With the crisis in Syria seemingly never ending, the question of Russia’s influence in the world has resurfaced. The former Soviet state has been playing its hand in the Arab world with an eye to widening its influence.
While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be glad of the Slavic support, the history of Muslim/Russian relations inside the ex communist state shows he would be wise to be wary.However, with foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, announcing earlier this month that his “military advisers… have kept close watch over its [Syria’s] chemical arsenal”, the Middle East may already be in too deep.
Lavrov may have said “military advisers” but most Middle East watchers suspected that Russian intelligence services had a greater part to play. The Federal Security Service (FSB), formerly the KGB, has a fearsome reputation, particularly when dealing with Muslims.
The secret war in Chechnya, the largely Muslim area of Russia, has seen dissidents as far away as Istanbul and Dubai assassinated in recent years by the FSB.
Earlier this month, claims that the Russian intelligence services had infiltrated mosques in the volatile Islamic region re-emerged when one Twitter user began to post about the allegations.
@Turk4Syria, an online activist, argued that mosques in Chechnya were “basically a department of the Russian secret service”, accusing the imam of the Ahmad Kadyrov Mosque of ordering the assassination of Shamsuddin Batukayev, former head of the Shari’a Courts in the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. The claims are supported by the Kavkaz Center, an ostensibly independent news network, covering the region.
Moscow has been keen to back more secular figures in the province, such as current Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, despite his brutal tactics when putting down an “Islamic insurgency” in the Russian republic.
It is a course of action by the Russians with strong echoes of their current line on Syria. With the Syrian Oppositionincreasingly finding support from ‘Jihadist’ fighters with extremist religious opinions, Russia has held out as a supporter of President Assad, despite his vicious assaults on civilians.
Meanwhile, Russian intelligence services are rumored to be prevalent in the Levantine state, a presence hinted at periodically by Moscow’s politicians.
Back in their own country, Jihadist fighters have also flocked to Russia’s Islamic region, many of whom originally fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. Moscow has sought to underline the ideological split between these hardcore religious fighters and their more moderate counterparts in Chechnya. For, after all, with the province in a perpetual state of flux internally, the move for an independent state stands little chance of success.
Once again the parallels with Syria are startling; and so, while other international players may be on virgin territory when dealing with the Syrian crisis, Russia is most certainly an old hand.