The Syrian crisis may have a dangerous destabilizing impact on the North Caucasus unless Moscow and Washington agree to cooperate against extremist forces in the region.

It remains to be seen how the Syrian crisis will backlash on Russia's North Caucasus. Photo: Reuters

After the announcement of the new Russian chemical weapons initiative for Syria, the civil war in that country seems to be receiving less coverage than at any time in the past two years. Yet, the bloodbath continues, and Moscow and Washington still advocate conflicting narratives for Syria while supporting opposing parties. At the same time, new fighters keep infiltrating the Syrian opposition forces on a daily basis, posing serious security risks for the entire region.

Generally skeptical of the Arab Spring, Moscow continues to make the case that by overthrowing regional authoritarian regimes, it is jihadi extremists that become empowered not the pro-democracy forces. In addition to the common sense Russian interests in Syria often cited by “talking heads” on TV, there’s one crucial facet that feeds the Russian rationale to keep the opposition forces out of power.

Rooted in Russia’s domestic affairs, it drives, to a certain degree, the country’s policy on this issue: the potentially dreadful impact of the Syrian crisis and the Middle Eastern turmoil in general on its “soft underbelly” – the Caucasus. Moscow fears that opening the Pandora’s box of radical Islamist movements can exacerbate instability in the Caucasus, where potentially dangerous political and social movements already are present. This is something Putin wouldn’t dare to publicize but it is what many analysts in Russia and the United States observe and agree upon.

The Global Terrorism Index for 2011 ranked Russia ninth overall by the number of people killed and injured as a result of terrorist attacks over the year. The dynamics deteriorated in 2012 and unofficial records report 700 killed, with the number of victims potentially as high as 1,225. Moscow is using a mixture of tools to clamp down on the terror networks but its grip of the region isn’t so tight. The growing uncertainty about the security future of the Caucasus is also fed by the growing presence of radical Islamic elements in the region.

Choosing the best ideological solution to the problem, Russian officials have opted for promotion of the “traditional Islam,” as opposed to the “radical (Salafi) Islam.” Fostering homegrown imams and theologians to counter the fundamentalist narrative from foreign preachers coming to the Caucasus region has been a priority for the local authorities. For now, about 5 percent of Russian Muslims openly claim to be Salafis, but that number is subject to rapid change.

Therefore, any potential penetration of radical ideas from abroad will thus be ideological fuel to spread the existing trends, which are already alarming. That scenario is fraught with severe security threats not only for the volatile North Caucasus but also for the Volga region, where this trend has also been developing.

Russian preoccupation with this issue has been increasing due to potential further consolidation of existing ideological and financial ties between Al Qaeda and the extremists in the North Caucasus. These ties have been mutual, as Al Qaeda has been allocating its resources and sending its instructors to hot spots in the North Caucasus since the mid-1990s. Nowadays, sympathizers from the North Caucasus travel to combat Assad’s forces shoulder-to-shoulder with their brothers in arms in the Al-Nusra Front and other extremist groups operating in Syria.

While experts make assessments whether the number of the volunteers is calculated in dozens or hundreds, the danger of them returning to continue their version of jihad in the Russian North Caucasus is real and scary. The stakes are indeed high: if the situation develops according to the worst case scenario, the region will likely to go through an unfortunate transformation from the current “internal abroad” state to “Eurasia’s new grey zone” threatening Russia with a grave challenge of an existential nature.

While Russian concerns are legitimate, Moscow should also have a clear vision of how to address these problems. For now, many experts agree that the Arab Spring influenced the Caucasus via three major channels: ideological, social and informational. If addressing social problems in the Caucasus is primarily Russia’s domestic concern, preventing ideological and informational threats can become a potentially important bilateral issue for Moscow and Washington.

Right now, the two nations have an ambiguous record of cooperation in that area. On one hand, the U.S. State Department lists the Caucasus Emirate among top terrorist organizations; on the one hand, American companies provide IP-addresses for its prime information tool – the “Kavkaz Center.”

Nevertheless, this area provides ample space for both countries to pool their efforts in at least clamping down on the information threats from extremist groups. The two sides have a choice of either letting the great power rivalry syndrome prevail or taking advantage of this window of opportunity in the face of a common global threat.

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