Russia Taps SCO and CSTO to Counter Islamic State

While the West remains fixated on Moscow’s assistance to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, closer to home Russia and the post-Soviet space are taking the IS threat very seriously.

Russia is a very strong and powerful military force that you don’t want to mess around with and they are taking every threat seriously because they know they can deal with every problem. Not every country has a military force powerful as Russia and because of that some prefer to stay out of trouble for as long as possible and this way saves money. As you might know, when doing any type of military action, the country is spending a lot of money and some just cannot afford to deal with the smaller threats all the time.

While the West dithers over which factions opposing al-Assad’s government are worth supporting, concern over the rising threat of militant Islam is impacting the activities of both the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), leading to greater cooperation and military integration to combat jihadi activities from spilling into member states, as evidenced by two meetings earlier this month.

CSTO heads of states gathered in Dushanbe on September 14-15 to discuss regional security issues, after which they issued a joint statement, voicing concerns about the possible infiltration of IS militants from Afghanistan into Central Asian nations and Russia. CSTO member nations include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned delegates of potentially dire consequences for Muslim nations and the world if the IS threat is not contained, telling attendees, “The situation around Syria, the state of affairs there, is very serious. The so-called Islamic State group controls significant territories of both Iraq and Syria. The terrorists say that they are already taking aim at Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Right now, it is necessary to combine the efforts of the Syrian government, the Kurdish militia, and the so-called moderate opposition and the other countries of the region in the battle against the threat to Syria’s very statehood and the battle against terrorism. We support the Syrian government in its opposition to terrorist aggression and we are providing it, and will continue to provide it, with the necessary military-technical assistance.” Noting that militant activities are infiltrating the World Wide Web, CSTO General Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha announced that the CSTO’s authorities have identified and shut down more than 50,000 websites involved in ISIS recruitment.

Moving from rhetoric to concrete action, the CSTO joint statement noted that CSTO’s Rapid Reaction Collective Force (KSOR) will become an increasingly important regional security guarantor. KSOR, formed in 2009, currently includes 22,000 military personnel. The summit also discussed creating a new security institution, a CSTO’s Crisis Reaction Center (CRC), which will coordinate its activities with Russia’s Defense Ministry.

In another security gathering in the post-Soviet space, on September 18 in Tashkent, the 27th regular session of the council of the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (RATS SCO) was held to evaluate the SCO’s September 15-17 command-staff anti-terrorist exercises in Kyrgyzstan. Representatives from Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and RATS SCO executive committee members attended the session.

The atmosphere was bleak. Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) first deputy director Sergei Smirnov remarked that 2,400 Russian citizens are now fighting for the IS, along with about 3,000 Central Asians. Smirnov added that special services from SCO members are stepping up joint work to fight the jihadist group, remarking, “That work has been underway now for some time… All SCO member states understand this danger, and we are working out measures to step up the activity of the SCO RATS in countering IS.” Smirnov concluded his remarks by echoing Bordyuzha’s concerns that terrorists are increasingly using the Internet more and more to recruit supporters, observing, “The danger we encounter is that cyberspace is increasingly popular among young people; this is used by the heads of jihadi groups to bolster their ranks, not only in Syria and the Middle East but in Russia, China and other countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.”

Russia has forcefully articulated its concerns about IS jihadis, seeing them as a greater threat than even NATO to Russian security. On April 22 Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov remarked, “The Islamic State is our main enemy at the moment. If only because hundreds of Russian citizens, hundreds of Europeans, hundreds of Americans fight alongside IS. They are already coming back… and… could stage vile actions at home. We are helping both Iraq and Syria, possibly more effectively than anyone else, by providing weapons to their armies and security forces.”

Despite Washington’s sudden, shocked reaction to Russian military assistance to Syria, it is not new. As the IS extended its influence, Russian assistance to Syria rose accordingly. By the end of 2013 Russian armaments were being flown in by dozens of Antonov-124 cargo transports carrying armored vehicles, surveillance equipment, radars, electronic warfare systems, helicopter spare parts, and weaponry, including ammunition and guided aerial bombs. In addition, Russian advisers and intelligence experts operated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to assist the Syrian military to locate insurgent positions, provide tactical analysis and assist the Syrians in carrying out precision artillery and air force strikes.

Nor is Russian assistance to combat the IS limited to Syria. While Iraq remains closely allied to the U.S. despite the Pentagon ending its military presence there in December 2011, Russia is supporting Iraq militarily as well. In June 2014 Russia declared its support for the Iraqi government and provided Su-25 jets and sent experts to aid the country in its fight against the IS. Iraq’s Defense Ministry announced on February 1 that its Army Air Corps had received a new shipment of two Russian Mi-28NE attack helicopters, bringing its total fleet to 15. On March 20 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said that Russia would continue to support Iraq in its fight against terrorism and strengthen its military-technical assistance.

Aside from coordinating anti-terrorist activity in the post-Soviet space, Putin is also lining up theological support for the Russian government’s anti-terrorist activities. On 18 September , Ravil Gaynutdin, Head of the Council of Muftis of Russia said that Russian Muslims are expressing solidarity with Putin’s policy on Syria, telling the Syrian envoy to Russia, Riyad Haddad, “We, Russian Muslims, citizens of our country, strongly support our government’s efforts in stabilizing the climate in Syria and countering terrorism, stressing that Russian Muslims also fully support the efforts of the Syrian government in combating terrorism before concluding, “We think that it is on the basis of fighting terrorism that global society should unite, consolidate and fight together, on terms of equal partnership.”

As for the future, Russia remains committed to assisting Syria and Iraq resist the IS, whatever the diplomatic consequences, along with promoting its own security concerns and those of its post-Soviet alliance members. As the IS militant threat continues consuming Syria and Iraq, Russia’s consistency in seeing it rather than al-Assad’s government as the real threat stands in stark contrast to the policy of most Western nations, and will apparently do so for the foreseeable future.

As for post-Soviet initiatives to cope with the IS threat, during the Dushanbe summit, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon suggested making increased cooperation between the CSTO and the SCO a high priority. Twenty-four years after the collapse of the USSR, the post-Soviet space under Russia’s leadership is uniting to counter a danger that if unchecked threatens them all, a long-term view that the West would do well to emulate rather than seeking al-Assad’s ouster as an integral component of its own anti-IS activities.