the weekend crash of a Russian airliner in Egypt has sparked speculation that Islamist extremists brought the plane down. And that scenario raises a question that has loomed over President Vladimir Putin’s gamble from the outset: Will Moscow keep up its air war in Syria if it triggers a wave of terrorist attacks against Russia?

As it carried out bombing raids against Sunni rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime over the past month, Moscow has calculated it can contain the risk of a backlash from Sunni Muslims, including those with Russian passports who have taken up arms in Syria.

But it’s unclear how Moscow will respond if what is now a relatively low-level terrorism threat turns into an emergency that puts Russia’s homeland at risk, spawning fear among its citizens.

If the war in Chechnya is any guide, Putin might choose to double down in his campaign in Syria and unleash a wider wave of bombing and ground operations without concern for civilian casualties.

While Russia has long faced a terrorism threat from Islamist militants in Chechnya and elsewhere in the Northern Caucasus, it has taken on a high-profile role in its intervention in Syria’s civil war that could make it an attractive target for extremists.

The leader of al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, has appealed to his supporters to stage attacks on troops and civilians in Russia in retaliation for Moscow’s direct entry into the war on behalf of Assad’s regime.

“The new Russian invasion is the last arrow in the quiver of the enemies of the Muslims,” said the Nusra chief, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, in an audio recording released on Oct. 12.

Jolani called on militants in the Caucasus region to “distract” Moscow from its mission in Syria. The same day the Nusra leader issued his call for revenge, two mortar rounds hit the perimeter of the Russian Embassy in Damascus.

The Islamic State’s offshoot in Egypt has claimed responsibility for the downing of the Russian charter plane that broke up over the Sinai Peninsula over the weekend, killing all 224 people onboard.

An international investigation into the deadly crash in Egypt has only begun to get underway, and the credibility of the claim by the Islamic State branch remains unclear. But officials from Russia’s Metrojet charter airline company said Monday that pilot error or technical problems were not to blame for the crash, and their claims reinforced fears that the plane may have been blown up by a suicide bomber.

Asked about the possibility of a terrorist attack, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said Monday, “We’ve seen no indication at this time that that might be the case.”

President Barack Obama’s administration, caught off guard by Putin’s intervention in Syria, has responded to criticism of its cautious approach to the conflict by predicting Russia will find itself in a “quagmire” with no way out.

White House officials say the intervention will backfire badly on Moscow and spark a possible wave of terrorist attacks, drawing comparisons to the disastrous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Russia’s military campaign risks turning the Syrian conflict into a “powder keg” with dire consequences for Putin’s government, a U.S. intelligence official said.

“Extremists from Russia or former Soviet bloc states who missed the chance to fight in Afghanistan and Chechnya will no doubt take aim on Syrian battlefields,” the official told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But unlike the 1980s, Russia cannot assume that a backlash will be confined to Syria, the official said.

“The ability of extremists to instantly spread their hateful ideology and incite violence worldwide will be difficult for even Putin to ignore and will likely come home to roost, “ the official said.

However, apart from an uptick in anti-Russian rhetoric in online extremist propaganda, U.S. officials and experts say it’s too soon to gauge whether Moscow’s military moves have prompted more volunteers to head to Syria from the restive Northern Caucasus.

Moscow has offered varying estimates of how many Russian nationals have joined the Islamic State or other extremists fighting the Assad regime, though the estimates increased over the course of the year.

In February, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) said about 1,700 had traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. Last month, Putin claimed 5,000 to 7,000 volunteers from Russia and neighboring states in Central Asia had signed up with the group.

“We certainly cannot allow them to use the experience they are getting in Syria on home soil,” Putin told a gathering of former Soviet republics on Oct. 16.

The Russian president also warned the former Soviet states to be vigilant against possible retaliation from extremists and to expand cooperation among counterterrorism agencies.

Russian authorities left nothing to chance when the country hosted the Olympics in Sochi in 2014. After bombings killed 34 people in Volgograd less than two months before the games began, and amid threats from Islamist militants, Moscow imposed a vast “ring of steel” around Sochi to thwart possible attacks.

In the run-up to the games, Russian police handed out leaflets at hotels warning about women — so-called “black widows” — feared to have been plotting to launch suicide bombings for their slain Islamist husbands.

No major plots were uncovered though, and the games went ahead without incident.

As a way of pacifying the Caucasus region, Russia’s security services have pursued an unorthodox strategy in recent years. The FSB opted to allow Muslim militants to leave Russia to fight in Syria, creating a “green corridor” to rid the country of potential terrorists, according to an investigative report in July by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

But that was before Russia sent in dozens of warplanes, along with artillery and tanks, to shore up Assad’s regime. And now Chechen and other Russian-speaking volunteers in Syria are vowing to attack Moscow’s troops, and their leaders are calling for targeting civilians in Russia.

In a four-and-a-half-minute video released on Twitter on Oct. 27, a Russian-speaking fighter and an Arabic-speaking recruit from al-Nusra Front said their group is ready to right the Russians and their allies. The video showed fighters using various Russian-made weapons, including assault rifles, pistols, and hand grenades.

Outside armies “cannot bear the long-term wars, such as (the war in) Afghanistan; the Soviets occupied it with all of their force and gears (sic), then they left it and were defeated under the strikes of the mujahideen,” one fighter said in the video, according to the clip translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Russian troop casualties could pose another threat to Putin’s project in Syria by undermining political support at home. Controversy has surrounded an account of the first Russian soldier to die in the conflict, Vadim Kostenko, 19, who helped service Russian aircraft in Latakia. His mother and online activists have rejected the Russian Defense Ministry’s announcement that he committed suicide, saying he sounded cheerful the day he allegedly hung himself.

Moscow has a track record of trying to hide battlefield deaths. In eastern Ukraine, Russia has been accused of covering up reports of troops killed in action.

Some experts and former U.S. officials question the scale of the extremist threat posed to Moscow and say parallels between the Russian intervention in Syria and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan have been overstated.

Unlike the Soviet invasion, where Pakistan played an instrumental role battling Moscow, there is no similar country bordering Syria that is ready to wage a no-holds-barred fight against the Damascus regime.

“There’s no comparable country geographically contiguous to Syria that’s willing to take the risks of training, arming, and deploying fighters to take on Russians,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who worked in the Middle East.

But he said Russia’s support of the Iranian-backed regime of Assad has angered Sunni Arab governments across the Mideast, particularly Saudi Arabia. Those states will be ready to supply more weapons to Arab rebels in Syria, said Riedel, an author and fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“The Russians have now put themselves firmly on the side of the Persians and the Shia in the epic confrontation between the Saudi Sunni world and the Iranian Shia world,” Riedel said.

“And the Saudis intend to rally the Sunni world against Russia.”

So far, the United States has managed to persuade its Gulf allies against providing shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles to rebels in Syria, as those same weapons could fall into the hands of hard-line extremists plotting to target Arab or Western planes. But with Russia carrying out air strikes and the conflict escalating, the risk that some rebels could get their hands on shoulder-launched weapons will increase, experts said.

During the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, helicopter gunships notoriously mowed down civilians, and a large occupation force sowed resentment among Afghans. But the Russian mission in Syria is limited mostly to aircraft, and their forces so far have not employed the brutal tactics used in Afghanistan, said Seth Jones, a former advisor to U.S. special operations forces.

A large-scale, Islamist terrorist campaign against Russia is not an inevitable result of Moscow’s intervention in Syria, said Jones, a director at the Rand Corp., a U.S.-based think tank. And it is too soon to say if Moscow will find itself crippled by possible blowback, he said in an interview.

There may be “a slight increase” in terrorist attacks, he said, “but it’s hard to see that this would trigger a tidal wave of anti-Russian reaction.”

Foreign Policy reporter Reid Standish contributed to this article.

Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images