The pictures of Russian bombers strafing targets inside Syria provide the usual graphic illustration of the horrors of war. Few rational people enjoy such spectacles. Even in the days where computer games isolate people from the realities of war the images of the misery and suffering it unfolds are not readily erased from the mind. For those with any sense of humanity the question what if it were me is never far from one’s thoughts.
For others however such imagery is a final confirmation of something that has been festering in their minds for a long time. It seems now like the world is now combining its efforts to destroy Islam. Even Russia has been drawn into the ‘big tent’ of the coalition the west has assembled to try and defeat (whatever that means) the group known as Islamic State (IS). For those vulnerable to such messaging about the world trying to ‘destroy’ what IS claims to be the ‘purest’ form of Islam the latest imagery offer another potential catalyst for them to move into violent opposition.
For those vulnerable to the messaging of IS, and their sophistication in social media space knows few boundaries, this latest development is one that simply ‘adds fuel to the fire’ as the Americans have described the Russian military intervention. For those who have rushed to present the case for the west to join with the Russia’s a moment’s pause for reflection might be appropriate.
Russia takes no prisoners when it comes to dealing with terrorists. Look at how it crushed the opposition in Chechnya. Subtlety is not a word in President Putin’s lexicon. Another viewpoint is that Moscow is playing Russian roulette where the single bullet in the gun will not be aimed at Russia but at the west.
So as Russia unleashes its air power on Syria and tells the west to in effect ‘stay out of its way’ a huge potential for what the Americans have often called ‘blowback’ occurs. This is where as a result of military interventions in ‘upstream’ theatres unforeseen events can occur at home. It is not a matter of fable or conjecture that military adventurism in places like Syria have an impact upon a nation’s security landscape at home.
Look at how many ‘Black Widows’, women widowed by Russian military activities in Chechnya, turned into suicide bombers. The attacks on the Moscow Underground in 2004 (where 41 people died and 120 injured) and in 2010 (where 40 died and 88 were injured) are examples of ‘blowback’. The massacre of nearly 400 teachers and children at the school in Beslan is another as is the attack against Moscow Domodedovo Airport which saw 37 people killed and 173 injured.
Trigger in the west
So will Russia’s military intervention in Syria cause a similar reaction with terrorist attacks returning to the streets of Moscow? The answer is that is difficult to predict. To date Russia has admitted that nearly 2,000 of its citizens have gone to fight for IS in Syria. One of the reasons cited by President Putin for his actions mentions his concerns over Russian citizens returning with just such a deadly aim in mind. But that might not be the end of it? Could Russia’s intervention in Syria trigger a wider range of terror attacks in the west?
Speaking on BBC Radio Four recently the head of the Security Service Andrew Parker made reference to the service currently watching over 3,000 people who they suspect of being involved in militant Islamic extremism. While attacks in the United Kingdom are rare, the last serious one occurred over ten years ago, the potential for random acts of violence by lone individuals is never far from the surface. Arrests by the police of people thought to be involved in Islamic terrorism have reached new highs. Six significant attacks that were being planned in the United Kingdom have been prevented so far this year. Underneath the surface activity is clearly continuing. Might the Russian military intervention really add impetus to what is already a difficult situation?
Until now the west’s military efforts against ISIL have been relatively contained. What might have been a fold of imagery of women and children being killed and maimed by western bombing missions has been reduced to little more than a stream. Although the repeated use of that imagery to create an artificial magnification factor in social media tries to portray a situation that is far graver with the implication the west is being indiscriminate in its targeting. Nothing could be further from the truth as the evidence of aircraft retuning with their bombs in bases such a Cyprus illustrates. The west is trying to degrade IS whilst staying below a threshold of activity that simply exacerbates the feeling of discontent and desire for revenge that can readily invade young vulnerable minds.
In fact imagery showing the bestiality of IS outstrips those purported to have arisen from western air strikes by some margin. Few days pass without some reminder appearing in elements of the mainstream media of the activities of IS.
So the west has adopted what might be referred to as a softly-softly approach to trying to degrade IS. It is using its firepower carefully, aware of the ways that imagery of dead women and children can play on vulnerable minds.
Russia however has no such qualms. It is determined to ensure the survival of the Assad regime irrespective of the death toll that emerges. President Putin has hardly sought to stem the death toll of Syrians at the hands of the regime. With close to one million already dead and millions displaced all over the world Russia has staunchly defended its ally and tried to turn the blame for the carnage on the west.
In such a complex situation predicting how all of these factors will eventually play out is very difficult. But one thing is certain. Contemporary history shows that every time, in this joined-up digital age, that military power has been applied to try and resolve oppression of people by regimes that have little regard for human rights there have been unforeseen circumstances.
The argument that military activity in the Middle East acts as a stimulus to the process of radicalisation of vulnerable minds is one that is hard to ignore. The inevitable conclusion of such analysis is that Russia’s intervention in Syria will have a specific impact upon the already complex security situation in the United Kingdom.