Abstract: Under the guise of joining the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State, Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened militarily in Syria in September 2015 by launching what the Russian media dubbed Operation Vozmezdie (Retribution). But his real aim was to bolster the beleaguered Bashar al-Assad regime in the western corridor where most Syrians live. Russian forces have deployed advanced tanks and aircraft to repulse an alliance of Sunni rebels that was advancing on the coastal strongholds of the Alawite-dominated Assad regime. But in so doing, Moscow incurred the wrath of Sunni jihadist groups, including the Islamic State, even though the vast majority of Russia’s bombings have not targeted the group. As a result, Russia has increasingly been made a primary target of global jihad with a rising number of Islamist terrorist plots and attacks focusing on Russian targets at home and overseas. With thousands of foreign fighters from the former Soviet bloc in Syria and Iraq, there is significant risk this terrorist blowback will get much worse. 

Russia has been involved in the war in Syria for just over a year now, and the basic contours of the Kremlin’s campaign on the ground in that country and its effect on the protection of Russians from what President Vladimir Putin describes as “criminals who already tasted blood” have finally become clear.1 It can now be seen that Russia’s stated objectives are at odds with, and even contradicted by, its military actions in Syria.

At the outset of Putin’s intervention on behalf of Russia’s longtime ally, the embattled Bashar al-Assad regime, Russia’s then-chief of staff of the Presidential Executive Office, Sergei Ivanov, laid out Moscow’s official objectives, stating on September 30, 2015, that “the military goal of the operation is strictly to provide air support for the [Syrian] government forces in their fight against Islamic State.”2 It soon became widely apparent, however, that the Russians had conflated the Islamic State with U.S.-backed rebels and various other anti-Assad Sunni rebel forces in Syria with no known connection to the Islamic State. This allowed for the creation of the false narrative that a united terrorist monolith needed to be eradicated in order to preserve stability in Syria and protect Russians back home. In the process of waging war on this seemingly massive block of “terrorist” rebels, Putin was able to shift the sands of the conflict.3 He did so by bolstering the endangered Assad regime while simultaneously cultivating his image domestically as a strong leader who was able to protect the Russian people from terrorists based in Syria and project power abroad. In Russia, the ongoing operation has been portrayed as an unmitigated success in “inflicting heavy losses on Syrian terrorist groups” and even making Russia safer.4 But has it really been a successful counterterrorism operation?

There is now evidence that Putin’s intervention in Syria never was a counterterrorism operation. It was instead designed to be a counterinsurgency campaign against anti-Assad Sunni rebels. And far from making his citizens safe, Putin’s efforts have put them squarely in the crosshairs of the Islamic State and the al-Qa`ida-aligned Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra). There is clear evidence also that the terrorist blowback against Russia is escalating. As recently as November 13, 2016, Russian police disrupted at the last minute a plot to punish the Russian leader by carrying out a “Paris-style” massacre of civilians in shopping centers in Moscow and St. Petersburg by terrorists from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.5 This Islamic State-inspired mass casualty plot was only the latest in a string of plots and attacks in Russia carried out by terrorists who have answered the calls to punish the “new eastern Crusaders” in Moscow.6

There have been few efforts to outline the successes and failures of Putin’s Syrian campaign. Drawing on Russian news sources and official statements, this article attempts to historicize the first year of the campaign with the aim of assessing both its proclaimed success as a counterinsurgency operation and its unintended role as catalyst for retribution against Russians at home and abroad.

Prelude to an Intervention
Moscow has long been an ally of the Syrian Baathist-Socialist regime led by President Assad. Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father and predecessor, came to rule Syria by seizing control in a coup in 1970 and putting his ethnic-religious group, the Alawites, in power.a Assad then created an authoritarian regime dominated by Alawites who kept the restless Sunni majority in check and brutally suppressed Sunni rebellions.7

In 1971, Assad provided the Soviet Union with a naval facility at Tartus, located on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the naval facility—referred to by the Russians as a Material Technical Support Point—remains there today and is Russia’s sole remaining military facility outside of the former Soviet Union. As the threat mounted in 2015 to current President Assad by a powerful alliance of non-Islamic State Sunni rebel groups in northwest Syria dominated by the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), concern grew in Moscow over possible threats to this rather basic facility.

To prevent the loss of this facility and the further spread of chaos in Syria, Putin decided to stand by his ally, Assad, when the civil war broke out between the ruling Alawites and an array of Sunni rebel groups. It would seem that the Russian-Assad alliance perceived the Jaish al-Fatah alliance that was advancing on the Alawite coastal homeland in the west as the greatest threat to their joint interests.8 Putin decided he needed to protect Moscow’s facility at Tartus and strengthen the Assad regime vis a vis what he described as “the units of international terrorists and their ilk [that] have no desire to negotiate.”9 He lumped all anti-Assad Sunni rebel groups into this category alongside the Islamic State and then-Jabhat al-Nusra.10

On August 26, 2015, a formal agreement was signed in the Syrian capital of Damascus that granted Russia access to the Syrian air base known as Hmeimim, in the regime-controlled stronghold of southern Latakia.11

The Russian Intervention
In early September 2015, Russia deployed advanced T-90 “Vladimir” main battle tanks to be manned by Syrian soldiers and flew in approximately 2,000 Russian military personnel to the Hmeimim base. Most importantly, the Russians also dispatched approximately 50 fighters and bombers (primarily new Su-34 Fullback medium bombers, Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack planes, and Su-24 Fencer fighter jets) and several Mil 24 Hind attack helicopters to the base.12

Then on September 30, 2015, in a move that caught the United States and its allies by surprise, the Russians began an intense bombing campaign, which informally became known as Operation Vozmezdie (Retribution) against what they claimed were Islamic State targets in Syria. But despite Putin’s statements about joining the U.S.-led coalition’s fight to destroy the Islamic State, whose territory laid primarily in the east, the initial Russian strikes appeared to be against Jaish al-Fatah in IdlibハProvince located in northwestern Syria.13 U.S.-backed Sunni rebels in the region claimed that the Russian attacks had been more destructive than anything they had previously experienced at the hands of the Syrian Air Force.14 With Putin conflating all Sunni rebel groups with the Islamic State, the conflict in Syria risked taking on an extra dimension as a proxy war between Russia and the United States.

In October 2015, the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) initially fought ferociously against a Russia-backed Syrian army ground offensive in the northwest using U.S.-supplied TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided missiles) to destroy Russian-built Syrian tanks. But the Russians adjusted and began using Mil Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters, which could not be brought down by TOW missiles.15 The FSA Sunni rebels, who were forced to retreat, requested anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down Russian and Syrian jets and attack helicopters, but the United States was allegedly reluctant to deliver them for fear they might fall into the hands of extremists.16 As a result, the previously advancing Sunni rebels were forced on the defensive and began to retreat from northern Latakia, significant areas of which they had held for three years, and from parts of Idlib.17

On October 1, 2015, Putin announced that he had arranged an intelligence-sharing agreement with Iran, Iraq, and Syria, bolstering the demoralized Syrian regime.18 On October 3, 2015, Hezbollah and Iran expanded their roles in the conflict by deploying fighters to the Hama and Homs provinces in western Syria—two strategically importantly locations that augmented the defenses of Assad’s strongholds along the coast—in order to prepare major ground offensives backed by Russian airstrikes.19 On October 7, pro-Assad forces from Iran and Hezbollah carried out their first major coordinated ground assaults on Sunni rebels in western Syria under the cover of Russian warplanes.20 The same day, Russia also stepped up its bombing campaign by firing 26 new Kalibr cruise missiles at Sunni rebel targets in Aleppo, Idlib, and Raqqa from warships 900 miles away in the Caspian Sea.21

By mid-October 2015, with the assistance of his Russian, Hezbollah, and Iranian allies, Assad’s forces began to stabilize their position and regain lost territory. By this time, it had become clear to observers that the vast majority of Russian bombings were in the northwest against the Jaish el-Fatah alliance of Sunni rebel groups and its allies who were threatening the Assad regime from territories they had recently conquered in the northwestern province of Idlib.22 The White House quickly made clear that it rejected Putin’s narrative that he was waging a counterterrorism war in Syria.23

Undeterred by criticism from Washington, Russia launched air attacks on the Sunni rebels in Hama and Homs Province to the south of Idlib.24 In November, the Russian Ministry of Defense described one large-scale bombing of this region by a squadron of strategic bombers making the long flight to Syria from southern Russia. “During a massive airstrike today, 14 important ISIL [Islamic State] targets were destroyed by 34 air-launched cruise missiles. The targets destroyed include command posts that were used to coordinate ISIL activities in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, munition and supply depots in the northwestern part of Syria.”25

There was, however, one problem with this statement: the Islamic State did not have forces in Idlib or the areas of Aleppo that were targeted in the November air attack.26 Among the Russian targets in this northwestern region were actually several U.S.-backed Sunni groups in the rebel alliance, such as the Free Syrian Army, Sham Legion, Jund al Aqsa, Jaish al Sunna, Ahrar ash Sham, and Division 13.27

To support the Kremlin’s narrative that it was conducting pinpoint strikes against the Islamic State, the Russian Ministry of Defense released YouTube videos of several airstrikes purportedly against the Islamic State.28 But the videos were subsequently scrutinized by investigative journalists using a collaborative verification platform to match the locations seen in the YouTube videos with satellite images from the air, as well as ground level photographs. Using this process, the journalists established that Moscow’s claims contained numerous elements of Soviet-style dezinformatsiia (disinformation).29 Most of the targeted areas identified were without a known Islamic State presence, thus confirming what many had already suspected—that Russia was primarily bombing Sunni rebel groups with no known connection to the Islamic State under the guise of joining the war on terrorism.30

One of the groups targeted by Russia in the northwest was Jabhat al-Nusra, which had been declared a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department31 and was linked by American intelligence officials to the so-called “Khorasan group,” a cell of al-Qa`ida veterans who were said to be developing capabilities to launch international attacks in 2014.32 Muddying the waters, the group was allied with several moderate Sunni groups that considered it to be an effective, local, Syrian-dominated fighting force against Assad in the northwest.b But the U.S. designation provided Putin with ammunition for his claims that his forces were engaged in a counterterrorism campaign.

Seemingly undeterred by mounting criticism of its air campaign by Western leaders who were alarmed by its high civilian death toll,33 Russia in early December 2015 began preparations to expand operations by opening a second major airbase in Syria at al-Shayrat airbase near Homs.34 The base was bolstered by military personnel, increasing the number of Russian troops in Syria from an initial 2,000 to roughly 4,000.c

Meanwhile, the Russian campaign accelerated despite protests from human rights groups. But for all the toll the Russian air campaign indisputably took on civilians, it also allowed Assad government troops to clear Sunni rebels out of the Alawite homeland of Latakia. In February 2016, Russian aircraft continued with their momentum and supported Assad regime troops and allied Hezbollah and Iranian fighters in encircling neighborhoods of eastern Aleppo that had been controlled by Sunni rebels since 2012.35 In the process, the revived Assad regime forces were able to cut off the rebels’ supply lines to the Turkish border at Bab al Salameh in their most successful offensive of the war.36 This decisive offensive also broke a three-year siege of several pro-government neighborhoods in the area and caused a mass, panicked flight of Sunni refugees to Turkey.37 As the Russian and Syrian air forces indiscriminately bombed rebel-held areas causing hundreds of civilian casualties, the Syrian Army starved rebel-controlled neighborhoods in an attempt to weaken the rebellion by attrition.38

Russian Army carries out airstrikes in Aleppo
A firefighter attempts to extinguish a fire after alleged Russian airstrikes on two hospitals in Azaz in Aleppo province on December 25, 2015. (Anas Sabaag/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Having expended their primary efforts in the northwest against non-Islamic State Sunni rebels, Russia finally began tentative operations against the Islamic State in the central Syrian Desert in the spring of 2016. Although the Kremlin had announced in mid-March 2016 that Russia’s involvement in Syria was over,39 on March 27, Russian air power assisted the Assad regime in recapturing the central desert city of Tadmur, home to the ancient ruins of Palmyra, from the Islamic State.40 Putin could now finally offer the world proof that he was a partner in the war on the Islamic State.

To celebrate his victory, Putin in May had a symphony orchestra flown into Syria to perform a bold, surprise concert in a second-century A.D. Roman amphitheater in the heart of Islamic State-ravaged Palmyra. While under Islamic State control, the amphitheater had served as the set for its 2015 film that featured the execution of 25 Assad regime soldiers by Islamic State fighters.41 The stark contrast between the Islamic State atrocities and the Russian orchestra was extremely symbolic.

Target Aleppo 
After the liberation of Palmyra, Russia returned its focus to the northwest and especially the key strategic prize of Aleppo, where the end of rebel control in eastern Aleppo would spell defeat for the five-year rebellion. In the last six months, Russia has been heavily involved in supporting Syrian government advances on rebel-controlled areas in eastern Aleppo, which have taken a high toll on civilians.42 Yet gains made by the Russian-Syrian alliance during the summer, often with the support of Hezbollah, remained fragile and reversible.43

On August 16, to reverse Jabhat Fateh al-Sham-led attacks in Aleppo, Russia began using long-range Tu-22M3 Backfire and Sukhoi-34 Fullback heavy bombers flying from an Iranian base known as Shahid Nojeh, 30 miles north of Hamadan in western Iran.44 But the Russian-Iranian agreement was fraught with tension and collapsed just a week after it was announced.45 Despite this, in September, the Russian air force helped the Syrian Army re-impose a siege on Sunni-rebel controlled eastern Aleppo that had been broken for a month in August. While the pace of Russian airstrikes dropped off in September and October due to a weak ceasefire brokered with the United States, they increased again following its collapse.46 Later in the fall, the Russians increased their aerial firepower by deploying the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov to the eastern Mediterranean. On November 15, Russia announced the launch of an intensified air campaign designed to break the resistance of Sunni rebels in eastern Aleppo. A day later, the Russians proclaimed, “For the first time in our naval history, the Admiral Kuznetsov started taking part in combat.”47 Two days later, the Russians announced that aircraft flying from the aircraft carrier had struck a “major blow” against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the former al-Nusra) by killing three “well-known” commanders from the group.48

From mid-November 2016, Russia provided the Syrian Army with vital air support in a fierce offensive that gained pro-regime forces control, Russia claimed, of approximately 40 percent of rebel-held eastern Aleppo and effectively split the territory in two by November 28.49 The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated, “the rebels have lost control of all the neighbourhoods in the north of east Aleppo, and this is their worst defeat since they seized half the city.” This prompted “the first exodus of this kind from east Aleppo since 2012” as 20,000 civilians fled the besieged portions of the city.50 The next stage of the joint operation appears to be to further divide the remaining rebel-held territory into what the Russian Ministry of Defense calls “security districts” so as to control and capture them by “push[ing] the gunmen to turn themselves [in] … or accept national reconciliation under the terms of the Syrian state.”51

By late November 2016, it was apparent that the Russian intervention had, despite the outcry from the West over widespread civilian casualties, propped up the crumbling Assad regime and allowed it to maintain control over much of the western corridor where most Syrians lived. It also fulfilled Putin’s goal of preventing the fall of Damascus to so-called jihadist terrorist forces and allowed Assad to go on the offensive from Daraa in the south to Hama and Homs to Latakia to Aleppo in the north. From the fall of 2015 to the fall of 2016, Operation Vozmezdie in both its official and unofficial phases had clearly reshaped the battlefield in western Syria, but it did not have much impact on the Islamic State’s territorial holdings.

Even as Putin’s military intervention in Syria antagonized the United States and its NATO and Sunni Arab allies, a different sort of risk began to materialize. Shortly after Russian airstrikes commenced, a diverse assortment of 41 Syrian rebel groups—which included powerful groupings such as the Ahrar al-Sham, Islam Army, and the Levant Front—threatened Russia, stating that “any occupation force to our beloved country is a legitimate target.”52

Next, in an October 13, 2015, audiotape, then-Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani called for “Islamic youth everywhere [to] ignite jihad against the Russians and the Americans in their crusaders’ war against Muslims.”53 This call to action was quickly answered. On October 31, an Islamic State affiliate in Egypt’s Sinai Desert claimed responsibility for downing a Russian charter plane flying from the Sinai resort town of Sharm el Sheikh to St. Petersburg with a bomb, killing all 224 people on board. This proved to be the deadliest disaster in Russian aviation history, and the Islamic State gloated by posting a picture of the small bomb it claimed was used to bring down the plane on its online magazine, Dabiq. In the publication, the Islamic State justified its action as a response to the Russian airstrikes in Syria, which it claimed were “a rash decision of arrogance.”54 It was at this time that media in Russia began casting the campaign in Syria as one of revenge (mest’) or retribution (vozmezdie) to punish the “criminal terrorists” for their attacks on Russians.55

There were also calls for terrorist action by Jabhat al-Nusra. On October, 12, 2015, the head of the group, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, released a 21-minute audio message online titled “The Russian Intervention – The Last Arrow,” in which he described the Russians as “Eastern Crusaders.” He also called for retaliatory attacks as well as the need for the “mujahideen in the Caucasus to distract” Russia’s attention from the war in Syria whenever possible by killing Russians in their home country.56 Just hours after his message was released, two mortar shells struck the Russian embassy compound in Damascus as hundreds of pro-government supporters rallied outside in support of Russian airstrikes.57 In the summer of 2016, after Putin’s involvement in fighting against the Islamic State in Palmyra, the terrorist group renewed its threats on the Russian Federation. On July 30, 2016, it released a nine-minute video in which a Russian-speaking fighter threatened Putin directly, declaring, “Listen O Putin, we will come to you in Russia, we will kill you all in your homes, Allah willing.” The masked militant also urged Muslims to launch attacks on Russian soil.58

Putin seems to have recognized the possibility that such threats could be fulfilled by Russian citizens fighting in Syria who might return home to carry out punitive terror attacks. While speaking at a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit in Burabay, Kazakhstan, on October 16, 2015, Putin stated, “There are an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 fighters from Russia and other CIS member states fighting for ISIL … we certainly cannot allow them to use the experience they are getting in Syria on home soil.”59 While the claim for such large numbers of jihadis from the CIS in Syria is difficult to substantiate, Putin’s fears of retaliatory attacks were not overblown. One scholar has found that as many as one in nine foreign fighters become terrorists upon returning home.60

Such fears were magnified as the Islamic State began losing significant territory at an escalated pace in 2016. This led to fears that the fall of the ‘state’ that had stirred the imagination of thousands of radicalized Russian Islamists could potentially prompt a return migration of Russian jihadis to their homeland with considerable battlefield experience, extensive networks, and lethal intent. According to an estimate by the Soufan Group, already by September 2015 there were 2,500 jihadis from Russia inside Syria, while Russia put the number of Russian Islamic State fighters at 2,000.61 By this time, Russian leaders were increasingly worried about the potential for a backlash if these jihadis returned home from the Syrian battlefields. On April 22, 2015, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov summed up these fears. “I believe ISIS is our greatest enemy right now … They are already returning home. They come here to rest after fighting and can get up to dirty tricks at home.”62

The majority of Russian Muslims fighting in Syria and Iraq come from the insurgency-plagued north Caucasian Muslim republics of Chechnya and Dagestan and have established a reputation as some of the most fierce and effective fighters within the Islamic State.d This has created concern that they could reignite a largely suppressed jihadist insurgency in the Caucasus.e

On December 2, 2015, the Islamic State broadcasted its intent to inspire attacks in Russia by releasing a gruesome video in which one of its Russian-speaking militants in Syria vowed to unleash murderous attacks on the people of Russia. He stated, “you will not find peace in your homes. We will kill your sons … for each son you killed here. And we will destroy your homes for each home you destroyed here.”63 He then used a hunting knife to behead a Russian citizen who confessed to being a spy for the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) and reporting on the identity of “brothers” fighting in Syria.

Threats, calls for action, and acts of brutality, such as the beheading, appeared to have inspired self-starter jihadis and disaffected Muslims in Russia to imitate their brutality. Initially, Islamic State-inspired attacks focused on Russian security forces in the insurgency-plagued southern Muslim Russian republic of Dagestan. On December 30, 2015, Islamic State-inspired gunmen opened fire on a group of people standing on the panoramic terrace of the ancient Dagestani citadel of Derbent, killing one and injuring 11 others. The terrorist group would subsequently state, “With the help of Allah, the warriors of the Kalifate were able to attack a group of Russian special service officers … killing one officer and injuring others.”64

The Islamic State targeted police officers in Dagestan again in late February 2016 when a suicide bomber drove a car loaded with explosives into a police checkpoint in the town of Dzhimikent, killing two officers and injuring approximately 10.65 It is unclear whether the bomber in this attack was a fighter who had returned from Syria. The Islamic State subsequently announced, “[o]ne of the Caliphate’s soldiers advanced with a car bomb towards a barrier set up by the apostate Dagestani police … and blew it up in the midst of their gathering leading to the death or injury of all the elements stationed at the barrier thanks be to God.”66

This was followed up by two terrorist acts in Dagestan in late March, one an IED attack on a police convoy and a second a suicide bombing, claimed by the Wilayat Kavkaz (The Caucasus Province) of the Islamic State that led to the death of several members of the security forces.67

By then, Islamic State-inspired terrorists had managed to strike deeper into the Russian heartland. On March 2, 2016, Gulchekhra Bobokulova, a 38-year-old nanny from Uzbekistan, decapitated a four-year-old girl she had been babysitting in Moscow. She then proceeded to set fire to the family’s flat and brandish the child’s severed head outside the Oktyabrskoye Pole subway station while shouting “Allahu Akbar” and “I’m a terrorist.” Bobokulova, who subsequently claimed that “Allah ordered” her to kill the young girl as retribution for Russian airstrikes in Syria, explained that she was inspired by Islamic State beheading videos. She proclaimed, “I saw how they cut off heads, and I did it.”68

On June 28, 2016, the threat of jihadist blowback from foreign fighters from the former Soviet bloc in Syria came into sharp focus when a Chechen-led group of Uzbek, Dagestani, and Kyrgyz Islamic State terrorists launched an assault on Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, killing 42.69

Meanwhile, the drumbeat of Islamic State-inspired attacks inside Russia continued. On August 17, 2016, two Chechen men wielding axes and firearms attempted to murder two police officers just east of Moscow at a traffic police station on the Schelkovskoe Highway. Both police officers were injured, one severely, but survived the attack. The next day the Islamic State released a video of the two attackers, referring to them as “soldiers of the Islamic State,” pledging bay`a (loyalty) to al-Baghdadi. The video concluded with a threat of more Islamic State attacks inside Russia.70

On October 23, 2016, two men opened fire on a policeman who was checking their car in the city of Nizhny Novgorod in western Russia. The police officer was, however, able to return fire and mortally wound his attackers. The Islamic State subsequently claimed that two “soldiers of the Islamic State” had carried it out.71

Most recently, on November 14, 2016, a bold terror plot involving Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tajik nationals who planned a Paris-style mass casualty attack in malls in Moscow and St. Petersburg “to prove their loyalty” to the Islamic State was foiled by the FSB just before it could be carried out.72 While no evidence has emerged of Islamic State direction in the plot, had this attack been successful, it would have certainly weakened Putin’s claim that Russia’s Syria intervention has made Russia safer.

The Russian president claimed it was preventing “criminals who already tasted blood” from returning “back home and continuing their evil doings.”73 As yet, there is no firm evidence that has been made public that actual Islamic State recruits or other jihadist veterans of the fighting in Syria have been involved in plots to attack inside Russia. But it seems inevitable that with the territory of caliphate shrinking, a significant number of fighters will seek to return home.

In the meantime, back in Syria, Putin’s callous and widely broadcasted bombardment of Sunni rebel-held eastern Aleppo in the summer and fall of 2016 exacerbated Sunni-Shi`a tensions. The Russian aerial bombing of a large Red Crescent aid convoy bringing much-needed relief to Sunni rebel-held territory in eastern Aleppo in September 2016 also appeared to signal the collapse of potential rapprochement between Moscow and Washington.74 When combined with the year-long indiscriminate bombing of schools, bakeries, hospitals, and civilian-packed neighborhoods in the city, Putin’s actions further enflamed bloody sectarianism in the civil war. Moscow’s indiscriminate bombing and support for Assad placed the Russian Federation firmly in the Damascus-Hezbollah-Tehran axis, at the expense of relations with the wider Sunni world. This has put Moscow squarely in the crosshairs of thousands of Sunni jihadis in the Middle East. The increasingly sharp invective against Russia in jihadist propaganda suggests that, for some jihadis, Moscow is now seen as an even greater “far enemy” than Washington.

While the dangers of jihadist retribution have increased, making Russia a primary target for global jihadis, the risks of diplomatic blowback lessened after a surprise result in the U.S. presidential election. Putin, who seemed to have been seriously mistaken in his calculation that the United States and its allies would recognize him as a partner in a war on terrorists in Syria, appears to be optimistic that he can now work with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump to mend relations with the United States and take the fight to the common enemy. On November 13, 2016, Putin called to congratulate Trump on his election win. Tellingly, he later reported that the two leaders had talked about the “the need to work together in the struggle against the number-one common enemy — international terrorism and extremism.”75

Putin’s military intervention in Syria has so far been successful in protecting Russian assets in Syria and ending for the foreseeable future any existential threat to the Assad regime. But in wider strategic terms, it has put Russia in the crosshairs of the Islamic State, al-Qa`ida, and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham as well as their extremist supporters in places like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Therefore, it would not be surprising if the net result of Putin’s adventurism in the deserts of the Middle East for those living in the Russian Federation is a surge in terrorist attacks in the rodina (motherland). This blowback could manifest itself in the form of embittered and battle-tested Russian jihadis returning home from the collapsed Islamic State caliphate to carry out their own version of Operation Vozmezdie to punish the “Eastern Crusaders in Moscow.” It could also appear in the form of extremists within Russia answering global jihadis’ call to carry out lone-wolf attacks of the sort seen in Nice, Orlando, and San Bernardino.

If Putin can assist the Syrian Army in crushing the last pocket of rebels held up in eastern Aleppo following the late November government victory in the northern parts of this rebel-held area, he and Assad will clearly have the Sunni rebels on the back foot. They will also have an opportunity to expand the campaign into Idlib Province, the last remaining major Sunni rebel bastion in the northwest. But despite recent gains by pro-regime forces in Syria, the Russian president has not yet decisively broken the stalemate in the Syrian conflict. Nor has he, despite apparently warmer relations with the incoming U.S. administration, yet won the acceptance of the West as a partner in a war on terrorism in Syria and further afield.

But the Russian intervention has potentially even broader global security implications. In Syria, there is a risk that if non-Islamic State Sunni rebel groups are critically weakened by the Russian-Syrian military campaign, the Islamic State will once again seize an opportunity to fill a vacuum and exploit anger. By intervening on one side in a sectarian civil war, Russia has also exacerbated sectarian tensions across the Middle East, helping to create exactly the sorts of conditions in which terrorist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida thrive.f

Brian Glyn Williams is Professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and author of Counter-Jihad: The American Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. He previously worked for the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center in Afghanistan and for the U.S. Army’s information operations in Kabul. Follow @BrianGlynWillms

Robert Souza is a research analyst for the Center for the Study of Targeted Killing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and an assistant managing editor at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, Washington, D.C. 

Substantive Notes
[a] The Alawites, who make up 15 percent of Syria’s population, adhere to a syncretic faith often seen as an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

[b] The Islamic State, by contrast, was dominated by foreigners and more interested in fighting other Sunni groups to gain territory in the central north and east than fighting Assad. Brian Glyn Williams, Counter Jihad: The American Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), p. 273.

[c] This was about the same number of personnel President Obama deployed in Iraq by the summer of 2016 to bolster Iraqi Army forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces in their offensive against the Islamic State. Jonathan Landay, Phil Stewart, and Mark Hosenball, “Russia’s Syria force grows to 4,000, U.S. officials say,” Reuters, November 4, 2015; Helene Cooper, “U.S. to Send 600 More Troops to Iraq to Help Retake Mosul From ISIS,” New York Times, September 28, 2016.

[d] Most sources agree that the hijra (religious migration) of hundreds of muhajireen (those who partake in hijra) from the failed jihad in the north Caucasus to Syria began in 2012. In the summer of that year, Tarkhan Batirashvili, a Georgian Chechen better known by his kunya (nom de guerre) of Omar al-Shishani (Omar the Chechen) established the Muhajireen Brigade in Syria composed almost entirely of battle-tested Muslims from the Russian Federation. These hardened fighters played an outsized role as “force multipliers” among the thousands of foreigners taking up arms against Assad in Syria at the time. Most importantly, al-Shishani and his followers played a key role in operations against Assad regime bases in the Aleppo vicinity and swore bay`a to the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in December 2013, before being killed in a U.S. airstrike in July 2016. “ISIL Says Omar al Shishani Killed in Airstrike,” Al Jazeera, July 14, 2016. For more on the large number of Dagestanis and Chechens who traveled to Syria, see Emil Suleimanov, “The Participation of North Caucasian Jihadists in the Syrian Civil War and its Security Implications,” Rubin Center, February 2015; Emil Suleimanov, “North Caucasian Fighters Join the Syrian Civil War,” Central Asia Caucasus Analyst, August 21, 2013; also see the blog http://www.chechensinsyria.com/ tracking Chechen and Dagestani jihadis in Syria. The authors’ research indicates the large majority of Russian Muslims fighting in Syria and Iraq come from Chechnya and Dagestan.

[e] In the early years of the Syrian civil war, Russian authorities turned a blind eye to the emigration of jihadis from the northern Caucasus to fight in Syria as a way of diverting the aspirations of Russian Federation militants from the region who had previously attempted to build a trans-ethnic jihadist state in the north Caucasus known as the Imarat Kavkaz, or Caucasus Emirate. The militant insurgency, which aimed to revive the Imamate of the 19th century jihadist leader Imam Shamil, was brutally crushed from 2014 to 2015 via the systematic killing of its two self-declared emirs and many of its followers by Russian security forces. In June 2015, the Caucasian Emirate’s remaining leaders pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Brian Glyn Williams, Inferno in Chechnya: The Russian Chechen Wars, the Al Qaeda Myth and the Boston Marathon Bombings. (Dartmouth, MA: University Press New England, 2015), chapter six.

[f] A detailed assessment of the potentially profound international security consequences of worsening Sunni-Shia tensions in the Middle East is beyond the scope of this article.

[1] “Vladimir Putin took part in the plenary session of the anniversary, the 70th session of the UN General Assembly in New York,” Kremlin.ru, September 28, 2015.

[2] “Russian parliament unanimously approves use of military in Syria to fight ISIS,” Russia Today, September 30, 2015.

[3] “Putin: War Crimes Accusations in Syria’s Political Rhetoric,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 13, 2016.

[4] “Farewell to Arms: Real Results of Russia’s Air Campaign,” Sputnik, March 20, 2016.

[5] “A “Paris-style” Terror Plot Prevented in Moscow and St. Petersburg,” Moskovsky Komsomolets, November 13, 2016.

[6] “Russian Embassy in Syria Shelled,” CBS News, October 13, 2015.

[7] Ishaan Tharoor, “Why Russia is in Syria,” Washington Post, September 11, 2015.

[8] Wladimir Wilgenburg, “The Rise of Jaysh al-Fateh in Northern Syria,” Jamestown Foundation, June 12, 2015.

[9] “Putin: Russian Airstrikes in Syria Aimed at Helping Assad Regime,” CNN, October 12, 2015.

[10] Gardiner Harris and Eric Schmitt, “Obama’s Call to UN to Fight ISIS with Ideas Is Largely Seen as Futile,” New York Times, September 30, 2015.

[11] “Agreement on placing Russian air group in the SAR is concluded for an indefinite period,” RIA Novosti, January 14, 2016.

[12] “Russian airbase in Syria: RT checks out everyday life at Latakia airfield,” Russia Today, October 3, 2015.

[13] See, for example, the situation map from the Institute for the Study of War, “Russian Airstrikes in Syria: September 30, 2015.”

[14] “After Denying Claims They’re Killing Civilians, Russia Has Launched Fresh Airstrikes in Syria,” VICE News, October 1, 2015.

[15] Henry Johnson, “This Helicopter Is Putin’s Weapon of Choice in Syria,” Foreign Policy, October 14, 2015.

[16] Haid Haid, “Have the Syrian Rebels got Anti-Aircraft Missiles?” Newsweek, April 18, 2016.

[17] Aron Lund, “Rebels in Northwestern Syria Buckle Under Russian Bombardment,” Carnegie Middle East Center, January 25, 2016.

[18] J. Dana Stuster, “Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria to Share Intelligence on Islamic State,” Foreign Policy, September 28, 2015.

[19] Sam Dagher and Asa Fitch, “Iran Expands Role in Syria in Conjunction With Russia’s Airstrikes,” Wall Street Journal, October 2, 2015.

[20] Robin Emmott, “Russia has ground troop battalion, advanced tanks in Syria: U.S. NATO envoy,” Reuters, October 7, 2015.

[21] “Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Andrei Kartapolov told about the results of usage of cruise missiles against militants in Syria,” Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, October 8, 2015; Adam Chandler, “Russia Is Really Just Showing Off in Syria at This Point,” Atlantic, October 7, 2015; Patrick Lyons, “Russia’s Kalibr Cruise Missiles, a New Weapon in Syrian Conflict,” New York Times, October 8, 2015.

[22] “More than 90% of Russian airstrikes in Syria have not targeted Isis, US says,” Agence France-Presse, October 7, 2015; Abu Ibrahim Raqqawi, “Russia lied about targeting ISIS,” Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, October 20, 2015.

[23] U.S. Department of State, Daily Press Briefing, October 7, 2015.

[24] “Syrian Conflict: Russia Launches Fresh Strikes,” BBC, October 1, 2015.

[25] “Russian Warplanes Destroy 140 Terrorist Targets in Syria,” Sputnik, November 18, 2015.

[26] “Strikes in Palmyra in Syria Lead to More Questions Than Results,” New York Times, November 17, 2015.

[27] Brian Glyn Williams, Counter Jihad: America’s Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), p. 313.

[28] See, for example, this footage that appeared on Russia Today: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DI6n_TCj9-Y.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Maks Czuperski, Eliot Higgins, Frederic Hof, Ben Nimmo, and John E. Herbst, “Distract, Deceive, Destroy: Putin at War in Syria,” Atlantic Council, April 2016.

[31] “Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” U.S. Department of State.

[32] Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: An Interview with Nick Rasmussen, Director, NCTC,” CTC Sentinel 8:9 (2015).

[33] Emma Graham-Harrison, “Russia’s Airstrikes Killed 2,000 Civilians in Six Months,” Guardian, March 15, 2016.

[34] Genevieve Casagrande, “Russian Airstrikes in Syria: September 30, 2015 – September 19, 2016,” Institute for the Study of War.

[35] Ben Hubbard, “‘Doomsday Today in Aleppo’: Assad and Russian Forces Bombard City,” New York Times, September 23, 2016.

[36] “Syrian government forces in north choke opposition supply lines,” Guardian, February 5, 2016.

[37] Hubbard.

[38] “Syrian army says takes Aleppo district, rebels say battle continues,” Reuters, November 8, 2016.

[39] Elliot Hannon, “Vladimir Putin Announces Unexpected Withdrawal of Russian Troops from Syria,” Slate, March 14, 2016.

[40] Dominic Evans, “Islamic State Driven out of Syria’s Ancient Palmyra City,” Reuters, March 28, 2016.

[41] Andrew E. Kramer and Andrew Higgins, “In Syria, Russia Plays Bach Where ISIS Executed 25,” New York Times, May 5, 2016.

[42] “Battle Rages Near Aleppo, Air Onslaught Continues,” Reuters, September 25, 2016.

[43] Thomas Joscelyn, “Jihadists and other rebels claim to have broken through siege of Aleppo,” Long War Journal, August 7, 2016.

[44] “Iran and Iraq Become Open Allies in the War on ISIS,” Izvestiia, August 16, 2016.

[45] Anne Barnard and Andrew E. Kramer, “Iran Revokes Russia’s Use of Air Base, Saying Moscow ‘Betrayed Trust’,” New York Times, August 22, 2016.

[46] Lesley Wroughton, “U.S. suspends Syria ceasefire talks with Russia, blames Moscow,” Reuters, October 3, 2016.

[47] “Aircraft Carrier ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’ Started to Participate in Military Action in Syria,” Russia Today, November 15, 2016.

[48] “3 Nusra commanders, dozens of jihadists killed in airstrikes from Russian aircraft carrier – MoD,” Russia Today, November 17, 2016.; “Mneniye: ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’ v Sirii, ‘otrezal nos’ ne tol’ko terroristy,” RIA Novosti, November 17, 2016.

[49] “Aleppo siege: Third of rebel-held Syria city taken by forces,” BBC, November 28, 2016.

[50] “Syria government forces split rebel-held Aleppo in two,” Al Jazeera, November 28, 2016; “Aleppo: Up to 20,000 flee as government advances,” Al Jazeera, November 30, 2016.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Alex Luhn and Kareem Shaheen, “Syrian insurgents vow to attack Russian forces as Moscow hints at ground role,” Guardian, October 5, 2015.

[53] “ISIS calls on ‘Islamic youth’ to ignite holy war against Russians & Americans,” Russia Today, October 14, 2015.

[54] Jason Hanna, Michael Martinez, and Jennifer Deaton, “ISIS publishes photo of what it says is bomb that downed Russian plane,” CNN, November 19, 2015.

[55] Authors’ monitoring of Russian media.

[56] Thomas Joscelyn, “Head of al Qaeda’s Syrian branch threatens Russia in audio message,” Long War Journal, October 13, 2015.

[57] “Syria conflict: Shells hit Russian embassy compound,” BBC, October 13, 2015.

[58] “Alleged ISIS video threatens Putin, Russia with attacks,” Russia Today, August 1, 2016.

[59] “Putin: 7,000 people from ex-Soviet republics estimated to fight alongside ISIS,” Russia Today, October 16, 2015.

[60] Thomas Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” American Political Science Review, February 2013.

[61] “Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq,” The Soufan Group, December 2015; Michael Crowley, “Putin faces blowback from Syria intervention,” Politico, October 8, 2015.

[62] “ISIS is Russia’s Greatest Enemy, not U.S.,” Al Arabiya, April 22, 2015.

[63] Greg Botelho, “ISIS video claims beheading of Russian spy, threatens Russian people,” CNN, December 3, 2015.

[64] Suman Varandani, “ISIS Russia Attack: Islamic State Group Claims Shooting in North Caucasus, Report Says,” International Business Times, December 31, 2015.

[65] Anna Nemtsova, “How ISIS Takes Revenge on Russia,” Daily Beast, February 19, 2016.

[66] “Islamic State Behind Dagestani Bomb Blast That Killed Two Policemen,” Reuters, February 15, 2016.

[67] Thomas Joscelyn, “Islamic State claims 2 attacks on Russian forces in Dagestan,” Long War Journal, March 22, 2016.

[68] Carolina Mortimer, “Moscow beheading: Nanny claims she was ‘inspired by Isis’ to murder four-year-old girl,” Independent, March 15, 2016. 

[69] “Putin Expresses Condolences to Turkish People After Istanbul Airport Attack,” Sputnik, June 29, 2016; Faith Karimi, Steve Almasy, and Gul Tuysuz, “ISIS leadership involved in Istanbul attack planning, Turkish source says,” CNN, June 30, 2016.

[70] Lizzie Dearden, “Isis claims responsibility for first terror attack in Russia after men try to kill police with gun and axes near Moscow,” Independent, August 19, 2016.

[71] “ISIS Claims Responsibility for Terrorist Attack on Russian Soil,” Moscow Times, October 26, 2016.

[72] “Terror Attack Targeted St. Petersburg Shopping Malls – Reports,” Moscow Times, November 16, 2016.

[73] “Read Putin’s UN General Assembly Speech.”

[74] Tim Walker and Bethan McKernan, “US claims Russia warplanes bombed Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid convoy and warehouse,” Independent, September 20, 2016.

[75] “Putin and Trump Consider it Necessary to Unite in the Fight Against Terrorism,” RIA Novosti, November 14, 2016.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up