More and more political analysts are keen to know if religious extremism can creep into the South Caucasus or not. It doesn’t so much matter if this will be the ISIS or some other force. What matters is that this is already considered as a real threat for the South Caucasus nations.
Armenia has the highest immune resistance against Middle East extremist ideologies. Unlike its post-Soviet neighbors, it is part of a collective security system and has a Russian military base in its territory. Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan – the most probable infiltration channels for ISIS fighters – are locked as the Armenians have no relations with either the Turks or the Azerbaijanis.
The 35-km border with Iran can hardly be used by terrorists as it is strongly guarded by the Iranians, from one side, and by a Russian-Armenian joint force, from the other.
There are no people from mono-ethnic Armenia in the Islamic forces fighting in Syria and Iraq – and cannot be by definition. And this is an extra guarantee against radical elements in that country.
In Georgia and Azerbaijan the situation is much more alarming. After the NATO summit in Wales, the Georgians were promised a “substantial package” of opportunities to cooperate with NATO, and they were very enthusiastic about it. One of the opportunities may be involvement in the US-led anti-Jihad coalition. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Georgia right after the NATO forum in Newport. One of the topics of the talks was Georgia’s commitment to provide its territory for training of fighters for the so-called moderate Syrian opposition. The Georgians are ready to provide military facilities for this project as they regard it as an excellent chance to edge themselves into the anti-ISIS coalition. The Pentagon promised to consider this initiative and to make its opinion known during the next talks.
The potential facility where “Syrian oppositionists” will be trained is the Krtsanisi National Training Center near Tbilisi. It is hard to say if this project will help Georgia to protect itself from religious extremists. What is clear is that the country’s special services and border guards will now have a lot of work to do. The point is that there are lots of people with Georgian passports in ISIS and other radical groups in Syria and Iraq (for example, in Jabhat al-Nusra). Fighting for ISIS are not only ethnic Georgians but also Kists from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. And they are not just fighters but “emirs.” According to foreign sources, fighting in Syria and Iraq for the moment are some 100-200 people that are related to Georgia in one or another way. All of the ISIS Chechen “emirs” are from the Pankisi Gorge. One of them was Tarhan Batirashvili, recently killed fighter known as Abu Umar al-Shishani. He was said to be an outstanding military strategist and was among those who captured Iraqi Mosul in June 2014. His father was Georgian, his mother was Chechen. Batirashvili grew up in the Pankisi Gorge and it was there that he acquired his fighting skills.
But possible “repatriation” of such people is not the only way for radical Islamists to seep into Georgia. That country’s long border with Azerbaijan is also a potential channel for them. Azerbaijan can have two roles here: it can act as both a direct source of the Islamic “infection” and a channel for its transit from other places, for example, from the multi-ethnic Russian republic of Dagestan. More and more Azerbaijani experts are mentioning the North Caucasus as the most probable hotbed of radical religious moods. I think they are not honest here and are trying to evade the suspicion that some of their citizens may be vulnerable to the bellicose fundamentalism coming from the Middle East.
According to Azerbaijani sources, as many as 500 Azerbaijani citizens are fighting for both ISIS and the pro-Assad forces in Syria and Iraq. The former come through Turkey, while the latter through Iran. Relative as this “division” may be, the very fact that such flows exist implies quite serious challenges for the oil-bearing Azerbaijan. Once those people go back home, they will become a problem for the local authorities. The school of civil war and inter-religious strife will leave a deep scar in their mentality. And there will be no guarantee that they will be loyal to the local political elites.
They in Baku are currently debating on whether to join the anti-ISIS coalition or not and if yes, then to what an extent. Azerbaijani planes will hardly be sent to Syria or Iraq. Nor do they in Baku seem to be willing to send there experts or something like that. The point is that they all but want to anger ISIS fighters who are already publishing maps where Azerbaijan is part of their Islamic State. One more argument against joining the anti-Jihad coalition is that Azerbaijan has special relations with Turkey. The Turks have taken a long break in Syria and Iraq. So, any unapproved contacts the Azerbaijanis may have with the Americans there may receive a very negative response from Ankara. But even if they don’t, the Azerbaijanis are not close enough with the Americans to be their allies in such a coalition.
The European Union gives no security guarantees to Georgia. Nor are such guarantees offered by Georgia’s close relations with the Americans. The Strategic Partnership Charter signed by Georgia and the United States in 2009 obliges the Americans to assist their Georgian partners only in neutralizing external threats and challenges. In this sense, the Azerbaijanis have by far stronger positions in the region. They have Turkey to rely on in case of a force majeure. But this reliance on Turkey only can prove to be not enough especially as the allies have no common border, with the Turks having no stationary military presence in the Azerbaijani territory, except for the enclave of Nakhichevan. Strong as their wish to look to the West (to where their oil and gas are pumped) may be, they in Baku are beginning to realize that they need more balanced military-political relations with their neighbors. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu’s last visit to Baku was quite indicative in this context. He came with an initiative to create a regional security system in the Caspian Sea and to form a council of the navy chiefs of the five Caspian states. It can be the first move to ensure regional security in the Caucasus. The Azerbaijani authorities promised to think it over.
The processes developing in the Middle East, the growing influence of ISIS and other radical movements, all this is a serious challenge for the Caucasus – something the local nations can confront only if they join together despite their existing (and potential) disputes. Sensible people in Moscow, Baku, Yerevan and Tbilisi are well aware of this. In fact, nobody can cancel the sense of common security space in the Caucasus even if it is restricted by a couple of demarcating lines. In any case, it is counterproductive to respond to terroristic threats by means of mutual charges – as was the case with the Georgian authorities, who “started aggressive steps on the global arena” against Russia (in response to the preparations of a new treaty between Moscow and Sukhum).