Terror List and Russia’s Middle East Policy

The absence of Hama and Hezbollah from Russia’s “List of 17” terrorist organizations was been met with charges of hypocrisy, suspicion, and scorn. The omission certainly didn’t sit well with the Israelis or the Americans. The absence of the Kurdish Workers Party even angered Turkey. Such is the problem with the term “terrorism.” Its application is completely relative in relation to national interests, foreign and domestic policy, and cultural and historical factors. Russia has been curt in its explanation. Hamas and Hezbollah weren’t listed because they don’t pose a direct threat to Russia’s national security.

Andrei Smirnov doesn’t buy it. Writing for the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasian Daily Monitor, Smirnov accuses Russia of listing mostly “virtual groups”, groups whose existence can no longer be confirmed. Two of Russia’s top ranked groups, the Supreme Military Council of the Caucasian Mujahideen and the Congress of the Nations of Ichkeria and Dagestan, have not been heard from since 1999. There is question whether the Islamic Party of Turkestan or the Egyptian Al-Ghamia-al-Islamia still exists. Further, Smirnov charges that the list makes one wonder if Russia really knows who they are fighting in the North Caucuses since they don’t list the three most active organizations in the region: the Chechen State Defense Council-Majlis-ul-Shura, Dagestani Sharia Jamaat and the North Ossetian Kataib-al-Khoul.

In addition, if Russia’s list only includes groups that pose a direct threat to Russia, then how do they explain including the Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Toiba or Jamaa al-Islamiya but not the Shura of Iraqi Mujahideen, which claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and execution of Russian diplomats in June. Smirnov goes on to point out more inconsistencies in the Russia terror list.

But the real issue is their leaving Hamas and Hezbollah of the list. This is where politics enters the fray. Even though FSB terror chief Yuri Sapunov admitted that Hamas and Hezbollah both “use terrorist methods in their national liberation struggle,” according to the Ekho Moskvy, this statement was omitted from the published interview in Rossiiskaya gazeta though it was in the original Interfax interview. Here is Smirnov’s explanation why Hamas and Hezbollah are absent:

It is not surprising that Hamas and Hezbollah are excluded from the Russian terror list, as the Kremlin is known to be sympathetic towards these organizations. Earlier this year Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Hamas representatives to Moscow to meet Russian officials, while Hezbollah is supported by Syria and Iran, two countries that have close ties with Russia. Nevertheless, Sapunov hinted that the Russian government could add the two groups to the list in the future. He said, “We recognize international terror lists, for example, the lists of the United Nations and the lists of such superpowers as the USA and the European Union. We consider them when we communicate with the special services of various countries.”

The Russian authorities do not recognize Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations not only because they believe they pose no threat to Russia, but also because the Kremlin is very angry at Western countries that do not recognize the Chechen rebels as terrorists. During a press conference after the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg in July, Putin crossly said that if Syria and Iran are branded state sponsors of terrorism, then Great Britain should also earn that designation because London refuses to extradite Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakaev to Russia (Newsru.com, July 16).

The Kremlin’s decision to omit Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iraqi insurgency from the list of terrorist organizations sends a clear message that terrorist threats to the West will be recognized only if Western officials recognize the Chechen insurgents as terrorists.

As it stands now, the US State Department List of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) does not list a single Chechen or Caucasian terrorist group.

Perhaps a better explanation for certain groups’ absences on Russia list has to do with its policy in the Middle East. According to Pavel Baev, Putin’s Middle East policy has to do with a pragmatic approach to the region that is balanced with ensuring high oil prices and arms sales. Instead of the active role Putin hoped for in nuclear talks with North Korea in 2000, the Kremlin is now much more cautious with the Middle East. Even media coverage of the Hezbollah-Israeli war has been “remarkably balanced.” Writes Baev,

Moscow’s self-confidence is also supported by the assessment of the conflict dynamics in the Middle East that suggest a very probable strengthening of its quietly advanced position in a matter of a few weeks. This position is by no means moral but entirely pragmatic: No international framework for Lebanon could be negotiated without involving Syria; no agreement with the government of Lebanon could be implemented if Hezbollah is not a part of it; no stable arrangement for Gaza could be hammered out against the resistance of Hamas. The Kremlin calculates that it would take a few weeks for Israel to recognize that the spectacular devastation of Southern Lebanon could not significantly weaken the military capabilities and political influence of Hezbollah, much the same way as the full-blown invasion in 1982 did not bring about the destruction of the PLO. Meanwhile, the outrage in the Arab states and the indignation in Europe about the scale of the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe would predictably reach such levels that a ceasefire becomes imperative whatever reservations Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice might state. That is why Moscow was not in the least upset by the failure of the Rome conference last week, where Syria was not represented, expecting that the forum would be reconvened when Washington is forced to swallow its objections against sitting at one table with a representative from Damascus.