This type of manipulation on the world stage is not uncommon and suspecting its use should not be looked upon as a paranoid evaluation of another country’s intentions or capabilities. A very similar strategy has been used by Russia’s ally, Syria, in Lebanon. Syria’s leaders come from the country’s Alawite minority, and reports surfaced in 2008 in the Arab press that Syria was planning to use Alawi-Sunni clashes in Lebanon as an excuse for intervention.
Syria has also accused Fatah al-Islam, an al-Qaeda affiliate, of using safe harbor in Lebanon to plot against it, a justifiable reason to intervene in its neighbor’s affairs. But a closer look shows a deeper game. The group was originally led by Shakir al-Abssi, former officer in the Syrian Air Force and former member of a terrorist group seen as a Syrian proxy called Fatah al-Intifada. He was arrested in Syria in 2000 and upon his release worked to help the insurgents fighting coalition forces in Iraq, the same task the Syrian government had made a priority. He created his own group, Fatah al-Islam, in 2006.
The Lebanese government told the UN in October 2007 that interrogations of captured Fatah al-Islam members found that they had direct contact with Syrian intelligence and admitted to various links. Fatah al-Islam has acted in Syria’s interests in Lebanon by destabilizing the government, providing a pretext the Syrians can use if they wish to become more aggressive, and even planning to kill 36 people in Lebanon opposed to Syria’s influence.
Fatah al-Islam announced on December 10, 2008, that al-Abssi had been arrested or killed by the Syrian government, but regardless of his status, the fact remains that Syria employed a strategy not unlike that of Russia. By stirring up internal discontent and painting its enemy as being allied to al-Qaeda, both countries have utilized a sophisticated strategy of manipulation meant to disable the West from opposing their intervention, lest the U.S. betray its self-declared war on terror. In the coming months, we should look closely to see if similar instability sprouts up in Georgia in parallel with Russian threats and military preparations, like we saw before the war of 2008 and the May 2009 coup attempt.
The timing of Russia’s accusation against Georgia may also be influenced by Iran. Any move towards engagement and/or sanctions requires Russian involvement. By throwing down this card, is Russia indirectly asking us to sacrifice Georgia in return for their sacrificing of Iran?