The bizarre and as-yet-unexplained crash of Metrojet Flight 9268 has highlighted a possible gaping hole in much of the American commentary about Russia’s war-by-proxy with American in Syria. American commentators are understandably focused on how President Obama will react to Putin’s every move in Syria, but it seems fairly obvious that Putin is (justifiably) completely unconcerned about Obama, who he is treating as basically a non-entity in the region.
If there is anyone Putin is keeping an even half-wary eye on, it is the humongous Sunni minority housed within his country’s borders, who are watching with fury as Russia sides yet again with the Shiites in the Middle East. The very real possibility that Russia’s alliance with Assad might spark a conflagration that engulfs the entire Middle East and which might well cause a violent backlash in the Caucasus is the one and only threat that Putin is taking seriously right now, and is also the reason that basically nothing the Russians say about the downing of Metrojet Flight 9268 can be trusted from this point on.
There’s good reason to believe that the claim that an ISIS affiliate shot the plane out of the sky at cruising altitude are false, but the question of whether the plane was the victim of a midair explosion is still very much up in the air. If either scenario proves to be true, this could very well be the opening salvo of the one gambit that might cause Putin to re-evaluate his course of action in the Middle East:
Russia’s military intervention in Syria has been relatively painless for the Kremlin so far. But the weekend crash of a Russian airliner in Egypt has sparked speculation that Islamist extremists brought the plane down. And that scenario raises a question that has loomed over President Vladimir Putin’s gamble from the outset: Will Moscow keep up its air war in Syria if it triggers a wave of terrorist attacks against Russia?
As it carried out bombing raids against Sunni rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime over the past month, Moscow has calculated it can contain the risk of a backlash from Sunni Muslims, including those with Russian passports who have taken up arms in Syria.
But it’s unclear how Moscow will respond if what is now a relatively low-level terrorism threat turns into an emergency that puts Russia’s homeland at risk, spawning fear among its citizens.
To be sure, Putin and Russia historically have been eagerly willing to summarily butcher their native Muslim population when things get out of hand, to varying degrees of success. Putin is, quite simply, less squeamish about brutality directed against his own people than most Westerners can even credit. Still, the sheer size of the Russian Muslim population (estimated at 17 million of Russia’s total 140 million people) means that Putin knows he cannot solve any sort of mass uprising with violence alone (although he might well try).
Nevertheless, becoming the principal enemy of ISIS carries a vastly different connotation for Russia than it does for the United States. And there are indications that ISIS realizes that stopping Russian intervention in Syria is a key strategic goal and is acting accordingly:
While Russia has long faced a terrorism threat from Islamist militants in Chechnya and elsewhere in the Northern Caucasus, it has taken on a high-profile role in its intervention in Syria’s civil war that could make it an attractive target for extremists.
The leader of al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, has appealed to his supporters to stage attacks on troops and civilians in Russia in retaliation for Moscow’s direct entry into the war on behalf of Assad’s regime.
“The new Russian invasion is the last arrow in the quiver of the enemies of the Muslims,” said the Nusra chief, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, in an audio recording released on Oct. 12.
Jolani called on militants in the Caucasus region to “distract” Moscow from its mission in Syria. The same day the Nusra leader issued his call for revenge, two mortar rounds hit the perimeter of the Russian Embassy in Damascus.
If, in fact, Metrojet Flight 9268 was brought down by an act of terrorism, this will be the beginning of the first actual test of Putin’s resolve in Syria that we have seen – because Lord knows that nothing the United States is doing has thus far caused him to even think twice.