Russia’s Schizophrenic Policy: Federal Security Service Sends Jihadists into Syria, Also Sends Military to Coordinate With Assad

On one hand, this is the way you get terrorist insurgents in your own territories to go to work for you.

From The Daily Beast.

It is an article of faith among the many critics of the current Russian government that, however unpleasant Vladimir Putin may be, he is still a necessary partner in one crucial field of U.S. foreign policy: cooperation in the war on Islamic terrorism.

Proof, if it were needed, for how valued this cooperation is among U.S. policymakers came in the conspicuous absence of Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, from sanctions levied by the Treasury Department against Russian officials. The sanctions targeted bureaucrats involved in both the invasion and occupation of Crimea and the unacknowledged maskirovka war that Moscow is still waging in eastern Ukraine—a war that has drawn amply on the resources of the FSB and has included several “former” FSB officers on the battlefield. Not only was Bortnikov not sanctioned, he was invited by the White House last February as a guest to President Obama’s three-day conference on “countering violent extremism,” whereas the current FBI director, James Comey, was not.

That conference was held principally because of the international threat posed by ISIS and the coalition war against it in Syria and Iraq, not to mention the Chechen identity of the Tsarnaev brothers, perpetrators of the 2013 Boston marathon bombings. Bortnikov’s presence was a mutual recognition by the U.S. and Russia that fighting jihadism is a shared challenge between two countries now embroiled in a pitched standoff over the fate of Europe and much else.

Yet a recent investigation conducted by Novaya Gazeta, one of the few independent newspapers left in Russia, complicates this cozy tale of counterterrorist cooperation. Based on extensive fieldwork in one village in the North Caucasus, reporter Elena Milashina has concluded that the “Russian special services have controlled” the flow of jihadists into Syria, where they have lately joined up not only with ISIS but other radical Islamist factions. In other words, Russian officials are adding to the ranks of terrorists which the Russian government has deemed a collective threat to the security and longevity of its dictatorial ally on the Mediterranean, Bashar al-Assad.

It may sound paradoxical—helping the enemy of your friend—but the logic is actually straightforward: Better the terrorists go abroad and fight in Syria than blow things up in Russia. Penetrating and co-opting terrorism also has a long, well-attested history in the annals of Chekist tradecraft.

Milashina makes her case study the village of Novosasitili in Dagestan’s Khasavyurt district. Since 2011, nearly 1 percent of the total population of Novosasitili has gone to Syria—22 out of 2,500 residents. Of that figure, five were killed and five have returned home. But they didn’t leave Russia, a country notoriously difficult to enter and exit, without outside help. The FSB established a “green corridor” to allow them to migrate first to Turkey, and then to Syria. (Russians, including those living in the North Caucasus, can catch any of the daily non-stop flights to Istanbul and visit Turkey without a visa.)

……So far the tactic of encouraging hijrah, or jihadist emigration, has appeared to help the Russian government pacify its decades-long insurgency in the North Caucasus. Akhmet Yarlya, a researcher at Moscow State Institute of International Relations’s Center of the Problems of the Caucasus and Regional Security, a group attached to Russia’s Foreign Ministry, has estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 Islamic militants have joined ISIS in the Middle East. By all accounts, the result has been great for counterterrorism officials, who are now able to claim direct credit for seeing terrorist violence in the region halved since the Syria crisis kicked off.

……Mike Rogers, a former U.S. representative and the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told The Daily Beast that the FSB might be turning a “blind eye” to jihadist outflow to Syria. “The only reason I say that is that they could alert Assad’s folks to get them once they’re in Syria,” Rogers said. “But for me, the idea of getting them out of town doesn’t make sense because they know they get combat training and come back home.”

However, a former CIA operative who has liaised with the FSB in Tajikistan, told The Daily Beast that such concerns wouldn’t necessarily stop a clandestine conveyor belt of extremists out of Russia, which is hardly unique to Putin’s regime. “It’s perfectly conceivable that the FSB would take their most violent types and say, ‘Yeah, you want your caliphate? Go set it up in Raqqa.’ The Saudis did this in the ’80s with the Afghans. It’s sort of tried and true. We could do the same thing. Of course, we’re not.”

……And for all Putin’s bellicose tough-on-terror rhetoric, this displacement actually suits his interests quite nicely. In June, the Caucasus Emirate, the leading radical insurgency in Russia, pledged allegiance to ISIS, giving Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s terror army a nominal affiliate in a major Eurasian country. That fact ought to be terrifying to Moscow. Except that it isn’t. “Russia is very happy about this because it means that it can now blame the local insurgency on ISIS—‘an international group created by the West’—rather than on local problems in the Caucasus,” Paraszczuk said.

……In the Russian intelligence playbook, such a gambit is known as provokatsiya. Asformer NSA analyst John Schindler defines it, the technique “simply means taking control of your enemies in secret and encouraging them to do things that discredit them and help you.” The czar’s Okhrana used it against the Bolsheviks and other revolutionary socialist factions; Lenin and Stalin’s intelligence services used it against the West; and Putin has used it to remarkable effect in Ukraine.

On the other hand, you cozy up to the very government fighting the jihadists you sent, bydispatching military representatives to collaborate with the regime:

Russian military officers are now in Damascus and meeting regularly with Iranian and Syrian counterparts, according to a source with close contacts in the Bashar al-Assad regime. “They’re out in restaurants and cafes with other high officials in the Syrian Army,” the source told The Daily Beast, “mainly concentrated in Yaafour and Sabboura, areas that are close to each other, and in west Mezze,” referring to a district in the capital where Assad’s praetorian Fourth Armored Division keeps an important airbase. “The Russians aren’t in uniform, but they’re constantly hanging out with officers from the Syrian Army’s central command.”

Other Syrians claim to have seen Russians in uniform.

One family that recently traveled from Aleppo to Damascus by taxi before emigrating by plane to Turkey says it saw a small contingent of Russian troops embedded with Syrians at a military checkpoint in the capital. “We were near the Shaghour district when we noticed two soldiers who were not Syrian,” a family representative said. “They were tall, blond and blue-eyed and wore different fatigues from the Syrians and carried weapons. I’m telling you, they were Russian.”

They’re propping up Assad and they’re flooding Syria with terrorists.  Brilliant.

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