x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Russia uses Boston bombs to argue for Assad's survival

Russia has a grand aim to finally force the Americans to conclude that there are no bad or good terrorists in Syria, or elsewhere.

There has been a lot of confusion about the two alleged Boston Marathon bombers and their connection to the simmering conflict in Chechnya, on Russia's southern border.

Were the two young men, both ethnic Chechens who had never lived in their ancestral homeland, radicalised by jihadists fighting for independence from Russia?

The Russian government suspected as much, having warned the FBI about the elder brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The FBI did indeed interview him, but found no evidence of terrorism, and failed to register that he had spent six months in Dagestan, the neighbouring republic to Chechnya, last year.

But if they were fighting for Chechen independence, why did they set out to kill Americans?

The enemy of the Caucasus Emirate, as the Chechen jihadists style themselves, is the Russian state. The Emirate (which only exists online) has disowned the actions of the brothers, not surprising since last year it formally abandoned attacks on civilians (as opposed to supporters of the Russian-installed regime of Ramzan Kadyrov).

These questions have spawned many conspiracy theories, loudly proclaimed by the two brothers' family in Russia. According to these theories, the brothers were set up by the Russian government, to prove that all Chechens are dangerous, thus paving the way for the most draconian security arrangements at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, close to the Caucasus Mountains, in February next year. Alternatively they were set up by the Americans, for purposes which are not clear.

What is more likely is that the brothers were simply confused and alienated in their adopted homeland. They had been abandoned in America by their parents, who returned home to Russia.

The elder one came to the United States as a high school student, too late readily to adjust to American life, and perhaps unable to cope with his multiple identities, fell under the spell of radical jihadism and dragged his younger brother with him. With their crude bombs, they imagined themselves as fabled Chechen warriors who have galloped through the pages of Russian literature since the 1820s.

There is, however, a real Russian connection to their crime. It exists in the mind of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and links Boston, through Chechnya, to the civil war in Syria. In Mr Putin's view, the Chechen struggle for independence from Russia was a stage in the break-up by Sunni Muslim militants of the Eurasian state system. It began with the US-supported mujahideen destroying the Afghan state, leading to the creation of Al Qaeda.

The Chechen bid for independence, Mr Putin has said, could have led to the break-up of Russia, where one seventh of the population is Muslim. By reconquering the Chechen territories in 1999-2000 and installing the Kadyrov family, former rebels turned Moscow loyalists, as rulers, he claims to have foiled the "Balkanisation" of Russia.

In Mr Putin's view, the US has been doing the opposite. It has allowed Islamist governments to take over in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt; it has left Iraq in a state of low-level war; and now it wants to oust the Syrian leader, Bashar Al Assad, a Kremlin ally and a rare surviving example of a secular leader in the region.

For the past two years, Russia has helped the Syrian leader to follow Mr Putin's playbook for defeating the jihadists. Thanks to its diplomatic support, the Kremlin has made sure that outside forces are impotent in the Syria crisis.

Mr Assad loses no opportunity to dismiss the rebel forces as Al Qaeda placemen, just as the Kremlin took to calling the Chechen rebels foreign "Wahhabis". There are strong suspicions that Syrian intelligence even nurtured the jihadist forces (which in the previous decade they had funnelled into Iraq to fight the Americans) into the organisation now known as the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat Al Nusra, to give the rebels a bad name.

Mr Assad is even using the domino theory: in a TV interview on Syrian independence day he warned Jordan that if it continued to support the rebels, it would be the next to face their fire.

Syria, of course, is not Chechnya. The Chechen conflict, for all its brutality and bloodshed, had few international repercussions. But every country in the region is affected by what is happening in Syria. Also, the armed force available to President Assad is nothing like the firepower that Mr Putin assembled to crush the chaotic and faction-ridden Chechen government in 1999.

The false parallel between Chechnya and Syria has not stopped the Kremlin from using the Boston Marathon bombing as a further argument against the arming of the anti-Assad rebels. Vladimir Kotlyar, a Russian foreign ministry official, told Kommersant FM, that there were an estimated 600 to 6,000 Chechens fighting on the side of the Syrian rebels. "What happened in Boston," he said, "should finally force the Americans to conclude that there are no bad or good terrorists, there is no 'ours' and 'theirs' among terrorists."

The Russian official seemed to have two things on his mind: to chastise the FBI for failing to take Russian warnings about Tamerlan Tsarnaev seriously, as if he was merely a threat to Moscow and thus not worth bothering with.

But more important, he was underlining the Russian view that the jihadists are the "mailed fist" of the rebels, not a subsidiary force that could somehow be outmanoeuvred by the Free Syrian Army forces backed by the West. "If, God forbid, the rebels win, they (the Americans) will be dealing with completely different countries," he said.

Given the Damascus regime's setbacks, it seems unlikely that Russian officials can honestly expect it to survive, or that Mr Assad will be part of a transition government. But it looks like they are trying to have the best of both worlds: having supported him for so long, stacking up so much bitterness in the process, when the chaotic end of the regime comes, they will be able to say: "Didn't we warn you that all the rebels were terrorists?"

 

aphilps@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @aphilps