Chechen jihadists. Photo: Conflict NewsWhen he ordered a military intervention in Syria, President Vladimir Putin also took into account what is happening within his own borders and along the borders. The recent air disaster in Sinai - the information from several international intelligence agencies increasingly seem to indicate a terrorist source - raises concerns about the active involvement of extremist groups even outside of Syria and Iraq. Aldo Ferrari, professor of History of Russia, Armenia and the Caucasus at the University Ca 'Foscari of Venice, explained in Oasis that after the attack "the Kremlin may intensify air raids in Syria but will not change goals greatly ": Moscow's first interest will be to keep the Syrian government standing. The Russian entry into the conflict in Syria is a historic turning point. It is the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union that Moscow is acting militarily outside its borders. However, says Ferrari, the Syrian experience may constitute an exception, since it is dictated by a particular need. "The official position of Moscow was declared openly". Russia has a decade-long relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, currently in a critical situation. The intervention is therefore in support of the only ally who allows Russia to have a base on the Mediterranean Sea.
The alliance with the Shiites
With the military intervention in Syria, Russia has become involved in a conflict that transcends the simple confrontation between Assad and the opposition groups, but is part of the ancient conflict between Sunni and Shiite muslims. By supporting the Syrian president, Putin has officially taken the side of the Alawites - the minority to which the Syrian ruling elite belongs - and has indirectly allied himself with the other groups, schiite, who fight alongside. Doing so he has stirred up discontent within his own borders, causing the disagreement of Sunni muslims, who make up most Russian muslims. Moscow therefore acts in Syria also to defend itself internally and along its own borders. For decades, the Russian army has been fighting a war against Islamic terrorism inside and outside its national territory, in particular in the so-called "near-overseas", the post-Soviet union countries over which Russia still exerts influence. Since the beginning of the war in Syria, many militants departed from Russia and other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), to fight in the ranks of the Syrian opposition. Against this background, President Putin's major concern is that the possible fall of Assad could lead to the return of victorious and satisfied fighters to Russia, which could extend the conflict inside the country, especially in the northern Caucasus region, where the most numerous muslim community with radical groups is concentrated. In these areas the Russian army has been pursuing real campaign for the military repression of Islamist extremist groups, most intensely in Chechnya and neighbouring regions. "These reasons may be questionable," says Ferrari, "but they are not crazy."
Strategists trained in guerrilla warfare
In Russia, 15 percent of the population is Muslim and lives mainly in the regions of the North Caucasus and Tatarstan. "The area that is traditionally more problematic from the point of view of Islamic radicalism," Ferrari said, "is the Caucasus and particularly the region of Chechnya. Here, the phenomenon has spread from the nineties, partly because of two wars between Chechnya and the Russian Federation. According to many analysts, the Chechens who today swell the ranks of jihadist groups in the Middle East would be among the most prepared fighters, strategists trained by years of guerrilla war in the Caucasus against the Russian army. Over the last fifteen years, the Islamist movements have become more structured, with funding coming probably from Saudi Arabia, and have set themselves the goal of establishing an Islamic emirate in the North Caucasus. The ideological proximity to the Gulf countries is also evident from the fact that Russian Islamists are commonly called Wahhabisand their leaders, all killed by the Russian army, have the status ofemirsNorth Caucasus. "
The regions of Chechnya, the Cherkessia and Dagestan are the main recruitment centres for fighters going to Syria and Iraq, but the phenomenon is not new for the Caucasus. In fact, the Russian Wahhabis already took part in Islamist activities on different fronts in the past. The number of Russian fighters in Syria, according to relatively official estimates, is between 2,000 and 6,000 units. "When you have to deal with these numbers," notes Ferrari, "we need to take into account that they are exploited not only by the media but by the Kremlin, which needs to justify its armed intervention in the Middle East. The groups from the Caucasus are typically compact groups who join the ranks of the various fundamentalist factions in opposition to the Syrian regime. There is as yet no Caucasian jihadist element in the secular opposition. "
Unlike Europe, where there have been several cases of people returning, this is still a marginal phenomenon in Russia, or does not make news yet. Moscow's intervention in Syria does seem to try and restrict this possibility, so as to avert the danger of infiltration.
Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter
For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal