Andrew Korybko's blog

Comparing The Contours of Russia’s Ummah Pivot in Syria & Afghanistan

September 27, 2021

The Ummah Pivot

Russia’s 21st-century grand strategy can be described as its leadership’s aspiration to make their country the supreme balancing force in Eurasia. To this end, it aims to have equally excellent relations with all the supercontinent’s many parties through a creative combination of outreaches, with a priority focus being on expanding ties with non-traditional partners. Russia cannot become disproportionately dependent on the East (China) or West (EU), hence why it’s recently taken to exploring previously untapped opportunities beyond its Southern frontier in the majority-Muslim countries that form part of the international Islamic community (Ummah).


Source: Afghan Media Resource Centre

This policy can be described as Russia’s Ummah Pivot. It’s conditioned on the expectation that the increased role of this part of Eurasia in Russian policy will enable the Kremlin to perfect its balancing act between East and West and thus emerge as the supercontinent’s supreme balancing force exactly as it plans. Moscow’s differing degrees of involvement in two countries in recent years, Syria and Afghanistan, can be considered case studies of this policy. Both are mired in very complex conflicts and are geostrategically positioned in their respective regions. Furthermore, Russia has been compelled by circumstances to pragmatically engage a wide array of majority-Muslim countries, including non-traditional ones with which it hadn’t worked closely before.

The Syrian Case Study

The contours of Russia’s Ummah Pivot in Syria set the basis for what would eventually follow in Afghanistan. That West Asian country invited the Russian Armed Forces to contribute to their anti-terrorist campaign against the self-described “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL), which is banned as a terrorist group by Moscow. Russia’s military intervention there quickly resulted in it becoming the kingmaker of that country’s affairs, after which its diplomats promptly got to work engaging with the top two foreign stakeholders there, Iran and Turkey. The Astana peace process was the result of their efforts, which in turn froze the battle lines and enabled Damascus to gradually reassert its writ throughout the liberated portions of the country.

In parallel with this, Russia pioneered lower-level cooperation with lesser stakeholders such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and their shared US ally. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Moscow in September 2015 just prior to the onset of Russia’s anti-terrorist campaign in Syria to agree to a so-called deconfliction mechanism for coordinating their respective military operations there. The full details have yet to be publicly disclosed, but the outcome was that Israel was supposed to inform Russia ahead of any strike that is carried out there against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Hezbollah allies, both of whom were invited also invited by Damascus to assist with the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) anti-terrorist campaign.

This mechanism has proven to be imperfect, but it nevertheless succeeded in mostly managing their contradictory military operations in the Arab Republic. As for Russia’s outreaches to Saudi Arabia, it hoped to encourage the Kingdom to curtail its reported support of anti-government militants and accept Syria’s return to the Arab League. The first objective has seemingly been met while the second remains a work in progress. It’s Moscow’s official position that Syria should be allowed back into the Arab League without preconditions since President Bashar Assad remains its democratically elected and legitimate leader after the foreign-backed regime change against him failed. Even so, Saudi Arabia and some others are hesitant to allow Syria to return.

When it comes to the US, Russia also has a deconfliction mechanism in place with it and seems to have informally delineated a “sphere of influence” between them in Syria along the Euphrates River. American forces continue to illegally occupy the agriculturally and energy-rich northeastern corner of the country in support of their local Kurdish anti-government allies. Over the years, Russia has tried to broker a breakthrough between them and Damascus by encouraging the Syrian government to consider granting that minority some degree of autonomy, even if only culturally, though this has yet to achieve any progress. The Kurds appear to be emboldened by the US to remain obstinate and continue demanding broad political autonomy.

This complicated state of play has resulted in the Syrian Conflict freezing for the most part of the past few years. There are occasional anti-terrorist flashpoints and, every once in a while, some clashes between the SAA and its Turkish opponents, but not much has changed on the ground lately. Russia’s challenge is to reach a practical political compromise between all legitimate warring parties in the conflict through the Astana peace process and complementary constitutional commission while figuring out how to compel the occupying American and Turkish forces to withdraw in a face-saving manner. It must also manage growing Israeli-Iranian tensions in the Arab Republic so that they don’t explode into a wider war.

The Afghan Case Study

The Afghan case study is similar yet nonetheless different to the Syrian one. Russia learned from the latter the importance of engaging with regional stakeholders, including non-state ones. This influenced it to launch the Moscow peace process between members of the then-Afghan government and the Taliban. The second-mentioned party is designated as a terrorist group by Russia even though the country continues to pragmatically engage with it in the interests of peace and security. This process not only brought the warring sides closer but also improved Russia’s relations with Pakistan, with whom it fought a US-backed proxy war in Afghanistan all throughout the 1980s and increased mutual trust between their governments.

The Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover of the country in August completely changed the conflict’s dynamics. This militant group emerged as the country’s de facto leaders even though they’ve yet to be formally recognized as such at the time of this article’s publication. Russia swiftly built upon the diplomatic inroads it made with them to become one of the three countries with the most pragmatic ties to that group in this new environment, behind its fellow Moscow peace process participants, Pakistan and China. America abruptly no longer became an influential actor inside that country even though its weaponization of financial instruments through the freezing of Afghanistan’s foreign assets under its jurisdiction threatens to exacerbate its socio-economic crisis.

Another challenge that suddenly became evident was the need to manage three regional stakeholders’ historically difficult ties with the Taliban. These are India, Iran, and Russia’s fellow Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) ally Tajikistan. New Delhi lost all of its hard-earned influence in Afghanistan upon the evacuation of its diplomats in August after investing over $3 billion in development projects there over the past two decades. Tehran has recently criticized the Taliban for its military operation in the Panjshir region and wants it to respect the Shiite minority, while Dushanbe remains concerned about its co-ethnics in that country. Russia must therefore see to it that these fault lines don’t provoke any proxy conflicts.

Unlike in Syria, Russia is not the kingmaker of Afghan affairs because it has no military involvement in the country and thus is not capable of leading the political process there. Rather, it must creatively leverage its diplomatic capabilities to improve the socio-economic situation so as to stave off an impending humanitarian crisis which could trigger an uncontrollable influx of refugees into Central Asia as well as create fertile ground for ISIL’s regional “Khorasan” branch (ISIL-K) to expand. As a precaution against the worst-case scenarios transpiring, it’s beefed up its military support to Tajikistan and has been participating in joint drills with neighboring Uzbekistan too in order to defend against the possible spillover of these threats.

As it stands, Russia believes that the most effective solution is for the US to lift its unilateral sanctions on Afghanistan and cooperate with the international community’s efforts to prevent a humanitarian crisis there. Moscow also seems to be of the view that further economic assistance to the country should be conditional on the Taliban fulfilling its promise of ethnopolitical inclusiveness in its de facto government, to which end it aims to work closely with Islamabad and Beijing to gently encourage the group to do this. Should they meet those countries’ expectations, the Taliban might then be formally recognized by them and others, which would then unlock the possibility of further comprehensive aid to assist the country’s reconstruction.

Similarities & Differences

Upon having a better understanding of these two case studies, one can now more accurately identify certain similarities and differences between them. Both efforts have seen Russia reach out to legitimate non-state actors in those conflicts. These are those Syrian anti-government militants that aren’t considered to be terrorists and agreed to participate in the Astana peace process as well as the Afghan Taliban that took part in the Moscow peace process. Some criticized Russia’s pragmatic engagements with the second-mentioned group, but these outreaches were later legitimized by UNSC Resolution 2513 of March 2020, which called on all states to provide full support for promoting political negotiations between the warring Afghan parties.

The second similarity is Russia’s parallel engagement with regional stakeholders in both conflicts, most of whom are non-traditional partners. This was institutionalized through Syria’s Astana peace process and Afghanistan’s Moscow one. These arrangements helped Russia improve its overall relations and trust with Iran & Turkey in Syria and Pakistan & China in Afghanistan. It’s also important to point out that Turkey supports the Syrian anti-government militants, while Pakistan has previously been accused of patronizing the Taliban. Both are also the primary regional stakeholders in both conflicts. This suggests that Russia wisely sought to engage with them in the hopes that they could exert a positive influence on their partners in order to promote a political solution.

The differences between the Syrian and Afghan case studies are acute. Russia is militarily involved in Syria at the request of its legitimate government, while it has no such military involvement in Afghanistan. On the military topic, Syria remains partially occupied by American and Turkish forces while Israel continues to carry out strikes against there against Damascus’ Iranian and Hezbollah partners. By contrast, no foreign military forces remain in Afghanistan, nor has any country like the US carried out any strikes there since the completion of the international coalition’s withdrawal in August. This makes it much more difficult to promote a lasting political solution in Syria than in Afghanistan, yet the latter country still isn’t without its difficulties either.

Russia would probably have preferred an interim government partially comprised of the Taliban to follow in the wake of the Western coalition’s withdrawal from that country, but the leader of the Hezb-e-Wahdat Islami Afghanistan partly recently said that the former Ghani government “deep-sixed this deal” by unexpectedly fleeing in the face of the group’s rapid advance last month. This means that Russia has been forced to react to dramatic circumstances there beyond its control, which put its diplomatic flexibility to the test. To its credit, however, the Kremlin has successfully weathered this challenge by continuing to closely engage with the Taliban on shared issues of peace and security. It also intensified its pertinent coordination with Pakistan.

Interestingly, the contours of the Afghan Crisis suggest that it might be comparatively easier for Russia to politically resolve than the Syrian one, in spite of Moscow being militarily involved in the latter. That doesn’t mean that the Kremlin’s anti-terrorist intervention in the Arab Republic wasn’t a success, but just that its subsequent diplomatic goals there remain distant due to the continued military occupation of that country by some foreign forces and the prospects of it becoming the scene for a more intensified regional proxy war. These same risks are much less likely in Afghanistan precisely because of the absence of foreign military forces there, which bolsters the prospects for a political solution even if it’ll still take some time to achieve.

Concluding Thoughts

After having compared and contrasted the Syrian and Afghan Conflicts in the context of Russia’s Ummah Pivot, it becomes clear that the Eurasian Great Power has truly become a force to be reckoned with in the international Muslim community. Its grand strategic goals are being advanced after Moscow ambitiously made itself an important stakeholder in those two regional conflicts whose ultimate outcomes will powerfully reshape the future of the supercontinent. This bolsters Russia’s balancing act between East and West by proving that the Southern vector has indeed become a pivotal part of its policy-making calculus. It also shows the pragmatism of Russian foreign policy in the Ummah, which starkly contrasts with the US’ approach there.

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