Friday, 25 September 2015

Russia's Syria initiative and the exaggerated ISIS threat to Central Asia

Published in Analytical Articles

By Emil Aslan Souleimanov

September 25th, 2015, The CACI Analyst

Russia’s recent military engagement in Syria and calls for the establishment of an international coalition against the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) has produced renewed interest in Moscow’s policies toward the jihadist quasi-state. Against this background, while many have speculated about Moscow’s true intentions in the Middle East, relatively little attention has been paid to Moscow’s interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus in the context of its increasingly vocal rhetoric of fighting ISIS. Moscow is actively utilizing the risks and threats stemming from the ISIS to boost its clout in the near and far abroad. 

BACKGROUND: As Moscow’s confrontation with the U.S. continues over the crisis in Ukraine and Western-imposed sanctions on Russia, the nation’s elites and media have become vocal in their anti-Americanism. Part of the discourse in Russia is an assumption, shared by many top politicians, that ISIS is a U.S. project to redraw the geopolitical map of the Middle East, or that it is used by Washington to either boost America’s supremacy in this part of the world or destabilize Russia’s Muslim-dominated areas in the North Caucasus, as well as Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia.

Russian politicians have alternately referred to ISIS as a direct or indirect threat to Russia, both internal and external. For instance, according Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, “ISIS is our biggest enemy at the moment.” For Vladimir Putin, however, while ISIS has “posed an unprecedented threat to the international community, it still presents no direct threat to Russia,” other than that “our citizens are found there [in Syria], receive training and can show up on our territory … Yes, we do understand this, take this into consideration and work on it.” Indeed, according to Russian authorities, as many as 2,000 Russia-born jihadists, most of them presumably from the North Caucasus, have traveled to Syria to take part in the local jihad.

North Caucasians, particularly Chechens and Dagestanis, have asserted themselves as an important part of the transnational jihadist force engaged in Syria’s northern provinces. Some prominent jihadist commanders, for instance the leader of ISIS’s North Syrian front, Omar al-Shishani, either stem from the North Caucasus, or from North Caucasian (particularly Chechen) diaspora communities in Georgia, Turkey, and Europe. If – or when – the war in Syria is over, some of them will likely return to their homeland to continue jihad on their native soil. This could considerably jeopardize the situation in the North Caucasus, where the insurgency has recently been on the defensive. Importantly, many North Caucasian jihadists have warned Moscow and the pro-Moscow regime in Chechnya of their plans to continue jihad upon their return to the North Caucasus. 

IMPLICATIONS: Alarmist analyses by members of Russia’s political and intellectual elites have frequently pointed to the imminent threat that ISIS poses to Central Asia. Under certain circumstances, these analyses maintain, the jihadist theocracy could endanger Russia’s political and military interests in the area between the Caspian Sea and the Chinese border. After all, bordering on Afghanistan to the south, this vast area is considered to be situated within the reach of transnational jihadist forces. Russia’s military presence in Tajikistan in general, and on the Tajik-Afghan border in particular, has been explained by the crucial need to safeguard the region, Russia’s “soft underbelly.” Hence, Moscow has recently pointed to Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as the region’s most vulnerable states in the event of a concentrated attack perpetrated by ISIS or its local allies.

Moscow has particularly alerted local elites to the increasing ISIS presence in Afghanistan. According to Lavrov, ISIS agents “have been spotted in northern Afghanistan, very close to Central Asia and therefore to Russia’s borders.” It is therefore in Russia’s best interest to “fight the extremists while they are still far away from Russia. If you don’t put a barrier against them, they won’t stop automatically.”

Against this backdrop, it is symptomatic that the Russian security services have done little to prevent their citizens from traveling to Syria. Since the early 2010s, jihadists have been relatively unrestrained in recruiting hundreds of volunteers – North Caucasians as well as Russia-based Central Asians and others – to a distant Middle Eastern country. It appears that Moscow has been interested in disposing of a large number of frustrated youth particularly from the North Caucasus. In fact, the exodus of North Caucasians to Syria-based jihadist groups, primarily Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, has considerably drained the insurgent groups operating in the North Caucasus.

Today, perhaps for the first time since the early 2000s, North Caucasian jihadists are experiencing a lack of interest from local youth in entering their groups. Despite the widely shared opinion that the returning jihadists may pose a serious threat to Russia’s internal security, the high lethality amid jihadist volunteers involved in Syria suggests that only a portion of them will return to the North Caucasus. Indeed, there is evidence that many unexperienced volunteers are killed within weeks of their deployment in combat. The experience of “Arab Afghans” suggests that having developed a sense of supra-ethnic Salafi-jihadist identity, many jihadists choose to move to other areas of jihadist violence, not necessarily to their homeland. Others marry local women and settle down in the countries where they traveled to fight; only part of them are willing to return to their native area. According to some observers, the ongoing armed conflict in Syria likely serves Moscow’s interests inasmuch as it helps it get rid of thousands of Russia-born jihadists, engaged in the distant war. Once individual jihadists seek to return to Russia, they will be easier for Russian intelligence services to trace and liquidate than the masses of jihadists that might otherwise have operated in the mountains and urban areas of their home region.

Most commentators have also coalesced over the fact that ISIS does not currently have a presence in Afghanistan. The local jihadist resistance is dominated by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Taliban; and al-Qaeda has been at odds with ISIS since its inception. Hypothetical attempts by ISIS to assert itself in Afghanistan, a distant country in which ISIS lacks a popular base, would lead to large-scale violence. A massive exodus of ISIS jihadists to Afghanistan is extremely unlikely due to ISIS’s lack of social, economic, and political roots in this Central Asian country, in contrast to the Taliban. For logistical and strategic reasons, including its lack of access to landlocked Afghanistan and its current preoccupation with the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields, the prospect of ISIS gaining a foothold in Afghanistan – and thereby threatening Central Asia – is highly unlikely in the years to come.

CONCLUSIONS: Rather than being concerned about ISIS posing a tangible threat to Russia’s (or Central Asia’s) internal or external security, Moscow is using ISIS as leverage to improve its standing in strategically located Central Asia, for instance by strengthening its military presence in the region. As Russia becomes less economically and politically attractive to Central Asian states due to its deepening economic crisis its controversial engagement in Ukraine, Russian elites are instrumentalizing the image of an ISIS threat to increase Russia’s profile as a determined force capable of defending its Central Asian allies. Indeed, since the onset of the Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Central Asian elites have grown increasingly suspicious of Moscow’s expansionism, its hybrid warfare in eastern Ukraine, and its rhetoric of protecting Russians abroad. Despite Moscow’s statements, the risk that ISIS poses to Central Asia is currently insignificant and this situation is unlikely to change in the years to come. Through its increased emphasis of the common – and immense – threat posed by ISIS, Moscow hopes to play an active role in bringing the “great powers” together to smash it, while downplaying the salience of Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis and eyeing a potential lifting of Western sanctions in return.

AUTHORS’ BIO: Emil Aslan Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of Individual Disengagement of Avengers, Nationalists, and Jihadists, co-authored with Huseyn Aliyev (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Peter Lang, 2007).

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