If Kremlin doesn't fight Islamists in Syria, will it have to in Russia?

Radical Islamists are a legitimate threat to Russia's security, particularly via its post-Soviet neighbors to the south. But the risk of blowback is high too.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
A cameraman films a view of the building where homemade explosives were found in an apartment, in Moscow last week. Russia’s counterterrorism agency says it has raided a Moscow apartment and arrested a group of people who were preparing to carry out an attack in the capital.

Meeting with embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in the Kremlin Tuesday, Vladimir Putin offered a rationale for Russian intervention in Syria that will be familiar to generations of Americans, whose leaders launched overseas wars from Vietnam to Iraq and, well, Syria: It's better to fight them over there today, than in our own cities tomorrow.

For Russia, with 12 percent, mostly Sunni, Muslim population – much of it concentrated in the already turbulent north Caucasus region – it's not a far-fetched fear.

Mr. Putin said about 4,000 Muslims from ex-Soviet countries are fighting alongside the Islamic State in Syria and "we cannot let these people gain combat experience and go through ideological indoctrination and then return to Russia."

Security experts say it may be even more important to deal a blow to the myth of IS by halting its winning streak in Syria. Otherwise, its ecumenical brand of extreme jihadism could catch on not only among young Russian Muslim males but, more crucially, in the teeming former Soviet Muslim republics of central Asia, mainly Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which offer a direct geographical pipeline to the Russian heartland.

But like many US leaders in the past, Putin may be underestimating the dangers of long-term blowback – and that by intervening in Syria, Russia could realize the fears that it's trying to prevent. 

Protecting the southern flank

Supporters of the intervention argue that there is an interconnected battle being fought against an ideological enemy that knows no borders. Russian security experts warn that Islamist extremism is again burgeoning, under the auspices of Al Qaeda and IS, in northern Afghanistan – and might find support from ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks who previously had rejected the ethnically Pashtun Taliban.

"One of the key strategic goals of the Russian operation in Syria is to stop IS before it opens a second front in Tajikistan," says Vladimir Sotnikov, an expert with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow.

"We see really dangerous signs that the situation in Afghanistan is unraveling. Stability in Tajikistan is very fragile right now. This nightmare scenario, where jihadists migrate across central Asia and on to Russia looks all too real. We need to take action, and that's what we are doing in Syria. We need to do a lot more."

Vladimir Yevseyev, an expert at the Institute for World Economy and International Relations, an official research center, says Russia doesn't face the most immediate danger. "It will be bad if IS fighters who are Russian should try to return here," he says. "But, frankly, we are ready for them and have the means to stop them."

"They are more likely to make for other places, including Europe, and they should be very worried about that in the West. As for us, our main concern is central Asia right now," and not so much the Russian homeland, he adds.

'Christian and Islamic leaders are unanimous'

Nobody knows how vulnerable Russia may be to internal discord between its mainly Christian majority and Muslim minorities. Two wars in Chechnya have left the entire north Caucasus region exhausted, but still seething with low-level Islamist insurgency. The populations of big Russian cities, including Moscow, now include millions of Muslim migrant workers from central Asia, and the accompanying social dislocations have led to more than one race riot.

Last month, Putin personally inaugurated "Europe's biggest mosque" in downtown Moscow, and pledged to do much more through the educational system and official outreach to counter the message of "extremist hatred" spread by groups like IS.

Russia's official Muslim leadership has issued several statements in favor of the intervention. This week Talgat Tadzhuddin, the country's chief mufti, warned that jihadi ideology was making inroads among young Russian Muslims.

"Youths are recruited via Internet, through underground camps, they are lured abroad and told that Islam is for those who have faith and should kill infidels. This is foolishness, absolute ignorance," Mr. Tadzhuddin said.

More importantly, the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, which considers itself to have an historic mission to protect the Christians of the Middle East, stands behind the efforts in Syria. In an emailed statement, church spokesman Archimandrite Philaret, said that Russia's official inter-religious council, which includes representatives of the country's Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist faiths, fully support the Russian military operation.

"The leaders of the traditional religions clearly realize that terrorists, even if they use Islamic slogans, cannot belong to this religion," he said. "Extremists are trying to present Russia’s operation in Syria as a war between the Christian and the Islamic cultures. But in our country, Christian and Islamic leaders have proved to be unanimous in their desire to safeguard society against the threat of extremism."

'A real danger of angering Russia's Muslims'

Still, experts say, a lot depends on how long Russia's Syrian intervention goes on, and how it ends.

Moreover, the campaign, with its daily TV images of Russian warplanes hammering Syrian rebels, may be sending a different message to Muslims than to other Russians – and diverting resources better used to counter dangers closer to home.

"It's not only IS that has declared war on Russia due to its actions in Syria, but other Islamist groups as well," Mr. Sotnikov notes. "We need to be very careful to minimize any provocations toward Russian Muslims. Maybe it's not an immediate problem, but if this operation drags on longer than expected there is a real danger of angering Russia's Muslims. We cannot allow ourselves to underestimate the attractions of extreme jihadist ideology, especially among young Muslims. It's a very real, and ongoing threat."

"In a way, it's a continuation of our long war in the north Caucasus, which Putin has managed to pacify by pumping great sums of money into that region," says Alexander Golts, an independent security expert. "I fear that now, once again, Russia will become vulnerable to all the consequences of Islamist extremism, including terrorism in our own cities."

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