When Russian warplanes began bombing in Syria, they achieved only one thing: more chaos in an already crazed conflict. For all the talk of “fighting terrorism”, the Kremlin’s efforts have so far focused on protecting and consolidating President Bashar al-Assad’s control over north-western Syria, where he has lost ground in recent months. This is the crucial subtext to Russian involvement. Earlier this year a coalition of jihadist groups came together to form Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), which secured a number of quick victories across Idlib province. This coalition united a number of disparate groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra (which is aligned to al-Qaeda), Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham (which is heavily influenced by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood). The capture of strategic towns such as Jisr al-Shughur threatened to weaken Assad’s control over the port cities of Latakia and Tartus, both of which are Alawite strongholds from where his support principally derives. Much of the Russian bombing is therefore aimed at reducing this pressure.
Herein lies the critical distinction between western and Russian bombing raids in Syria. With Putin’s decision to attack the full spectrum of oppositionists arrayed against Assad, Russia will face a broader and more sustained backlash from jihadists, which could prove difficult to contain.
Jihadists have long operated in the Caucasus and they have been re-energised by the Syrian conflict. Not only have scores of fighters migrated to Syria to fight alongside both Islamic State (aka Isis) and al-Qaeda, but those who have stayed behind now have renewed impetus for their cause.
A video released by Islamic State last week urged would-be fighters in Russia to join its Wilayat al-Qawqaz (Caucasus province) and fight there. According to a statement
attributed to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, there is no need for them to migrate to Syria.
The Russian campaign in Syria will also suffer from the romanticism of jihadi narratives about superpower weakness. After all, it was during the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s that the phenomenon of Sunni foreign fighter mobilisation was born.
Some of the global jihad movement’s most important figures made their names there, including Abdullah Azzam, who led the so-called Arab Afghan contingent. His works and legacy are relevant to jihadists today. Osama Bin Laden also established himself as a respected fighter in Afghanistan, rising to prominence after leading his men to an unlikely victory during the Battle of Jaji in 1987.
Whereas the west has limited itself overwhelmingly to Islamic State targets, the Russians are going after all anti-Assad groups. This risks bringing together previously disparate groups into a more unitary force. Indeed, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham have already announced that they will unify their commands in order to fight the Russians more effectively.
Other groups are being spurred into action, too. “The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria strongly condemns the ugly Russian invasion,” reads a statement from the group. “Self-defence is legitimate and obligated on all Syrians who are capable of it. The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is ready to put all our efforts into defending the country and saving it from its enemies.”
It is not just Syrian Islamists who are riled by recent developments. A group of 55 scholars – the vast majority of them Saudi – wrote an open letter in response to the Russian air strikes. Although it is carefully worded (it makes no explicit call for jihad), the unmistakable corollary is that jihad against the Russians is now obligatory.
“Religious scholars have to be honest and emphasise that this is a war on Islam,” it reads. “People have to offer the Syrians material and moral support.”
The notion of a “war on Islam” has been a constant feature of both Islamist and jihadist interpretations of the international system for the past 15 years. Russian involvement in Syria has merely strengthened the idea that those who join jihadist groups “are defending the entire umma [world Islamic community]”. Not only are the Russians “ultra-crusaders” fighting with the blessing of the Orthodox Church, they are also allying with insidious Iranians to destroy Islam from within. This is a constant fear of Sunni millenarians in the Syrian context.
Consequently, the Iranians are pejoratively referred to as rafida, a sectarian colloquialism meaning “rejecters”, because Shias do not accept some of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions as his successors in the caliphate. The letter consequently calls on Arab states to suspend all diplomatic relations with Russia and Iran.
The “Saudi” letter shares the view of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, arguing that Russia’s entry into the conflict is a sign of Assad’s weakness. “God has defeated the security of the [Assad] regime, its shabiha [a militia loyal to Assad], and then its army, and then the Iraqi, Iranian, Afghan and other rafida groups, and through you he has defeated Hizb al-Shaytan [the Party of Satan – a reference to Hezbollah, whose name means Party of God],” it reads. “And God – the Exalted – is also capable of defeating Russia.” This type of rhetoric will have far-reaching consequences, not least because Saudis are already among the largest contingent of foreign fighters in Syria. Many of their scholars have broad appeal, often reaching far beyond the kingdom’s borders.
Although the Kremlin is making ostensibly responsible statements about a limited campaign in Syria, history counsels against this. Expect yet another wave of angry young men from the Gulf, North Africa and beyond to make their way to Syria soon.
Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College London
This article appears in the 07 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis