Call Russia’s involvement in Syria a geopolitically motivated intervention or call it a war crime. From the point of view of many Syrians, most anti-Assad rebels, the so-called Islamic State and many radical Muslims the world over, Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo and other cities is a criminal assault against all Muslims and Islam. We may disagree. And Putin certainly disagrees. But just as he believes he is entitled ruthlessly to pursue Russia’s interests, so, too, his opponents believe they are entitled to pursue theirs — no less ruthlessly.
If Russia’s Islamist opponents cannot defeat Putin on the battlefield — and, thus far, they have not been able to do so — they will resort to the only weapon that all weaker forces have at their disposal: terrorism.
One year ago, ISIS brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt. Now, a radical Islamist shot the Russian ambassador to Turkey.
In the months ahead, expect Islamist terrorists to mobilize against “soft” Russian targets throughout the world. No Russian diplomat, businessman or tourist and no Russian embassy, consulate, mission or business will be safe from the acts of lone wolves acting without regard for their own survival.
France, Belgium and Germany were the targets of the most recent terrorist acts. Now, it’s the turn of Russians — both in Russia and especially outside of Russia, where Russians are particularly vulnerable to violence.
Thousands of ISIS’s militants hail from Russia or former Soviet countries and speak fluent Russian. Some will return to spread havoc; others will draw on their friends, relatives and supporters in Russia and elsewhere. Russians still remember the terrorist assaults in Moscow in 2002 and in Beslan in 2004 that cost hundreds of lives. Unfortunately, they will experience more such assaults.
Putin will want to retaliate. But, since the threat will mostly come from terrorists acting on their own, his bluster will not result in effective countermeasures. He will pressure foreign states to protect Russians but they, too, will be largely impotent to stop lone wolves.
There is no stopping an assassin who wants to die for the cause.
Russians, both at home and abroad, will increasingly view their macho dictator with disdain, if, as seems likely, he fails to protect his compatriots and stop the attacks.
Could his growing impotence undermine his legitimacy and stability? Quite possibly: Putin’s rule rests on his strongman image and his ability to act violently, even brutally, if Russian interests are in danger.
Russia’s intervention in Syria was, as some analysts suggested, almost certain to end in disaster for the country. At best, it would mean a long-term occupation — a quagmire. At worst, it could lead to the deaths of many regime cronies and innocent Russians.
Putin’s recent barbarism in Aleppo may hasten both results.
Thanks to him, anti-Russian terrorism is the new normal.
Author: Alexander Motyl