VOA Interview with Tomas Graham:
In a recent interview with the Voice of America Georgian Service, Dr. Tomas Graham spoke about the Russian military offensive in Syria and its possible implications on Georgia. He said that the Georgian government should exercise extreme caution and do everything it can to prevent the movement of any Islamist radicals on its territory. He also said that by starting a military operation in Syria Russia runs a risk of encouraging domestic terrorism not only in the North Caucasus, but also in the heart of Russia. Thomas Graham is a Managing Director of Kissinger Associates, Inc. and a professor at Yale University. In 2004-2007, he was a Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia at the National Security Council. He served two diplomatic tours in Moscow at the U.S. Embassy in Russia. Ia Meurmishvili of the Voice of America interviewed Dr. Graham.
What do you make of the timing of the Russian air campaign in Syria? Why now?
I think that Russia looked at the situation on the ground in Syria and understood that Assad’s forces were in fact losing ground. Assad himself earlier this summer said that his military was overstretched and could not protect all the points that needed to be protected. The Kremlin recognized that it was in danger of losing one of its few allies in the Middle East – that is Syrian President Assad. So, it moved in now in order to protect its assets in Syria. I think that is the simple, most straightforward explanation for why they decided to undertake the operation now.
Does that mean that organization Islamic State is not a priority target for Russia?
I don’t think that ISIS is the priority target at the moment. I think the key goal now is to support Assad and consolidate his regime at some point. The Russians have launched attacks against some extremist forces, Al-Nusra in particular. But if you look at where the military assets are located and the capabilities of those assets, it’s very difficult for them to strike regions where ISIS is predominant. That said overtime, I believe, the goal is to move against ISIS. ISIS after all, is a threat to Russia. We know that there are thousands of Russian citizens, who have joined ISIS in the past several months. The terrorist organizations in the Caucasus have pledged loyalty to ISIS. The ISIS individuals are spread throughout Russia. So all of this is a threat to Russia, a significant terrorist threat, and at some point Moscow will have to deal with ISIS as well.
What implication, if any, could this operation in Syria have on the security and stability of the Caucasus?
As I’ve already said, thereare a number of terrorist organizations in the North Caucasus that have declared their loyalty to ISIS. We also know that there are other extremist groups that are connected to Al Qaeda, and some that are unaffiliated operating in the North Caucasus. It seems to me that a very prominentand visible Russian effort in Syria against extremist,declaratory policy that claims that this is against ISIS, will encourage ISIS to find ways to strike back against Russia. They will do some of that in Syria, I am confident, but they will also reach out to their allies in places like Russia, like North Caucasus and look for support in some way. It can happen within the Caucasus Region, but we also know from past years that some of the extremist groups have the capability to strike well beyond the Caucasus – in the center of Moscow for example. So, I think it’s a serious threat that the Kremlin needs to keep in mind.
There have been some statements from the Russian Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry saying that Georgia is an open highway for the Islamists to go back-and-forth to Syria. Do you think the Georgian government should be mindful and cautious of such statements? Do you think there is anything behind these statements?
There have been problems in the past with Chechen fighters, as we know,harboring in Georgia, in Pankisi Gorge in particular. That has always been a concern to the Russians. I don’t find it surprising that the Russians would say something like this. There are in fact only a few routes out of Russia into Syria and the Middle East and Georgia is one of those. The Georgian government needs to take it seriously. I think the Georgian government itself has a reason to be concerned about ISIS supporters inside Georgia, and what that would mean for their own security, and certainly if the Russians are raising these issues. The Georgian government needs to do everything it can to ensure that it is on top of the situation, doing what it can to cut down the flow of potential fighters across Georgia. They need to do that for their own purposes, but obviously, they need to do that with a glance at Moscow as well.
Do you anticipate any friction or any more complications in the Turkish-Russian relations as we see this air campaign unfold?
Absolutely! We know we know that Russia and Turkey have had a fairly good relationship over the past several years. Turkish President Erdogan and President Putin appeared to get along, but turkey is quite sensitive about anything that might pose a threat to its own security.And, certainly the incursions over the past several days sensitive about anything that might security and certainly been curtains over the past several days, whether intentional or not,have to be a cause of concern for Ankara. They have made it clear to their NATO allies that they would expect in the situation like this that article 5 would apply. The NATO has assured them that it that it will be. I think Russia has to be extremely careful in how it pursues the campaign. It needs to be careful not to make multiple incursions into Turkey. That I think risks a response from Turkey, perhaps even shooting down a Russian aircraft and once that happens, we are in a completely different dimension of this confrontation.
Do you think Russians really made a mistake when they flowing to the Turkish air space as they claimed later or do you think it was a test or a challenge to NATO and turkey to see how far they could push the envelope?
It’svery difficult for outsiders to say anything with authority; in fact, we can’t say anything with authority on a situation like that. I have no way of knowing whether it was intentional or not. The important point is that Turkey, NATO, the United States will look at this information – both technical and otherwise – and draw conclusions. The Turks and NATO have indicated they believe that those incursions were intentional, very provocative in that regard. That is on the basis of which they are going to react. Whether intentional or not on Moscow’s part, the point is that the Turks and NATO believe that it was intentional and that itself creates a very complicated situation.
How do you see the region in the medium terms after the Russian intervention? What impact could this power shift have on the larger geopolitics between the great powers?
What Russia has done is an episode in an unfolding drama in the Middle East. This has been going on for at least several years. If you want to date this, it probably began with the American operation against Iraq in 2003. However, it has taken on very different forms over the past decade of more. The Arab Spring, which turned into something quite different from what many people in the West had anticipated, the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the nuclear deal with the Iranians have changed the calculations to a certain extent. We see unrest in Yemen and elsewhere. So, Moscow has now inserted itself in a very dramatic fashion in a dynamic situation. The point that I would underscore, and one would think that they understand this in Moscow, is that they don’t control this game, there are going to be a lot of unintended consequences and unforeseen events that will occur.
In a broad sense, the geopolitics have shifted because of Moscow’s involvement. Whether that shift will turn out to be to Moscow’sadvantage over the long run, or how it would reshape the Middle East are big questions for which we don’t have the answers at this point. I think the one thing we can say with confidence is that the unrest in the Middle East remainsin its initial phase and this turbulence is going to continue for sometime. What would the new equilibrium look like in five or 10 years down the road is very difficult for any of us to know.