War in Syria (Yury Kozyrev/Novaya gazeta)
“The Russian special services have controlled” the flow of Islamist radicals from Russia to Syria “from the very beginning,” according to Elena Milashina of “Novaya gazeta.” They haven’t interfered and sometimes have assisted it, seeing “a threat to state security only in those who try to return from this war.”
In a 4500-word article in yesterday’s edition, Milashina reports on her extensive research into this problem, highlighting that in the North Caucasus, many are glad to see the radicals go to Syria on the basis of the principle that it is better they should be fighting there than inside the borders of the Russian Federation.
“Since 2011,” she writes, “hundreds if not thousands of [Russian] citizens, men and women, Muslims from birth and converts to Islam, educated and not very, specialists and laborers, the well-off and the poor, militants of the Caucasus underground the siloviki fighting them, and whole families with children have been going to a country where a destructive civil war is going on between the government and the opposition, between the Alawites and radical Sunni groups.”
ISIS, Milashina points out, is only one of the groups in the Syrian war; others are allied with it, and still a third group is opposed. And she notes that Moscow declared ISIS a terrorist organization only in Decembeer 2014 and has not yet given that status to others, thus complicating the situation.
To explore this flow of people and the involvement of Russia’s special services in it, the Moscow journalist went to the village of Novosasitli in Daghestan’s Khasavyurt district. Since 2011, 22 of its 2500 residents have gone to fight in Syria. Five have died and five have returned home.
That figure is almost one percent of the population, and far larger than the share of the population in Yekaterinburg who have “volunteered” to fight in the Donbas. From that Urals city, about 500 people have gone to Ukraine out of a population of 1.5 million – or about one in every 3,000.
The most frequently cited reason people give for others going to Syria is the hadith which says a Muslim must take part in a holy war, properly declared, if he or she hopes to go to paradise. But many go for money, as a result of personal problems, or because they have been fighting for years and want to continue to fight regardless of where.
The FSB is only too happy to see those who have been fighting Russian forces in the Caucasus leave the country and fight in Syria. Indeed, Milashina says, its officers have played a role in opening “a green corridor” to allow such militants to leave; and the authorities clearly see the departure of such people as a key to the pacification of the North Caucasus.
“Over the course of the years of the ‘Syrian’ war, the activity of the Caucasus underground has fallen by a factor of two. Everyone confirms this: the security services, experts, human rights activists, and residents of the region,” the journalist writes. Consequently it is likely that “from the point of view of our special services, this is a real achievement.”
The Russian authorities have not been able to resolve any of the reasons why people in the North Caucasus go into the underground, and people continue to do so. But with the war in Syria, such individuals have an alternative destination and enemy: Syria and the opponents of Islamist groups there.
However, this trend has consequences which the authorities didn’t expect or want. “The uncontrolled ‘Syrian’ virus has spread widely through the country” and affects people “far from our Caucasus. We have an epidemic, the victims of which are those like young Varya Karaulova,” the Moscow State University student [an ethnic Russian – Ed.] who tried to go to fight for ISIS.
“From the point of view of the special services,” however, such people “are not victims,” Milashina says; “they are a threat.” And that highlights a problem for the future: the special services are not worried about people leaving to fight in Syria, but they are very worried about those who come back and who will again fight Russia.