In the aftermath of Russian airstrikes against ISIS, there have been increasing warnings that Syria could be to Russia what Afghanistan was to the Soviet Union. Is that really the case?

A child inspects a site hit by what activists said was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar el-Asaad at Arbin town in Damascus countryside. Photo: Reuters

On the last day in September, the upper house of the Russian parliament unanimously approved President Vladimir Putin’s request to deploy Russian armed forces outside the country. Shortly thereafter, it was reported that the Russian Aerospace Forces (which include the Russian Air Force) had begun attacking the positions of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

In the words of Putin, the fight against terrorists must be proactive — otherwise “they will surely come to Russia.” That’s open to debate, but not even the Russian leader’s fiercest critics can deny that long before Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian conflict, ISIS had already earmarked the North Caucasus — and Russia as a whole — as a target. That’s something that Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups have never done before.

The ISIS threat is not only about radical Islam spreading from the Middle East. In November and December last year, some North Caucasian jihadists swore allegiance to Islamic State’s latter-day “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The “inner circle” of ISIS contains more than a few natives of the Greater Caucasus region (one of the most colorful characters, Tarkhan Batirashvili, hails from Georgia). Islamic State is by no means the only force opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — and besides fighting him they are also fighting each other.

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There are many anti-Assad groups (such as Jabhat Al-Nusra which is also fighting ISIS) with radical Islamist slogans on their banners. If Assad does indeed fall, do not expect the ideals of European democracy to spring forth in this particular part of the world.

Russian roulette: The risks are rising

Putin’s seemingly impromptu initiative was evidently well-rehearsed and well-prepared. What is also clear is that Moscow’s interventionist campaign in Syria is fraught with risks. In the standoff between Russia and ISIS, the once dominant rhetoric has given way to armed confrontation, adding fuel to the arguments of those who champion the “liberation of the Caucasus” from "Moscow's dictates" within and outside of Russia.

It is clearly a propaganda stunt, replete with intimidating statements as is customary for any terrorist organization. Nevertheless, the risks posed by opponents of Russian interventionism should not be underestimated.

But does it mean that Syria 2015 promises to be a repeat of Afghanistan 1979 for the Kremlin? As soon as news broke of the Federation Council’s decision, the information space was overflowing with parallels between the two events.

Three reasons why comparisons with Afghanistan are premature

Such comparisons no doubt can attract online clicks, but they have little analytical value.

First, the extent of Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict is not strictly defined. For the time being, the strategy is air raids without ground operations. Whether Moscow can stay on the right side of this “red line” is difficult to predict, since armed conflict creates its own logic with the power to wreck even the most carefully laid plans.

But as long as there is no army in Syria performing its “international duty,” parallels with Afghanistan are inappropriate. At the very least, they are premature.

Second, Afghanistan in 1979 was a Cold War crucible, where not only different interests and coalitions clashed, but two socio-political ideologies. Russia is no longer in the business of spreading Communist and revolutionary ideals around the world.

Its approach today is more conservative and guarded — some might even say reactionary. But in any case the focus today is more on preserving the status quo and “freezing the conflict.” Only if that fails (as happened in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014) will Moscow raise the political stakes and switch from being reactive to proactive.

Third, unlike the Soviet Union, modern Russia lacks the resources to compete with the United States on the global arena that stretches from Cuba and Nicaragua to Afghanistan — whatever anyone says. Its interests are limited mostly to the “near abroad” (i.e. the Commonwealth of Independent States). Any involvement further afield (Syria, for instance) is dictated primarily by security considerations, both internal and in the immediate vicinity.

Jihadism today poses a serious threat in Central Asia, particularly Tajikistan, which is heavily impacted by the turbulence in Afghanistan. Similar risks exist in the Greater Caucasus, including Russia’s own North Caucasus regions.

The lesser evil?

Moscow’s choice is not between two scenarios — one good, the other bad. The choice is between two different sets of problems. Russia can either passively wait for Damascus to fall, statehood in the Middle East to collapse and the jihadist threat (not necessarily the one that comes only from ISIS, but also from other radical movements) to encroach upon Russia’s borders, or it can preventively intervene. Neither option is ideal. Both are saturated with risk.

Incidentally, Russia could become actively involved in the Central Asia, too, especially in the aforementioned Tajikistan. It was no accident that the text of the Federation Council’s decision on the use of military force abroad set no geographical or chronological framework.

Read Q&A with Columbia University's Robert Legvold: "Syria is now in the middle of a new, more dangerous Cold War"

But searching for hidden “imperial” ambitions is futile. The growing instability of the situation, coupled with Moscow’s complex relations with the West (and lack of mutual trust with Washington), is forcing risky and contradictory decisions to be made. Syria is seen as an opportunity if not to fully normalize relations with the West, then to at least return them to the realm of pragmatism.

The common threat posed by radical jihadists, along with the rising chaos in this strategically important region, could narrow the differences between the two sides. But for Washington and its allies, would a stronger Russia outweigh the benefits of a weaker ISIS? It may be a rhetorical question, but the key to international stability lies in the answer.

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