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    Middle East
     Dec 12, 2012

Moscow's Damascus road goes via Grozny
By Derek Henry Flood

Russian policy toward the Syria crisis may be more about Grozny than Tartus. Much has been made by critics and analysts in the West of Russian obstruction in the United Nations Security Council in light of Syria's dire humanitarian crisis, for which there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

In the 20 months since the start of the uprising-cum-armed conflict in Syria, it has been speculated that Russia's principal interests vis-a-vis protecting the weakened regime of Bashar al-Assad lay in Moscow's agreement for a naval-base at the warm-water port of Tartus - Russia's only such facility outside the former Soviet sphere - and Russia's role as Syria's essential foreign

supplier of small arms, artillery and military hardware. As Russia is well aware, however, dictators gobbling up crates of Kalashnikovs came and went throughout the history of the late Cold War period. Post-Soviet basing leases can be renegotiated at a later date with successor regimes.

What is crucially at stake for the Vladimir Putin government is its cherished policy of a nation-state's "internal affairs". Russia's present ruling elites, often referred to as the siloviki, recall the chaos of the 1990s and the brief, ego-bruising loss to what briefly became a quasi-independent Chechen state in the North Caucasus. An enfeebled Boris Yeltsin negotiated from a position of weakness in August 1996 with Chechen nationalist leader Aslan Maskhadov to sign a peace agreement in Khasavyurt, Dagestan.

Putin views the signing of the Khasavyurt Accords as a dreadful low point for Russia, one that he would remedy by launching the second Russo-Chechen war in the fall of 1999. Putin empowered himself though his reinvasion of an already devastated Chechnya and exploited the crisis of authority in the Russian Federation to his immense advantage. He has been continuously in power - as president or prime minister - ever since.

An economically and militarily renewed Russia under the rotating duo of Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, strengthened by copious energy sales to European Union states and metals to China, still managed to "lose" Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi's Libya during the Putin-Medvedev tenure. They have vowed that Bashar al-Assad's Syria - a steadfast Russian client dating from the Soviet era - will not be yet another domino in odious Western-engineered, regime-change schemes based upon the twin veneers of humanitarian intervention and liberal internationalism - concepts Russia's siloviki are deeply skeptical about.

Despite the significant blowback of retaliatory domestic Chechen terrorism reaching as far north as Moscow, replete with intermittent suicide bombings, the Kremlin succeeded in warding of any form of externally imposed intervention in Chechnya.

This hands-off approach by Western powers ceded to Russian ground forces and accompanying Chechen proxies a free hand to mount a scorched-earth campaign that included pulverizing the Chechen capital of Grozny - akin to the collective punishment by the Assad regime in restive parts of Homs, Aleppo, Idlib and Daraa.

Assad and his vindictive brother Maher have unsurprisingly been using artillery of similar or identical Russian provenance to that used against the populace in Chechnya.

Under Putin, Russian and local authorities mostly successfully suppressed press access to the Chechen Republic, to the point where the Chechen cause is largely forgotten in the West, relegated to the chaos of the post-Soviet 1990s. During Yeltsin's drunken oversight of the 1994-1996 conflict, Western journalists ran amok in Chechnya, reporting the humanitarian catastrophe mostly freely. When Putin struck back against the rebels three years on, one of his key takeaways from the mismanagement of the earlier war was to control media access to the front at every level possible.

Assad, feeling Western powers were against him from the start, has given the foreign press two options highly reminiscent of the Putin playbook: sign up for the occasional regime-orchestrated dog-and-pony show or risk death by entering the territory illegally with erratic bands of rebel fighters. Both Putin and Assad's clumsy but brutal, un-evolved counter-insurgency tactics have had a similar result. They have undermined nationalist-leaning rebel commanders and emboldened the more strident Islamist and outright salafi-jihadi fighters.

To counter the demolishing of Grozny and therefore eliminate the visual evidence of its intensely painful recent history, Moscow gaudily rebuilt the town at breakneck speed. But as the Kremlin began to reassert its grip over Grozny, the insurgency it knew and thought it had soundly defeated had become decentralized, spreading far and wide across the region. Russia had relentlessly chipped away at Chechen ethno-linguistic nationalism with deadly effect.

The result has given rise to a much broader Islamist insurgency calling itself the Caucasus Emirate, led by an ambitious Islamist commander called "Emir" Doku Umarov. The Kremlin successfully crushed the dream of an independent Chechen state and this victory gave birth to the dream of an Islamic state stretching from the Caspian Sea nearly to the shores of the Black Sea.

In Syria today, a rebellion that began with men claiming to fight for a new Syria free of Ba'athist dictatorship now increasingly shares the battlefield with men seeking to carve out a strict Sunni Islamic state in traditionally pluralist Syria.

Russia, with its decades of battling well-funded Islamist insurgencies in Afghanistan and Chechnya, also believes Western policy makers are naive about the genuine religio-political dynamics of the Muslim world and that both Russia and the West will face an unforeseen salafi-jihadi terrorist blowback from the collective Arab uprisings.

Russia and China in their role as historic land-based empires have had perennially insecure peripheries plagued by irredentist minorities with recurring nationalist movements, and are unlikely to acquiesce to any Western-led intervention initiative of any sort.

To onlookers, Moscow and Beijing may appear to be showing solidarity with fellow authoritarians or simply fearing the loss of established economic interests. They view themselves, however, as defenders of the infallible precept of national sovereignty against the perceived threat of internationalist intervention projects - with one eye on their own internal colonies in Chechnya and Tibet. Preserving the status quo in Syria has become their new "red line".

That Putin was the first world leader to phone George W Bush after the 9/11 attacks in New York was not happenstance. Russian leaders were eager to conflate their ongoing war against separatists in the troubled Caucasus with the advent of the sudden, boundless American-led "war on terror". The United States greatly tamped down its critiques of Russia's brutal tactics in Chechnya in exchange for Russian cooperation in the then new global war.

Russia seeks to fend off any form of military intervention anywhere in its present or former spheres of influence, with Syria now chiefly among these interests. Thus far, China has followed suit with its stated policy of non-interference in Syria, indicative of its own anxiety regarding outside meddling in the nagging Taiwan and Tibet questions.

The deleterious effects of the two Chechen wars reverberate in press reports in Syria to this day, with unverified accounts of "Chechens" being among the foreign fighters streaming toward the front lines in Syria. The Russian government and its security services have for years propagated the idea that Chechens are among the most deadly and widely dispersed of transnational jihadis.

From Pakistani generals depicting tales of dead Chechens identified following counter-insurgency operations in North Waziristan to US Marines believing they were in battle against Chechen nationals in al-Anbar Governorate in Iraq, the cliche of the borderless, bloodthirsty Chechen fighter has now spread to Syria.

What these reports often fail to mention is that Syria, like Iraq, Jordan and Turkey, has a Chechen diaspora dating back to the czarist conquest of the Caucasus that took place during the 19th century and in which Chechens were pushed into the territories of the former Ottoman empire.

In late January, Asia Times Online met a "fixer" for the Free Syrian Army in Antakya, Turkey, who was an ethnic Chechen indigenous to northwestern Syria. He was dually proud of being both a Syrian and a Chechen. In the highly fractious Levant region, such an encounter is not at all unusual.

Despite the reports emanating from northern Syria, the archetype of the roaming Chechen jihadi may have finally outlived its usefulness. In the lead up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, to the west of Chechnya, the Kremlin has gone to great pains to portray Chechnya as a stable, revitalized constituent republic led by Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin's strongman in the Caucasus. Nonetheless, the meme of the "Chechen trace" promoted for years by the FSB, the successor organization to the Soviet KGB, persists.

While Russia was effectively thrown out of Iraq during the Anglo-American invasion of 2003, incurring huge financial losses in terms of arms and energy, it is trying to move back into Iraq via its principal state weapons-systems exporter, Rosoboronexport. A recent arms deal reportedly worth US$4.2 billion with the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been in the works, which demonstrates Moscow's strong desire for influence in the new Arab order.

On November 10, Reuters reported a story about the very Byzantine nature of the Rosoboronexport deal, stating that Maliki's office had cancelled or at least postponed the deal while it examined allegations of graft; at the same time, the acting defense minister, Sadoon al-Dulaimi, insisted the deal was to go ahead as planned.

Dulaimi then told a press conference that Iraq needed to "diversify its sources" in order to avoid over reliance on any one supplier (ie the United States), and to undermine the influence of the well-armed militia politics endemic to Iraq's fissiparous political system, according to Voice of America.

With Syria already very much dependent on legacy Soviet arms makes and models, there is nothing to indicate Moscow wouldn't continue to sell weapons systems to a post-Assad Damascus as it is trying to do in a post-Saddam Iraq. Maliki is a swing voter between American military expansionism in the Middle East and the Kremlin's struggle to stay relevant in an Arab world that is radically reordering itself.

Unlike Iran, Iraq cannot stand 100% unflinchingly behind Assad because of Baghdad's still being heavily tethered to the United States military-industrial complex. Washington is still very much the Maliki government's number-one arms supplier ahead of Moscow. Within the US bureaucracy however, these priorities between ideological humanitarianism and cold military realpolitik eventually collide.

While the US Congress can busily bash and sanction an entity like Rosoboronexport for arming the Syrian and Iranian regimes, the Pentagon's procurers have no such ideological luxury because they require their Cold War foes to supply the wobbly Afghan Air Force with Mi-17 helicopters in order to enable an American exit from Afghanistan.

On May 9, Bloomberg News quoted Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington DC, as describing the highly counterproductive fissure over the Rosoboronexport conundrum between a sanction-happy congress and a desperately pragmatic Pentagon as "... an embarrassing dilemma."

The present international security architecture dating from the ashes of World War II will ensure that - with the entrenched schism between the US, UK and France on one side and Russia (followed by China) on the other - the Syrian war will become as intractable as possible before coming to what will likely be a very bloody resolution.

It also has the possibility of attaining a more problematic regional dimension of formally pulling in the peripheries of neighboring states such as Lebanon and Turkey, somewhat analogous to the diffusion of insurgency from being firmly rooted in Chechen nationalism to a pulling in a swath of neighboring republics in the name of forming a Islamic emirate across the whole of the North Caucasus.

And just as jihadi activists in Persian Gulf monarchies funneled Wahhabi money and fighters into the Caucasus to combat Russian "infidels" in the 1990s and early 2000s, they do so now with Syria, the key difference perhaps being that this is now being done openly with their state security apparatuses coupled with the consent of Western intelligence agencies.

With the rise of political and sectarian violence in Lebanon's North and Bekaa Governorates, shells being lobbed into Turkey's vulnerable southern provinces and a sharp rise in PKK activity across the region, this frightening scenario may already be in the process of being realized.

Derek Henry Flood is a freelance journalist specializing in the Middle East and South and Central Asia and has covered many of the world's conflicts since 9/11 as a frontline reporter. He blogs at the-war-diaries.com. Follow Derek on Twitter @DerekHenryFlood

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