The director of Russia’s FSB intelligence service is accusing the Georgian government of being a secret ally of al-Qaeda, taking the country’s anti-Georgian rhetoric to a new height. Russia is apparently unsatisfied with absorbing Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the Georgians, but what else do they want?
The FSB director said that Georgia’s intelligence services have been holding meetings with members of al-Qaeda and providing them with safe harbor, arms, and training in order to carry out attacks against Russia.
“They perpetually undertake to deliver weapons, explosives, and financing for subversive acts on high-security sites in Dagestan — first and foremost on oil and gas pipelines,” he said.
The Russians have long accused Georgia of sponsoring terrorism, but alleging a tie to al-Qaeda is a bold accusation, one designed to woo the West, rally the Russian public by accusing Georgia of essentially waging war on them, and justify some sort of action in the future. Deflecting attention away from Russia’s inability to prevent attacks like those that occurred in August by blaming foreign actors is also in the government’s interest.
The new accusation towards Georgia may not be just a new round of political rhetoric, but could be setting the stage for some sort of action to finish off its unfriendly neighbor. In its previous conflict with Georgia, Russia took advantage of internal conflicts to excuse its intervention, arguing they were protecting a Russian minority. It is probable that the Russians used proxy forces in Georgia to create those conditions in the first place.
The Russians again tried this strategy in May. Following Russian warnings of dire consequences if Georgia agreed to hold NATO exercises on its territory, a coup against the government was launched at the Mukhrovani base near Tblisi. The Georgian military responded, thwarting the coup and arresting its commander. Georgia found evidence of Russian involvement and said the coup was financed and coordinated with Russia.
One of those arrested was a former Georgian special forces major who confessed that the Russians were behind the action and that, according to the plan, 5,000 Russian soldiers were going to intervene once a march towards Tblisi had begun. The testimony is supported by the fact that on April 21 it was reported that Russia had moved its forces to within 25 miles of Tblisi. The Russians likely decided against intervention due to the quick failure of the coup and the inability of the resistance to spark a popular uprising.
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?