A joke making the rounds among Russian officials and hacks who take a keen interest in what is going on in the Middle East these days goes something like this: How will the Yanks deal with the Islamic State group? They will create “Islamic State 2”, a bigger and better armed group, and let it deal with the original Islamic State group. And what happens when “Islamic State 2” turns against them as it happened with the original Islamic State? They will create “Islamic State 3”, and so on.
But seriously, the rise and spread of the Islamic State group is no laughing matter. Now that the US and its allies have finally woken up to the dangers of the spread of the extremist group, the worry in Moscow is that the hotheads in the Pentagon and at Nato headquarters in Brussels will decide to start hitting Islamic State positions in Syria along with “other targets” there as well – for instance, Syrian army positions.
US President Barack Obama has already announced his plan to deal with the group, promising to lead a “broad coalition” that will “roll back this terrorist threat”. In Moscow, the fear is that the US will seize this opportunity to intervene in Syria.
The Libyan scenario
According to Valeriy Fenenko from the Moscow Centre for International Security, the US can actually use the presence of the Islamic State group in Syria as a pretext to implement the “Libyan scenario”.
“The Americans are bound to try to compensate for their failure last fall,” he says. “At first, it will be air strikes against terrorists and then, in parallel, it may amount to helping the moderate opposition. The US may start a creeping interference, like it happened in Bosnia,” he said.
The feeling in Moscow is that the recent Nato summit in Newport in Wales missed out on a great opportunity to involve Russia in finding a solution to the spread of the Islamic State group and other militant groups associated with it across Iraq and the Middle East generally.
In any event, Russian diplomatic efforts are in full swing. According to one Russian source, Moscow is trying to prevent possible air strikes in Syria by the US, UK and others, in the same way it did last year when the danger of air strikes was growing by the day.
“Our people in Arab and European capitals were desperately trying to find some sort of solution last year,” he said. “The threat of a regional war that could escalate into a world war was taken very seriously by the Kremlin. And this scenario is in the cards again.”
The feeling in Moscow is that the recent Nato summit in Newport, Wales, missed out on a great opportunity to involve Russia in finding a solution to the spread of the Islamic State group and other militant groups associated with it across Iraq and the Middle East generally. Not to mention, the very real threat of these violent men entering European countries, and even reaching the US.
“The Russians have been warning the Americans ever since the civil war broke out in Syria that it was very dangerous to arm the opposition there,” one former Russian general who was in charge of anti-terrorist operation told me. “There was no chance that the arms destined for the so-called moderate opposition would not end up with the likes of the Islamic State. Not to mention that lots of it was coming as well from ‘liberated’ Libya.”
The same bandits
What worries Russian officials is the stubborn refusal of the Obama administration to talk to President Bashar al-Assad’s government about a possible joint effort in defeating the Islamic State group in Syria. As Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov said recently, it doesn’t make sense for the West to help the Iraqi government to fight the Islamic State group but deny cooperation to Assad who is fighting “the same bandits”.
Some Russian analysts are saying that the bigger problem of the current crisis is that the Islamic State group runs its recruitment campaigns not just in the Middle East but in Europe as well. Different figures are cited over the number of Europeans who have joined the ranks of the group in the past several months, but if you consider that the number of fighters has risen – according to Russian estimates, from about 6,000 in June to over 30,000 at present – it can be assumed that we are talking about thousands of young Muslims travelling from Europe to fight in what they believe is a holy war.
The senseless war in Gaza has probably indirectly boosted the Islamic State group’s recruitment campaign, making it easier to claim that the West and Israel are hellbent on wiping out the Muslims in the Middle East. It remains unclear as to why Israel’s armed forces attacked Gaza during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and conducted blanket air strikes that were bound to take a heavy toll on the civilian population.
In the opinion of Russian experts, this looked more like a smokescreen for US failures in Iraq and Libya rather than an attempt to wipe out Hamas’ arsenal and top commanders. From a military point of view, Benjamin Netanyahu’s war achieved absolutely nothing, except perhaps giving Hamas a boost in popularity.
The danger for Russia from the Islamic State group is that some of its members come from Chechnya and Dagestan, the two Muslim republics in the south of Russia, and there is a risk that the group can find sympathisers and supporters there and even start to build a network across the Caucasus. That is why Moscow is now calling on all parties to make a joint effort to destroy the Islamic State group before it becomes truly international.
However, as the president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems Konstantin Sivkov points out, the military option is only part of the solution in tackling the Islamic State group. He says that air strikes would not be enough and that it’s crucial to also fight its ideology and cut off its finances that are now flowing through perfectly legal banking channels.
The war against the Islamic State group is fraught with dangers. It might get out of control and drag the whole region into a much wider conflict.
Alexander Nekrassov is a former Kremlin and government adviser.