October 8, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Russia and the Syrian Jihad
A quick glance at recent events reveals striking similarities between Russia’s military campaign in Syria and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979. Such similarities include: a Moscow-led military intervention to prop up or install a favored dictator facing popular revolt; the specter and reality of Western-backed rebels engaged against Russian-backed troops; a fractured rebel opposition comprising terrorist groups and relative moderates; and Muslim clerics calling for jihad against a Russian presence in a Muslim country.
Yet the similarities—while striking at first glance—end there. The reality is that the Russian intervention in Syria is far different from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the Soviets initiated the conflict with an invasion, and subsequently seized the capital, assassinated the Afghan president, and installed their preferred candidate. By the mid-1980s, the Soviets had over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, engaging in combat and garrisoned in occupied cities across the country.
By contrast, the Russians did not kick off the Syrian civil war by invasion, but rather have intervened following over four years of ongoing conflict. All of the major players, regional and international, have long since put their cards on the table, with few surprises as to where everyone stands. While Russia does have some ground troops in Syria, they are relatively few in number and primarily defensive in nature; their duties involve guarding Russian military, air, and naval bases on the coast. Additional Russian personnel are ‘advising’ and training the Syrian military. There is no comparison between the numbers and intentions of the Soviet troops in Afghanistan and the Russian presence in Syria.
What became known in the 1980s as the Afghan Jihad (fought by those known as the Afghan Arabs) was at the time widely supported by Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia. Fundraising for the cause was even prevalent in the United States, as the focus was on fighting the Soviet Union and less on who was doing the fighting. Abdullah Azzam’s 1979 fatwa had serious weight behind it, with governments and organizations lining up to support it. Militarily, the Afghan Arabs played a rather insignificant role in the Afghan war, though they certainly believed otherwise. Their biggest impact was in the chaos and violence they spread when they returned to their home countries or elsewhere; al-Qaeda is only the most infamous of examples.
In early October 2015, fifty-five Saudi clerics issued their own fatwa—again calling for those in countries surrounding Syria to travel and fight against the Russians (notably not encouraging Saudi nationals to travel and fight). Unlike Azzam’s 1979 fatwa, this latest one comes more than four years into the war, and after an estimated 30,000 have already traveled to fight in Syria, most with the Islamic State. It is a case of calling for a jihad that has already been under way for years; it will not have a noticeable impact on the war and has been ignored by most governments. Consider that in 1979, Egypt was one of the Arab countries supporting the fatwa to go fight in Afghanistan. Now, Cairo is not only unsupportive of the Saudi clerics' fatwa, it actually supports the Russian intervention and its counterterrorism pretext. The geopolitical environment surrounding foreign fighters is drastically different than it was in the 1980s. As with the levels of Soviet and Russian troops, there is no comparison between the calls for foreign fighters in the 1980s with the current focus on preventing their movement.
The nostalgia among extremists for another Afghan-style jihad against the hated Russians is likely real, but unlikely to result in meaningful change to a conflict that is racing towards a violently imposed endgame. The Russian escalation in Syria will intensify the fighting and lead to significant shifts on the geopolitical negotiating table, but it is not a repeat of Afghanistan and the Afghan jihad.
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