In early September 2014, the Islamic State (IS) posted a video message on the internet addressed to Vladimir Putin and Bashar Al-Assad. They warned Putin: "Your throne has already teetered . . . and will fall when we come to you . . . Vladimir Putin, the aircraft you sent to Bashar, we, with the grace of Allah, will send back to you."1 In that "message" the Islamic State also promised to "liberate Chechnya and the Caucasus."2

Over a few months the Islamic State has asserted itself as the strongest – militarily and politically – extremist organization in the Middle East. In summer 2014, it took control over some 30 percent of Syrian and Iraqi territory. The Islamic State finds allies in Central Asia, Turkey and Indonesia, to say nothing of the Middle East. It enjoys the solidarity of Boko Haram – the most powerful sub-Saharan extremist group based in Nigeria. Islamic State leaders declare commitment to spread their activities to Pakistan, where they are supported by a Taliban splinter group Jamaat ul-Ayrar. IS cells are active in Peshawar, its presence has been noted in Srinagar, capital of Jammu and Kashmir. The Islamic State threatens to project its activities to the US and Europe. Its official spokesman Mohammad al-Adnani stated that IS was ready to "raise the banner of Allah over the White House."3 This threat, of course, should hardly be taken seriously. But it would be a fallacy to ignore such challenges, especially as they come from religious fanatics.

Malashenko is the chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security Program. He also taught at the Higher School of Economics from 2007 to 2008 and was a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations from 2000 to 2006.
Alexey Malashenko
Scholar in Residence
Religion, Society, and Security Program
Moscow Center
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An explosion of religious extremism was a culmination of the Arab Spring and for many politicians it came as a surprise – like the Arab revolutions themselves. However, as early as 2011 in the context of widespread euphoria over the imminent democratization of the Arab world some experts warned that the "Spring" might be followed by a "hot Islamist summer."

Understanding the IS

Unlike Al-Qaeda the IS is not prone to "dramatic" terrorist attacks like those of September 11; its leadership puts an emphasis on the creation of efficient military forces able to combat regular enemy armies. At the territories, it controls the Islamic State, establishes a quasi-government infrastructure, and imposes Sharia laws.

The IS is kind of an "International"; its members come from some eighty countries.4 Most of them are citizens of Arab and Moslem states, but there are also quite a few Europeans. According to one estimate, by early September 2014, the number of European fighters was about 2000. Four hundred of them came from France, a roughly equal number from Britain. Other reports give a different figure: only from Britain some 1500 militants went to fight in Iraq and Syria, with another 2000 from France, a thousand from Germany and several hundred from the United States. The estimated number of Russian citizens varies from 300 to 2000, and some of them, like a Chechen named Abu Omar al-Shishani, who was killed in summer 2014, have risen to the rank of local commanders. Hundreds of militants represent Central Asia. Estimates of the total number of IS fighters vary from 12000 to 30000.

The IS is a part, a "tip" of an extremely broad religious and political phenomenon named Islamism, which includes many national, regional and global groups, parties and movements. Without a detailed classification they can be roughly divided into the moderate, "moderately radical", radical and extremist categories. A dialogue with the first three ones is possible and even necessary. With the last, extremist trend that includes the IS, it is practically out of the question. The problem, however, is that there are no unsurmountable divides between the four categories: "moderate radicals" can often take more radical, and eventually extremist positions. In my opinion this was the case with the IS, created in 2006 (then it was called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

Islamist ideology declaring state-building on the Sharia basis and social justice enjoys a substantial support among the public disappointed in the ruling regimes mired in corruption and unable to improve radically the social and economic situation in their countries. In the Middle East and the Moslem world we see growing frustration accompanied by a desire to find an optimum approach to overcome the general systemic crisis. And the Islamists offer such an approach – the Islamic alternative. In Syria and Iraq this alternative is manifested in the establishment of a caliphate which the IS is determined to build by any means, including the most brutal ones.

All these circumstances put before the global community an urgent question of countering religious extremism, whose activities are constantly expanding and becoming more and more dangerous for the rest of the world faced by a global extremist jihad.

Russia and the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring weakened Russia's influence in the Middle East. Originally the Kremlin interpreted it as a result of the West's preplanned intervention to advance its interests, and, among other things, to push Russia out of the region. Later a deeper understanding of the Arab Awakening took shape in Russian foreign policy. The Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, approved in 2013, interprets the events in the Middle East as a "desire to go back to one's civilizational roots," and admits that "political and socioeconomic renewal of society has been frequently carried out under the banner of asserting Islamic values."5

Russia does not have an unequivocal attitude to the supporters of "Islamic values assertion" – the Islamists. On the one hand Moscow was ready for a dialogue with some Islamist organizations like the radical Palestinian HAMAS or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt when its representative Mohamed Morsi was president, on the other hand it turns against them in Libya, Syria, Iraq and tries to suppress Islamic opposition in Russia itself.
Russia's military, political and business links with most of the Arab countries are narrowing under the influence of Arab revolutions. Western sanctions imposed against Russia in connection with the Ukraine crisis might also contribute to the contraction of this cooperation.

Russia's strategic goals in the Middle East remain essentially unchanged and can be summed up as follows:

  • To maintain its image of a world power;
  • To develop arms trade and support the activities of Russian companies producing hydrocarbons;
  • To preserve stability in the region;
  • To demonstrate to its own Moslem citizens Moscow's willingness to cooperate with their foreign co-religionists to position itself as a protector of Moslems.

Today Moscow has only one reliable ally in the region – Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who, unexpectedly for many Western politicians, proved to be much stronger than he had been estimated. For the Kremlin, Assad is a reminder of the past Soviet power in the Middle East, a successor of his father Hafez who values economic and military ties with Moscow, and the only current Arab leader with an anti-Western attitude. Having backed president Assad from the start, Moscow offered its mediation both in the internal Syrian conflict and the intrigues around it. This mediation, however, was interpreted by the opposition and its external allies as a support of the ruling regime. On the other hand, there was a rational element in Russia's position: the fall of the Syrian regime would inevitably strengthen Islamic radicals even more, and would negatively affect Arab-Israeli relations. It should be also remembered that Assad remains a legitimate, lawfully elected head of state.

Since 2013, Moscow has been trying to expand relations with Egypt, whose new president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during the election campaign positioned himself as a successor of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had cooperated with the USSR. This fact was noted in Russia with satisfaction. For his part, Nabil Fahmy, Foreign Minister of Egypt's provisional government, highly estimated the fact that Moscow "avoids extremes in its Middle Eastern policy."6 Egypt and Russia have signed a number of economic agreements; their military-technical cooperation is also expanding. It should be also mentioned that in August, when Russia adopted the so-called "countersanctions," prohibiting imports of certain foodstuffs from the US and the European Union, a hope arose that it would start to buy citrus fruit in Egypt.

Relations with Iraq were limited to the support of Russian oil companies working in the country, primarily Lukoil that managed to preserve part of its share in the development of the West Qurna oilfield. As far as bilateral arms trade is concerned, it was gradually decreasing, partly because of corruption scandals in the Russian Ministry of Defense. Moreover, after the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 there was no pro-Russian lobby in Iraq. It could be represented by the surviving members of the former ruling Baath Party, but Moscow left them out in the cold. Russia's ties with other Middle Eastern countries, including Palestine, Gulf states, Libya and Tunisia, remain quite inert and their revitalization can be hardly expected in the nearest future.

Russia and the IS Advances

The Islamic State's offensive in Iraq might give Russia a chance to enhance its standing and influence in the region. In the context of Russia's isolation due to the conflict in Ukraine its participation in the common struggle against extremism might somewhat contribute to a partial reversing of this situation.

Moscow regards IS successes as a proof that US and Western policies in the Middle East are mistaken: by refusing to support authoritarian regimes they enabled radical Islamists. "I think," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "that our Western colleagues, including the US, are somewhat at a loss. They sowed the wind, and are reaping the storm. We are doing our best to stop this storm."7 Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of the Chechen Republic, goes even further by noting that the IS are "thugs trained and armed by the US and the West."8

Indeed, events in the Arab world have shown that calculations on authoritarianism would be succeeded by some democratic forces proved wrong. Islamist forces are radicalizing – in the Middle East and elsewhere. Their threat is even more serious than that from Al-Qaeda, which today is the principal competitor of the IS.

Extremist activities are of a cross-border kind, and a defeat in a single country or even region cannot stop them. The IS, as we have mentioned above, have global ambitions. Its mujahedeen can extend their activities to the neighboring and more distant territories, including Russia, the South Caucasus and Central Asia. In this case, Russia's role becomes even more important. It should be noted that Moscow is already cooperating with Kazakhstan's, Azerbaijan's and Georgia's special services (and maybe other countries as well) to arrest militants returning from Syria and Iraq.

The struggle against religious-political extremism will take an indefinitely long time and demand consolidated international efforts. In an interview to CBS, Barak Obama estimated the threat from IS to the American people as a mid- to long-term one. America continues to immerse itself in the problems of the Moslem world. Not even completing the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington is forced to intervene in the civil war in Iraq and like in Afghanistan recently, a new anti-terrorist coalition is being organized to deal with the aggravation of the situation in this country. As yet, it is hard to tell how successful it will be.

Obama honestly admitted that the United States cannot counter IS fighters alone. However, being engaged in confrontation with Moscow, Washington is trying to build the anti-terrorist coalition selectively, without Russia. This "narrow coalition" includes the US, European counties, Australia and Turkey. The Kremlin regards the idea to create a NATO-based coalition as an abortive one. According to Sergei Lavrov, "an alliance based on the interests of a single group of countries and a commitment to neutralize the threat only in a part of the region, and moreover with a good deal of ideology and confrontational approach, cannot have a perspective." Still Moscow supports the countries of the anti-IS coalition, but insists that all its actions should be approved by the UN Security Council and the states on whose territories they are taking place.

Russian Foreign Ministry's official Spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said that US actions without the Security Council's consent would represent an "aggression and a flagrant violation of international law." A massive airstrike on 23 September against IS forces and bases in Syria by the Americans with the support of their allies including Jordan and Bahrein was negatively interpreted by Russia. Moscow thinks that the strike was aimed primarily against the Assad regime rather than against the IS. In this context the anti-terrorist operation launched by the US and its partners might contribute to Russia's increased isolation, and provoke the Kremlin's "asymmetric response." How should we understand "asymmetry" in this case?

It is well-known that the Russian society has an ambiguous attitude toward Islamic radicals. For instance, many Russian citizens, and not only Moslems, regarded the attacks of September 11 as a "punishment" for America. Today, you can find a lot of calls for Russia's support of Islamist radicals in the Internet. Islamism and Russian official ideology have a common feature – an emphasis on identity, purely religious in the former case and national-religious in the latter. This is a basis for anti-Western attitude characteristic for both ideologies. Islam and Orthodoxy assert an alternative – differing from Western perceptions – understanding of democracy, relations between the state (or community) and the individual, human rights and morals. A commitment to build an Islamic state has something in common with the fundamentalist Orthodox call to revive "Orthodox Russia."

In the context of continuing US-Russian confrontation all this might create the atmosphere for Moscow's tacit rapprochement with Islamic radicals. This, however, is a hypothetic scenario. The practical question remains the same: what place can Russia occupy in a "broad coalition" including, in essence, the whole global community? In fact it already takes part in the fight against Islamic extremists in Iraq, providing Baghdad with weapons including Su-25 attack aircraft, Mi-28NM helicopters, AA and anti-tank systems. The whole arms contract is worth $ 4.2 billion. Russia continues to support Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Finally, Moscow, to the best of its ability, helps its Central Asian neighbors directly threatened by Islamic extremism, especially after US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Russia is interested in participating in the anti-terrorist operation for the following reasons:

  • First, it expects to enhance its reputation in the Middle East this way;
  • Second, it can show the rest of the world that it does not regard itself as banned from solving global problems;
  • Third, it can demonstrate ability to behave actively and independently;
  • Fourth, it wants to increase its influence in Iraq, where Russian oil giant Lukoil has already invested $4 billion in the oil sector.

Recently an opinion that "in the Middle East Russia traditionally supports Shia geopolitics" has been circulated widely. The proximity of Russia's and Iran's positions on the Syrian question led some media to talk about a new "axis of evil" consisting of Iran, Russia and Syria. Moscow's support of Shia dominated Iraqi leadership has reinforced this attitude. However this is a mistake; both the Soviet Union and Russia attached very little significance to Shia-Sunni differences when they elaborated their foreign policies. Moreover, most of Russian Moslems are Sunni, which makes Moscow's "pro-Shia orientation" inconceivable.

Finally, moving against extremists in the Middle East, Russia is defending itself. The Arab Spring, Islamists' successes in a number of countries caused a growth of activities of their soul mates in Russia. In 2012-2014 hundreds (or thousands, according to other reports) of Russian Moslems took part in demonstrations supporting Syrian Islamist opposition. The IS also has some supporters in Russia, including the Ansar ash-Sharia and Ansar al-Sunni groups active in the North Caucasus. Apart from Caucasian Moslems, there are some Tatars, Bashkirs and Crimean Tatars among those who sympathize with the IS.

In late September the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution obliging member states to prevent their citizens from taking part in conflicts abroad and financing terrorist organizations. In the context of this decision Russia is able to contribute to the confrontation with extremism.

Policy Recommendations

The discussion on Russian Middle East policy, the advances of the IS and fight against extremism exemplifies the intricacies and multi-layered nature of the challenges ahead. The following policy recommendations may provide some guidance to policy makers in the fight against IS extremism.

  • In the war against IS fighters it is impossible to ignore the fact that a substantial part of Sunnis in Iraq and Syria sympathize the organization. Therefore strikes should be aimed only against its armed units doing no harm to peaceful Moslems, even if they sympathize the IS. Otherwise the extremists will have an infinite pool of human resources and the situation will resemble the one in Afghanistan.
  • In spite of the differences existing within the global community cooperation in the struggle against the IS should be maintained.
  • All possible assistance, including military assistance, must be given to the forces directly fighting IS militants.
  • All actions aimed at supporting extremists, including financial support, should be thwarted.
  • Information exchange must be expanded, including joint monitoring of the militants' cross-border movements and their arrest irrespectively of their citizenship. Sharing information on the emergence and activities of IS recruiting centers is also important.

Endnotes 

1 Allison Quinn, "Islamic State to Putin: We Are on Our Way to Russia," Moscow Times, September 3, 2014.

2 Ibid.

3 Newt Gingrich, "ISIS, Hamas and Boko Haram: Believe their intentions," CNN, August 9, 2014, accessed October 20, 2014, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/08/08/opinion/gingrich-isis-boko-haram-hamas/.

4 "Security Council Unanimously Adopts Resolution Condemning Violent Extremism, Underscoring Need to Prevent Travel, Support for Foreign Terrorist Fighters," United Nations Meetings Coverage, Security Council 7272nd Meeting (PM), September 24, 2014, accessed October 19, 2014, http://www.un.org/press/en/2014/sc11580.doc.htm.

5 "Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation," The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, February 18, 2013, accessed October 20, 2014, http://www.mid.ru/brp_4.nsf/0/76389FEC168189ED44257B2E0039B16D.

6 Olga Kuznetsova, Pavel Tarasenko and Elena Chernenko, "Egipet prismatrivaet novykh posrednikov" [Egypt looks for new mediators], Kommersant, August 9, 2013, accessed October 18, 2014, http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2250566.

7 Sergei Lavrov, "Perezagruzka ne mozhet prodolzhat'sa vechno" [The "reset" cannot last forever], interview by Elena Chernenko, Kommersant, October 3, 2012, accessed October 20, 2014, http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2250566.

8 "Muftii Chechnyi nazval vyskazyvaniia predstavitelei Islamskogo Gosudarstva provokatsiei" [Chechnya's Mufti called remarks by Islamic State representatives a provocation], REGNUM News Agency, September 5, 2014, accessed October 21, 2014, http://www.regnum.ru/news/1844459.html.

This article originally appeared on POMEAS.org