‘What Russia has done is but an episode in the unfolding drama in the Middle East’
15 October, 2015
Based on previous experiences with Russia and its numerous past attempts to use the Pankisi factor as a pretext for aggression, Washington has warned Georgia to be extra cautious. Naturally, Russia’s recent launch of an aerial campaign in Syria was not met with much enthusiasm in the White House. The Kremlin claims its efforts to be aimed against ISIS, but most American pundits and politicians are not that easily convinced.
Thomas Graham, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director
for Russia on the US National Security Council and now a professor at Yale, is adamant that Russia is trying to fortify the regime of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ISIS is far from being its top priority

Read the Georgian version of the article on Voice of America website.

“I think the Georgian government itself has a reason to be concerned about ISIS supporters inside Georgia, and what that means for Georgians’ own security – especially if it is the Russians bringing this issue up.”

– What do you make of the timing of the Russian air campaign in Syria? Why now?

– I think that Russia looked at the situation on the ground in Syria and understood that Assad’s forces were losing. Assad himself said earlier this summer that his military was overstretched and could not protect all the points that needed to be protectegeotv.ged. The Kremlin recognized that it was in danger of losing one of its few allies in the Middle East, so it moved in to protect its assets in Syria. I think that is the simple, most straightforward explanation for why they decided to undertake the operation now.

– Does that mean that the so-called “Islamic State” is not a priority target for Russia?

– I don’t think that ISIS is the priority target at the moment. I think the key goal now is to support Assad and consolidate his regime at some point. The Russians have launched attacks against some extremist forces, Al-Nusra in particular. But if you look at where the military assets are located and the capabilities of those assets, it is very difficult for them to strike regions where ISIS is dominating. That said, I believe that moves against ISIS will eventually made. It is a threat to Russia, after all. We know that there are thousands of Russian citizens who have joined ISIS in the past several months. The terrorist organizations in the Caucasus have pledged loyalty to ISIS and its members are spread throughout Russia. All of this comprises a significant terrorist threat, and at some point Moscow will have no choice but to address it. 

– What implication, if any, could this operation in Syria have on the security and stability of the Caucasus?

– As I’ve already said, there are quite a few terrorist organizations in the North Caucasus that have declared their loyalty to ISIS. We also know that there are other extremist groups that are connected to Al Qaeda, and some unaffiliated ones operating in the North Caucasus. It seems to me that a very prominent and visible Russian effort in Syria against extremists, an assertive policy that declares that this is against ISIS, will encourage ISIS to find ways to strike back against Russia. They will do some of that in Syria, I am confident, but they will also reach out to their allies in places like the North Caucasus and look for support in some way. What follows might be confined to that region, but we also know from past years that some of the extremist groups have the capability to strike well beyond there – in the center of Moscow for example. So, I think it is a serious threat that the Kremlin needs to keep in mind.

– There have been statements from both Russian Foreign and Defense Ministries about Georgia being “an open highway for the Islamists to go back and forth to Syria”. Do you think the Georgian government should be mindful and cautious of such statements? Do you think there is anything tangible behind them?

– There have been problems in the past with Chechen fighters who took shelter in Georgia, namely in the Pankisi Gorge. That has always been a concern for the Russians, so I don’t find it surprising that they would say something like this. There are in fact only a few routes leading from Russia to the Middle East and Georgia is one of them. The Georgian government needs to take it seriously, and I think it has a reason of its own to be concerned about ISIS supporters inside Georgia, and what that means for Georgians’ own security – especially if it is the Russians bringing this issue up. The Georgian government needs to do everything it can to ensure that it is on top of the situation, doing what it can to cut down the flow of potential fighters across Georgia. They need to do that for their own purposes, but obviously, they need to do that with a glance at Moscow as well. 

– Do you anticipate any friction or any more complications in Turkish-Russian relations as we see this air campaign unfold?

– Absolutely! We know that Russia and Turkey have had a fairly good relationship over the past several years. Turkish President Erdogan and President Putin appeared to be getting along, but Turkey is very sensitive about security issues. And certainly, the incursions that took place over the past few days, intentional or not, have to be a cause of concern for Ankara. They have made it clear to their NATO allies that they would expect Article 5 to apply in a situation like this. NATO has assured them that it will. I think Russia has to be extremely careful in how it pursues the campaign. It needs to rethink multiple incursions into Turkey’s airspace because that risks an armed response from Turkey - perhaps even shooting down a Russian aircraft. If that happens, we are in a whole different dimension of this confrontation. 

– Do you think Russians have really made a mistake by flying into Turkish airspace as they later claimed, or do you think it was a test or a challenge to NATO and Turkey to see how far they could push the envelope?

– It’s very difficult for outsiders to say anything whatsoever with authority in a situation like that. I have no way of knowing whether it was intentional or not. The important point is that Turkey, NATO and the United States will look at this information – both technical and otherwise – and draw conclusions. The Turks and NATO have indicated that they believe that those incursions were intentional, and very provocative in that regard. That is on the basis of which they are going to react. Whether intentional or not on Moscow’s part, the point is that the Turks and NATO believe that it was intentional and that itself creates a very complicated situation.

– How do you see the region in the mid-term perspective after the Russian intervention? What impact could this power shift have on larger geopolitics between the great powers?

– What Russia has done is but an episode in the unfolding drama in the Middle East. This has been going on for at least several years. If you want to date this, it probably began with the American operation in Iraq in 2003. However, it has taken on many different forms over the past decade or so. The Arab Spring, which turned into something quite different from what many people in the West had anticipated, the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the nuclear deal with the Iranians have all changed the calculations to a certain extent. We see unrest in Yemen and elsewhere. So, Moscow has now inserted itself in a very dramatic fashion into a dynamic situation. The point that I would emphasize, and one would think that they understand this in Moscow, is that they don’t control this game. There are going to be a lot of unintended consequences and unforeseen events that will occur.

In a broad sense, the geopolitics have shifted because of Moscow’s involvement. Whether this shift will turn out to be to Moscow’s advantage in the long run, or how it might reshape the Middle East are big questions for which we don’t have answers at this point. I think the one thing we can say with confidence is that the unrest in the Middle East remains in its initial phase and that this turbulence is going to continue for some time. What the new equilibrium would look like five or 10 years down the road is very difficult for any of us to know.

Read the Georgian version of the article on Voice of America website.

By Ia Meurmishvili, VOA Georgian Service

Main photo by RIA Novosti/AP