Russia in Syria: President Putin's Middle East adventure exposes terrorist threat now facing Moscow

Chechen rebels currently battling Bashar al-Assad have vowed to take their jihad home

“More than 2,000 fighters from Russia and ex-Soviet republics are in the territory of Syria. There is a threat of their return to us. So, instead of waiting for their return, we are better-off fighting them on Syrian territory.” This was Vladimir Putin, justifying air strikes by his forces in Syria.

We have also heard: “Isil [Isis] leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners – including Europeans and Americans – have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks. I know many Americans are concerned about these threats. I want to tell you that the United States of America is meeting them with strength and resolve.” So said Barack Obama, justifying air strikes on Syria and Iraq.

And then there was David Cameron. “There was a terrorist directing murder on our streets. I am not prepared to stand here in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on our streets and have to explain why I did not take the chance to prevent it when I could have done so. So I took decisive action to keep Britain safe,” he said, justifying air strikes in Syria to kill two British jihadists.

Not much difference in the sentiment and intent there, one would have thought. But the Kremlin’s military intervention in Syria has been presented in the West as part of a strategic offensive, as in Ukraine, to undercut Nato’s influence and destabilise its allies. In other words, “it’s all about us”.

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A picture depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin is splattered with eggs during a protest against Russian military operations in Syria, in Istanbul,

In reality, there are a whole range of issues driving Russian policy. Standing up to the West, as the Kremlin sees it, is just one of these. The demands of geopolitics has ensured that Syria has become an international arena, as the killing of the Iranian Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani near Aleppo on Thursday once again showed.

Nato’s answer, the much publicised announcement of increasing the size of its reaction force from 12,000 to 40,000, is irrelevant as far as Ukraine and Syria are concerned. The force will not be deployed for fighting in Ukraine, which is not a member of Nato, and certainly not in Syria. As a member state Turkey can ask for help under Article 5 of the Alliance’s treaty, but with the second-largest land force in Nato, it does not need troops.

A $500m (£326m) flagship American plan which was supposed to produce 5,000 fighters who would operate in Syria, from “moderate” rebels was quietly abandoned on Friday. It had proved a disaster, with fewer than 60 ready for the field. A separate American-trained group, the 30 Division, handed its weapons to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.

So we return to depending on an air war to counter the Syrian terrorist threat. The fact remains that if Britain and America are vulnerable to attacks by returning jihadists, then so is Russia, and the threat it faces is from an enemy far more implacable than those who had travelled from Western Europe and North America.

One of the two Britons killed in a British drone strike in Syria, Reyaad Khan, was plotting terrorist acts in Britain, said Mr Cameron. We understand that telephone calls had been tracked in which he had talked about various bombing plans last summer, none of which came to anything. No claim was made that the second Briton killed, Ruhul Amin, was involved in terrorist plots in the UK. 

There are a relatively small number of American nationals with the Islamists in Syria. One, calling himself Abu Muhammed al-Amriki, has posted “selfies” with prominent commanders. He was particularly proud of one with Abu Omar Al-Shishani, the northern commander of Isis.

Born Tarkhan Batirashvili in Georgia of an Orthodox Christian father and a Chechen Muslim mother, Shishani led Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, a group of around 3,000 fighters with a large contingent from the Caucasus, who earned the reputation of being the toughest and most violent among the rebels. 

This is the terrorist threat facing Russia. Shishani had taken part in the short war against the Russians five years ago as a sergeant in the Georgian army. He had also fought the Russians in Chechnya. He has repeatedly declared, since arriving in Syria, that he and his men will return to take revenge on Russia. Other Chechen-led groups – Ajnad al-Kaykaz, Junud al-Sham and Tarkhan’s Jama – have also vowed to carry out attacks on Russia. None of these three is part of Isis, but aligned with “moderate” rebels. They are positioned outside Latakia, a stronghold of the Alawite community of Bashar al-Assad, the ally Russia is trying to save.

Three years ago, in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the then head of Saudi intelligence, allegedly threatened Mr Putin that Chechen Islamists would be activated to carry out attacks in Russia unless the Kremlin stopped its support for Assad. The Prince was rebuffed by a furious Russian President, and soon afterwards Prince Bandar was relieved of the Syria brief by the Saudi King. Shishani had been well trained in combat by US forces while in the Georgian army – he was described at the time as an extremely able soldier. 

It would not be the first time that Moscow would face Islamists with Western connections. Armed fighters were sent to the former Soviet Union from training camps in Afghanistan run by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Afghan Mujaheddin commander who was the blue-eyed boy of the CIA in the mid 1980s. Hekmatyar is now considered a “global terrorist”.

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