Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Common Enemies

To better understand at least some of what motivates countries like Russia and China to take the positions they do on Syria, it helps to be able to see things in a broader perspective and not just focus on the dynamics of a civil war between the Assad regime and internal opponents. A front page story in today’s WSJ provided a good look at why this conflict is about much more than just who will rule Syria. Meet the Syrian Rebel Commander Assad, Russia and the U.S. All Fear :

The arrival of Mr. Batirashvili, known by his Arab nom de guerre Emir Umar al-Shishani, comes as other ethnic Chechens and Russian-speaking Islamists have for the first time responded in large numbers to the call of an international jihad in Syria.

Fighting in tightknit groups, the men have awed and repelled fellow jihadists with their military prowess and brutality, talking to one another in Russian or Chechen and to outsiders in the formal Arabic of the Quran, according to accounts of fellow rebels. Some have carved out fiefdoms inside Syria, enraging locals by collecting taxes and imposing Islamic Shariah law.

Even by the gruesome standards of the war in Syria, their rise has become notable for its unusual violence. One rebel from Russia's Dagestan, for instance, was chased out of the country after he appeared in an online video where he beheaded three locals for supporting the Syrian government, according to analysts with ties to the rebel groups. And just last week, Mr. Batirashvili's group apologized for mistakenly beheading a wounded soldier who actually turned out to be an allied rebel commander.

The prominence of the rebels on the battlefield has turned the conflict into a geopolitical struggle between the U.S. and Russia, which has long accused the West of ignoring the danger of Islamists in the troubled Chechen region, where an insurgency has been active for decades.

Lest you think this is only a concern for the Russians:

While people close to Mr. Batirashvili say he views the war as a chance to strike a blow against one of the Kremlin's allies, he has also talked of his hatred of America. In a recent interview with a jihadi website, he described Americans as "the enemies of Allah and the enemies of Islam."

And while the fighting is going on in Syria today, future repercussions may be felt in many more places:

U.S. intelligence estimates that as many as 17,000 foreigners are fighting on the side of rebels in Syria. About half fight for the ISIS; of those, officials in Russia say, at least a thousand are from the country's North Caucasus and from Europe, where many Chechens have sought asylum since the collapse of the Soviet Union and hostilities in Chechnya in the 1990s.

While the Russian-speaking Islamists represent a fraction of the total rebels, many have risen to positions of power because of their history of fighting a standing army in Russia, according to analysts.

Kremlin officials say that these fighters are picking up more military experience, as well as contacts to Arab financiers who bankrolled uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa.

"One day, it's highly likely many of these fighters will return to their home republics in the Caucasus, which will clearly generate a heightened security threat to that region," said Charles Lister, analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.

The Chechen region has come under scrutiny lately in the U.S. in the wake of this year's Boston Marathon bombing. The alleged bomber on trial, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has roots in Chechnya and posted videos online recruiting fighters to Syria.

Mr. Batirashvili's ability to work with foreign jihadis appears to have been vital to his rise within the ISIS, which has become the main umbrella group for foreign fighters in Syria, including Saudis, Kuwaitis, Egyptians and even Chinese, according to analysts.

There is no doubt that the Assad regime is odious and the human rights records of the Russian and Chinese governments who support it leave much to be desired. But sometimes the choice isn’t between bad guys and good guys. It’s between bad guys and even worse guys. The West should not so quickly dismiss Russian and Chinese fears that the Islamist insurgency in Syria could spread to their countries. In fact, we should have similar concerns.

After 9/11, there was an opportunity for the major powers in the world-some democratic and some not-to set aside differences and work together to address a threat they all face to some extent or another. Unfortunately, that opportunity was largely missed. Now, that lack of cooperation and understanding shows up in places like Syria where our divergent goals are likely going to make things more dangerous for all of us in the long run.