Much like the mujahedeen in Afghanistan decades ago, jihadi in Syria today see potential for victory over Russia in a war of mujahedeen attrition.
The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan has become a popular topic of conversation among jihadis in Syria. Many of them either have memories to share or questions to ask, for it was a turning point in the path of modern jihad. It was there that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden took the spotlight, along with so many other jihadi “stars” who later found their own ways and started dozens of new “brands.” They founded what could be called a line of jihadi entrepreneurship.
In Syria today, the main jihadi groups are applying these recollections to their discussions of how to counter the current Russian attack. The issue is no longer a sectarian war with the Syrian regime and its allies, Iran and Hezbollah. It has become a global war — which sells better with young Islamists who might be reluctant to fight against fellow Muslims. It’s a war against the legacy of Soviet communists, the “genuine unbelievers.”
Both the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, the two main jihadi groups in Syria, have declared a holy war on the Russians. "The war in [Syria] will make the Russians forget the horrors they faced in Afghanistan,” said Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani. In a YouTube audio message posted Oct. 12, he added, “The new Russian invasion is the last arrow in the quiver of the enemies of Muslims and the enemies of Syria.”
IS also issued an audio message, read by IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. He called on Muslim youth everywhere to join the jihad against the Russians and Americans, who are waging “a crusader war against the Muslims, the war of the atheists and idolaters against the believers.” He reassured them, “America is so weak that it’s seeking help from Australia, begging Turkey and Russia and appeasing Iran.”
Will Syria be Russia’s new Afghanistan? Al-Monitor posed the question to Abdullah bin Mohammed, an al-Qaeda theorist and author of several papers that have been cited widely by such jihad analysts as Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada al-Falastini and Abu Maria al-Qahtani.
“I think the Russians decided to intervene after the major losses by the Syrian army in Idlib and Hamah,” he explained. “The Russians and the Americans kept a distance at the beginning, as they felt there was a kind of equilibrium in the equation. Now the situation is different.”
Bin Mohammed, who has 276,000 followers on Twitter, said the likelihood of defeating the Russians in Syria depends on foreign support for the rebels and the mujahedeen, adding, “and here I mean quality support.”
“In my opinion, this won’t happen until the West is sure that Russia has reached the point of no return militarily. Russia should be brought to the ground and be forced to drop its guard. Only then will it be possible to get quality weaponry that could help launch a proper war of attrition.”
The Russians will be then forced to withdraw from Syria the way they did from Afghanistan, he said.
“I think the Russians are still dealing cautiously and cleverly, and they don’t want to get immersed. This is similar to their indirect but effective intervention in eastern Ukraine. Still, we can’t rule out that the new cold war might force the Russians to escalate,” bin Mohammed added.
Russia has been conducting airstrikes in Syria since Sept. 30. Its planes are launching dozens of attacks daily on anti-regime militant groups across Syria, including IS, Jabhat al-Nusra and groups supported by the United States. Syria and its allies, mainly Iran and Hezbollah, welcomed the airstrikes, while the Syrian opposition, despite their differences, whole-heartedly joined their allies in the Gulf and the West in calling for the attacks to end.
According to bin Mohammed, the difference between the Russian intervention and the role Iran and Hezbollah are playing is that both Iran and Hezbollah have fought with the regime from the beginning, while Russia and the United States first sought a diplomatic solution.
Now, however, “When Russia is fighting alongside the regime, the only possible political solution that all parties were maneuvering around has fallen, and this means there’s a battle to enforce a new status quo until there’s another chance for a political solution.”
In his last speech, Golani called on all jihadi groups to unite against the Russian intervention. Here, bin Mohammed sees another similarity with the situation in Afghanistan.
“Al-Golani called on the mujahedeen in the Caucus to attack inside Russia, and this is the same strategy adopted during both the US and Soviet occupation of Afghanistan,” bin Mohammed said. “Back then, all differences were put aside between [Gulbuddin] Hekmatyar and Taliban, and all efforts were unified against the Americans inside, while al-Qaeda concentrated on attacking the US outside.”
When asked if this call for unity will attract more volunteers to fight against the Russians and their allies, bin Mohammed said, “Until now, the Russian intervention has attracted many Syrians to volunteer, and this is normal toward any foreign invasion.” To successfully enhance the stream of volunteers outside, some countries would have to lift their restrictions on travel to Syria, he said, and the recruitment effort would need full clerical support and media coverage.
He concluded, “The chaos this region is going through is affecting the jihadist groups, and I’m sure that the world, after this organized chaos, is going to be something different.”