Russia Will Stay in Syria

The recent cease-fire deal between the Syrian government, U.S. and Russia lasted only for three days.  The agreement was supposed to allow humanitarian aid to get through to the besieged city of Aleppo, but it has failed.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, recently stated that, “Only the Syrian army has been observing the ceasefire regime, while the US-led ‘moderate opposition’ has been increasing the number of shellings of residential quarters.”  At the same time, the U.S. points the finger of blame at Russia for the failure of the cease-fire deal.

The relationship of the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia is complicated and geographically connected.  Russia has been at war with radical Islamic militants for almost 22 years in Chechnya, a region of Russia.   The radical Islamist group ISIS (also known as Daesh) in the Middle East has many members from Chechnya according to the Chechen law-enforcement agencies estimate that between three and four thousand Chechens have travelled to Iraq or Syria to join the group. One of the prominent Chechen warlords, Akhmed Chatayev, served as a high-ranking official with ISIS and recently in August masterminded the triple suicide bombing at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport that killed  44 people and left more than 230 others injured.

Central Asia is turning into the second breeding ground for the jihad threat to Russia. According to a NBC news report,  “Up to 2,000 Central Asians are fighting for ISIS in Syria and Iraq, according to U.S. intelligence sources who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity.” The real number is likely larger as the report states, “For every [Central Asian] fighter in ISIS, there may be up to a dozen men in a sleeper cell at home and 100 sympathizers.”

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Central Asia consists of a few republics that made up the ancient Silk Road: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.  The Central Asian population is small, only 60 million people, but their land is full of natural resources.  The vast majority of population are Muslims.  During the Soviet Union, the Central Asian region, especially the most northern republic, Kazakhstan, was very secular.  It had a multi-ethnic population as a result of being used by the Soviets as one of the relocation areas for some ethnicities during World War II.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, people of different ethnicities went back to the native lands Jews emigrated to Israel, Germans went back to Germany, and the majority of ethnic Russians went back to Russia. The signs of the growth of radical Islam can be seen in Kazakhstan already.  Recently, there were a few terror attacks. The last one was conducted by Islamist, ultra-conservative Muslims in Kazakhstan in July, 2016.

Uzbekistan has the largest population within Central Asia with over 30 million people, and shares a direct border with Afghanistan.  As a result, it has a major jihad problem where fighters from Islamist fighting groups organized their own group the “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan” (IMU) that is affiliated to Taliban and al-Qaeda but has also pledged allegiance to ISIS. According to modest estimates, there are about 5,000 to 6,000 IMU fighters in Afghanistan.  To make matter worse, the first and only president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, died on September 2, 2016.   He was the first president after the fall of the Soviet Union who presided from 1991 to his death September 2, 2016.  The West liked to call him an authoritarian president, but the local population would simply say,  “The most important thing is that for 25 years he kept the piece.”

Tajikistan is another Central Asian republic that shares a direct border with Afghanistan, but with a weaker state.  It has an even bigger problem, though it is not new. There have been various radical Islamic Tajik groups for decades.  The most recent are Jundullah and Jamaat Ansarullah that have crossed the borders into Afghanistan and Pakistan, to inflame active insurgencies there.  The U.S. is also playing a role there in training the jihadists. The U.S. government trained the supreme commander of Tajikistan’s riot police, Gulmurod Khalimov, who in 2015 along with 10 compatriots defected to ISIS. After the defection, he pledged in a video statement to bring jihad to his country [Tadjikistan].” According to a NBC News report, that spoke a senior Afghan intelligence officer, “More than 1,000 Tajik militants are also fighting in Afghanistan.”

Economic forces play a role in the spread of radical Islam in Central Asia.  The plunge in commodity prices, particularly oil and gas has directly impacted Central Asia, especially oil rich Kazakhstan, the most prosperous country in Central Asia.  Moreover, Russia is the biggest Central Asian economic partner and itself is experiencing an economic downturn due to multiple sanctions that are imposed by the West.  Radical religious messages can take root as people try to find comfort in religion during difficult economic times.

There is a history of ethnic and religious violence in the Central Asian republics.  In the 1980s in Kyrgyzstan, ethnic minorities including fair skinned Muslims were attacked and had to flee to Russia for safety.  Russia is the home of 20 million Muslims, who peacefully live and practice non-extreme form of Islam.  Similar violence has continued.  Recently in June 2010, The Independent reported, “Ethnic rioting spread today in southern Kyrgyzstan, where at least 80 people have been killed and more than 1,000 wounded.  Thousands of Uzbeks fled after their homes were torched by roving mobs of Kyrgyz men.”

Central Asia and Russia have a long history of wars in that can be traced back to Genghis Khan.  The warlord conquered Eurasia on horses with swords. But he was actually tolerant to all religions.  To promote religious freedom he,  “set up an institution that ensured complete religious freedom.  Under his administration, all religious leaders were exempt from taxation, and from public service.  He even had his own take on democracy, organizing debates, where different religious clerics debated and large crowds observed.

Russians see ISIS as a similar threat, but far worse.  ISIS wants to expand the Caliphate with its extreme version of Islam beyond the Middle East. ISIS seeks to spread a social system where women have no voice or freedom and are treated like an object. Where a man can have three, four or more wives, if he wants.  Where there is no tolerance for any religion except for the extreme Islam and believers in other religions are infidels and they should be killed.

From the Russian perspective, Daesh uses top military gear supplied by the Obama’ administration and utilizes radical groups that have received billions of dollars in training from the U.S.  America is lucky with the neighbors who shares the same values, and separated by conflict torn regions by oceans.  The U.S. has the option of deciding when to project military power or to have “no boots on the ground” or to “bring troops back home” from the conflict torn Middle Eastern countries. Putin sees no choice but to fight this fight in Syria, as an existential threat to Russia.


Photo from the Russia-Eastern Republic website

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