Are there any connections between the Russian military campaign in Syria and the terrorist threat in the turbulent North Caucasus?

The debris of the car exploded outside a police check-point in Daghestan. Photo: RIA Novosti

Last week, fighters representing the radical Vilayat Kavkaz terrorist group, which recently swore its allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), published a video that threatened Russia with new terrorist attacks.

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In the video, part of which was released by The Jerusalem Post, a member of the group urges its allies "to unite and spread."

This video looks like another piece of terrorist propaganda, but it is important to understand the relationship between the situation in the North Caucasus and Russia's involvement in Syria.

Turbulent North Caucasus

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, for many years the North Caucasus was known as the most problematic and dangerous Russian region. Virtually every newscast started with tragic reports from the North Caucasian republics, and small settlements, such as Beslan, Kizlyar and Budennovsk, were the center of attention for the world’s media.

For a long time, the majority of Russians associated this region with terrorism, conflicts, refugees and instability. The North Caucasus was perceived as a peculiar foreign enclave where Russian laws barely applied, and even when they did, there were major adjustments due to "local idiosyncrasies."

Things have started to change in the last several years. First, armed resistance in the region has gone down significantly. According to the estimates of the National Anti-Terrorist Committee of Russia, last year the number of crimes related to terrorist activity decreased by 2.5 times in the North Caucasus.

The data provided by the Russian authorities and non-government organizations are frequently quite different. Still, according to the data of Kavkaz Uzel, an online resource specializing in compiling statistics and monitoring armed incidents and human rights violations in the North Caucasus, in 2015 the number of terrorist attacks went down by 33 percent compared with 2014. The overall number of people who died or were injured as a result of acts of terrorism was almost cut in half.

Second, last year the Caucasus Emirate (founded in October 2007) that had been considered the main threat to Russia's national security for many years virtually ceased its activities. The Emirate was the only Russian terrorist organization blacklisted by the U.S. Department of State, and the organization's activities were labeled as a threat to U.S. security as well.

The Emirate and some of its affiliates repeatedly threatened to jeopardize the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and destabilize the situation in Southern Russia and other regions of the country. Nevertheless, the last major activity for which the Emirate claimed responsibility occurred in December 2014. In April of last year, its leader Aliaskhab Kebekov, the successor of the notorious Doku Umarov, was killed in Dagestan.

Third, regional elites in the North Caucasus, especially the Head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, now position themselves as the most loyal supporters of the Kremlin and the defenders of Russian national interests. If back in the 1990s Chechnya was generally perceived as Russia's Achilles heel and Chechens as the most troublesome ethnicity, presently they are close to being hailed as Russian President Vladimir Putin's military vanguard.

Syrian factor in Russia’s North Caucasus 

However, the interest in the North Caucasus has not subsided, but it is supported mostly by strictly local agenda as opposed to the Syrian issue.

For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia is participating in military activities outside the post-Soviet space, and this involvement has already separated Moscow from other "interested parties," particularly Turkey and the Persian Gulf monarchies.

These countries and the armed groups that enjoy their support use information warfare to portray Russia as an ally of Shiite Iran and an enemy to Sunnis or even as the adversary of the entire Islamic world.

These stereotypes overlap with Russia's image based on its involvement in the Tadjik civil war of 1992-97, two anti-separatist campaigns in Chechnya and the "pacification" of the North Caucasus. The situation is even more complicated due to the involvement of many people from the North Caucasus and neighboring areas in the Syrian conflict either by joining ISIS or participating in other jihadist organizations.

For example, since November 2014 some North Caucasus groups have sworn allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But declarations of fealty are nothing but symbolic acts. ISIS fighters showed their readiness to go beyond that by committing acts of terrorism.

Shortly before the New Year, on December 29, 2015, terrorists attacked a group of tourists who were visiting the historic Naryn-kala site in Derbent (in south Dagestan). A Russian border guard was killed. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.

In the middle of Feb. 2015, ISIS supporters confirmed that they were behind the attack on a police station in Dzhemikent village of Derbent District. Two people were killed.

Does it mean that Moscow’s decision to get involved in the military confrontation in the Middle East backfired with a new rise of instability in the Russian North Caucasus?

This take on the situation seems rather convincing, but falls apart upon closer consideration. If nothing else, such a stance is an oversimplification, especially since ISIS started infiltrating Russia almost a year before the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament approved the military operation in Syria.

North Caucasian insurgents fell short on social and political support inside the region and felt the pressure of the authorities and law enforcement, so the fighters then shifted their focus to cooperating with well-known international terrorist structures and joining the terrorist "brands" that earned their popularity from media coverage.  

However, equating possible regional threats to the scheming of some outside foes would be a big mistake and a definite oversimplification. One should not forget that radical Islam manifested itself in the North Caucasus before ISIS started its terrorist onslaught in Iraq and way before the Syrian conflict.

Thus, the roots of the current situation in North Caucasian republics go deeper than certain group's proclivity towards radical political action and can be traced to systemic internal issues.

Roots of radicalism in the North Caucasus

The number of human rights violations in the region is still high. For the North Caucasus, the situation is particularly significant, especially due to vast differences between the general political environment in the region and the rest of Russia with no guerrilla terrorist network and a much smaller number of latent ethnic conflicts.

Therefore, many human rights protection standards are different for the North Caucasus. At the same time, the disproportionate use of state violence and failure to follow the law when applied to those who are meant to uphold it can foster social and political negative attitudes among the population.

Failure to guarantee basic human and civil rights and taking liberties with countering radicalism and extremism often prop those who are trying to recruit among the disgruntled locals. And political history and practical management of North Caucasus know a few instances of applying broad definitions of extremists and opponents of the Russian state.

Another pressing regional issue is the rapport between the authorities and Muslim communities that do not submit to the jurisdiction of the republican Muslim Spiritual Boards. The leadership is not nearly doing enough to prevent grievances and malcontent, while the use of excessive violence by the authorities is perceived as the oppression of "true Islamic identity." Jihadists never fail to use such sentiment in their propaganda.

Thus, the North Caucasus is going through a rather peaceful period, but at the same time, we are observing active reformation of guerrilla terrorist forces.

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The "Sochi effect," which refers to the consequences of major successful anti-jihadist operations performed by the Russian police and Special Forces, cannot last forever. The extermination alone cannot ensure a strategic breakthrough.

Unresolved land issues, ethnic conflicts, intra-Islamic discussions, differences and conflicts, as well as the lack of transparency and inefficiency of secular authorities, all contribute to the environment that breeds radical sentiment, which has nothing to do with Syria.  

A completely separate issue is that some, albeit minimal, part of the Russian population is, for one reason or other, unsatisfied with the current social situation, which pushes these people to view Syrian and Iraqi jihadists as some sort of an "example." They do not need to be drafted by ISIS or come in close contact with al-Baghdadi to feel that way.

Therefore, in addition to resolving global foreign policy issues and creating a multipolar world, Moscow should also mind its "home base" and actively work to eliminate social, economic and humanitarian problems in the North Caucasus region.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.