Authors: Anton Mardasov* & Kirill Semenov
2017 marked a turning point in the Syrian conflict. With the full support of Russia and Iran, the Bashar al-Assad regime was able to neutralize the “domestic threat” completely. Throughout 2017, Damascus used the situation to carry out “outlying” operations, manipulating the ceasefire agreements and other accords reached as part of the Astana Peace Process. As soon as a relative calm would settle in a given “de-escalation zone” [in the opinion of the present authors, quotation marks are necessary in this case, as they indicate the real nature of these four zones], the regime would start transferring the available forces to other areas. First to eastern Syria in order to break the blockade of Deir ez-Zor and establish control over adjacent areas, which undoubtedly accelerated the downfall of the “Caliphate,” then to Idlib Governorate. And then, taking advantage of the agreements reached between Russia and Turkey on the division of spheres of influence in this “de-escalation zone,” to East Ghouta. Now Damascus has the initiative in terms of launching an offensive and a significant advantage over opposition groups.
The State of Affairs
As early as the beginning of 2017, the Syrian opposition demonstrated its ability to consolidate efforts and respond to the regime’s offensive manoeuvres. One such example is the way it managed to reduce “tension” in East Ghouta by carrying out distracting operations of its own in Daraa and Hama. However, the Syrian opposition became irreversibly fragmented after the process to form the de-escalation zones began, accompanied by the establishment of an external protectorate over these zones. As a result, most of the opposition factions in Greater Idlib now operate exclusively in the interests of Turkey, and the Amman Agreement between Jordan, Russia and the United States regarding the southwest de-escalation zone has succeeded in taking the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front out of the game. External actors have played a decisive role in the outcome of the confrontation between Damascus and the internal opposition, cutting off aid to opposition factions and effectively splitting them into isolated fragments.
That being said, until February 2018 (when the Russia–Turkey agreement made it possible to wrap up the active operation in Idlib and focus forces on East Ghouta), all the efforts of the elite units of the 4th Armoured Division, as well as the Syrian Republican Guard and other regular units of the Syrian Arab Army, to repel opposition forces in East Ghouta’s Jobar and Ayn Tarma ended with the withdrawal of government-sponsored troops after significant losses. The operation in Harasta ended with the encirclement of a Republican Guard battalion and the deaths of five colonels and brigadier generals. The same thing happened during an operation in Daraa in the south of the country.
Despite the active support of the Russian Aerospace Forces, the Syrian Special Forces and the Shiite “Expeditionary Corps” led by Lebanon’s Hezbollah and various Iraqi factions, the government forces still suffered significant strikes from the heavily outnumbered Islamic State. One such event took place in Homs and Deir ez-Zor in September–October 2017, when Islamic State units managed to cut off almost all the supply routes to pro-Assad troops operating along the Euphrates. The only thing that prevented the terrorists from building on their successes was the lack of numbers on the part of Islamic State (very few detachments are left) and the haphazard band-aid approach adopted by Russian specialists on the issue.
Thus, Damascus’ victories over its opponents can, for the most part, be put down to favourable circumstances and external support, rather than to the regime’s strengthening of its forces or increasing its combat effectiveness, despite the great efforts Russia has expended to train Syria’s military personnel and provide its regular units with up-to-date military technology.
Counting on the fact that these manipulations have successfully paralyzed the opposition to the point that pro-government forces will now be able to deal with current challenges does not eliminate the need to have a national military structure – without the growing Shiite International.
At present, the armed forces that Bashar al-Assad relies on continue to be an assortment of groupings, all of which depend on Damascus to varying degrees. There is no unity within the army in terms of readiness to unquestioningly carry out the directives of its leadership. There is a complicated system of approvals for the use of “elite” sections of the Syrian Arab Army in specific operations. This even applies to its most elite components: the 4th Armoured Division, the Syrian Republican Guard, Suheil al-Hassan’s “Tiger Forces” and individual units of other sections – for example, the “Deir Al-Qalamoun” unit of the 3rd Armoured Division and the “Saif Al-Mahdi” unit of the 4th Armoured Division, among others. At the same time, the combat effectiveness of the Syrian Arab Army’s combat manoeuvre units leaves much to be desired, and attempts are made to avoid moving them to regions far away from their areas of permanent deployment.
Various paramilitary groupings that do not answer directly to the Syrian Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the state security organs continue to play an important role, including the so-called National Defence Forces, the Local Defence Forces, foreign (primarily Shiite) groups, and other units created by them in Syrian territory, made up of Syrian nationals. There are at least twice as many fighters in the irregular army formations as in the Syrian Arab Army itself.
The Syrian crisis has made it possible for political institutions to acquire their own military formations. The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party still has active squadrons, some of which are part of the 5th Corps. Eagles of the Whirlwind is the military wing of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. And the Syrian Resistance is a left-wing paramilitary group led by Mihrac Ural, who is considered a terrorist in Turkey.
The formation of various paramilitary structures – military wings of mafia-like clans, private military companies, regional and tribal militias and militarized political organizations – has undermined the stability of the regime. These forces do not simply support Damascus. From the very beginning, they have attempted take root in government institutions and/or take control of various sources of income. It is no secret that various Shabiha detachments currently operating under the aegis of the National Defence Forces control the checkpoints, which in practice means that they have access to corrupt schemes, including the opportunity to send radical opposition fighters into the Turkish zones of influence. A number of figures associated with the pro-Iranian Syrian group Liwa al-Baqir (the Baqir Brigade, part of the Local Defence Forces) have their own fleet of minibuses and continue to operate transport businesses.
Given that Damascus is in dire need of local groupings in order to maintain stability and security, these militias will probably continue to exist after victory is declared. All the more given that all armed militia groups were legalized in 2013 and given permission to carry out their “activities” by the Ministry of Interior.
The incorporation of the National and Local Defence Forces into state structures was predetermined by the fact that both the Syrian special services and the army were unprepared for an uprising, and the vacuum thus created was filled by paramilitary groups. Iran also took advantage of this by helping set up various paramilitary structures and thus establishing a multi-echeloned presence in Syria.
Worthy of separate note is the Fifth Corps of Volunteers, an autonomous military structure that was created with the direct participation of Russian military advisers. According to some reports, the corps itself is also led by Russian generals. The corps can hardly be regarded as a regular military formation. It consists of various subdivisions made up of volunteers and is financed by a number of non-government sources. It also contains certain pro-government Syrian forces that existed before the corps was set up, including those financed by private individuals (the “Sea Commandos”) or set up with the participation of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah (Liwa Dir’ al-Watan). At the same time, the inclusion of defectors and objectors from among the Sunni population in the Fifth Corps was apparently supposed to break the stereotype about the sectarian foundation of the pro-government forces and the auxiliary nature of the Sunnis’ participation in the war. However, the experiment has yet to bear fruit. The most combat-ready units of the Fifth Corps – the so-called ISIS Hunters – are again “sectarian militias” (as far as Syria’s Sunni majority is concerned). Such groups are made up primarily of Syrian Christians and Alawites (for example, the aforementioned “Sea Commandos”) or Shiites (Liwa Dir’ al-Watan, with the participation of Lebanese fighters). Work of this kind is likely to continue: according to some reports, work on the establishment of a 6th Corps is already under way.
Sooner or later the Syrian armed forces will surely face the challenge of transition to a peaceful life. In this context, it is important to understand what will happen to the large number of paramilitary formations and militias. The Iraqi leadership is attempting to solve this very same problem at home, having initiated a procedure to integrate soldiers of the militia group “Khashd ash-Shaabi” into the country’s armed forces. The experience gained during the creation of the 5th Corps, as well as its predecessor (the 4th Corps) can be used to help integrate certain paramilitary structures into the Syrian Arab Army and the Ministry of Interior.
It is also possible at the initial stage to revive the three corps of the Syrian Arab Army that formally existed before, turning them into territorial commands. All the regular and paramilitary units could be placed under their control on a territorial basis, thus becoming parts of the regular forces, identified by numbers instead of names. This is a necessary step, because many of these structures simply refuse to dissolve themselves, as in the case in Iraq. However, their existence should be legalized and their activities brought into line with military regulations.
Another problem is how to overcome the increasingly “sectarian” nature of military forces in Syria. All or most of the combat-ready units are made up primarily of national and religious minorities. Sunnis play a secondary role, mainly serving in auxiliary, “second echelon” groupings. Attracting Sunnis who have fought or lived in opposition territories, earning their trust and ensuring that they carry out their duties in a diligent manner will also be a key issue.
A Necessary but Unrealistic Scenario
If we distance ourselves from the propaganda and frankly dilettantish stereotypes about the Syrian opposition, then the best option for establishing an ethnic and confessional balance would be to unite the opposition groups and pro-government forces into a single structure. This is the kind of renewal of the armed forces that the UN documents envision. It is hardly possible, for example, to incorporate the insurgent factions that have, with Turkey’s support, united to form the Syrian National Army (SNA, which operates exclusively in Northern Aleppo) into existing Syrian Arab Army units and divisions. The leadership of the opposition factions will not agree to this, bearing in mind what happened in Tajikistan (where the opposition was liquidated after its divisions were incorporated into government units). One possibility is to form about five to seven separate corps and divisional units from opposition forces and establish a single military council involving the Syrian National Army and the Syrian Arab Army.
However, neither Damascus nor Tehran, nor indeed Moscow, is interested in such a scenario. Although it is far easier for the Russian side to play along with the Syrian regime, which seeks to eliminate the Syrian opposition once and for all by military means, that goal would serve only to strengthen the positions of Iran and Syria. Moscow has had a significantly more difficult time than expected positioning itself as a moderator in the conflict and maintaining effective working relations with the opposition groups that participated in the Astana Peace Process and signed agreements with the Russian military in Cairo and Geneva. Integrating the opposition into military and political structures that are aligned with the current regime could serve as a natural counterweight to the influence of Iran and preserve a certain balance of power that is beneficial to Moscow. The big question now is: to what extent will Moscow be able to maintain control over its “client,” given that Tehran is clearly benefitting from the situation?
Reform of the Military Intelligence Services
Against the backdrop of the Islamic State’s transition to clandestine activities in Iraq and Syria (which is common for the group) and various other challenges, the role of the Syrian intelligence services is acquiring greater significance. Their activities today little resemble the standards adopted in the sphere. Opportunities to carry out covert intelligence work have been greatly reduced, and the grassroots tools of state governance have been destroyed. The Syrian intelligence services were not even able to prevent terrorist attacks on the National Security Council building.
At present, the Syrian intelligence services do not seem to have an analogue anywhere in the Middle East. Four independent security structures operate within the Syrian Arab Army. These structures are divided into “military,” which includes military intelligence and aerial reconnaissance (Air Force reconnaissance) and “political” (civilian units formally subordinate to the Interior Ministry), which includes the main security department and the department for managing political security. All of these structures answer directly to the president. However, the system of intelligence services in Syria reflects the complexity of relations and confrontations among various groups of influence in the country’s ruling elite. The system is constructed in such a way that the individual intelligence services effectively work against each other, which makes it impossible for any single “branch” to become significantly stronger than the others.
Air Force reconnaissance was conceived as the intelligence structure “closest” to the heart of former president Hafez al-Assad, who was a fighter pilot himself. As a result, it effectively turned into an independent state security agency, with its own external intelligence and counterintelligence divisions, and even a department for combatting anti-government activities. During the Civil War, the Air Force reconnaissance formed an entire “pleiad” of special forces units to carry out operations using heavy machinery. The other three “branches” took similar steps in order to prevent any one of the intelligence agencies from becoming significantly stronger than the rest.
It would appear that the simplest solution for transforming the Syrian intelligence services with the goal of optimizing their activities would, first of all, be to merge Air Force reconnaissance and military intelligence into a single organ of the General Staff of the Syrian Arab Army, and strip these structures of the ability to carry out political investigations. As for the political security structures, it would be practical for one of them to focus exclusively on external intelligence activities, while the second could be engaged in counterintelligence and anti-terror activities. In other words, Syrian intelligence services would be brought up to global standards.
It is also imperative to create border security forces to control Syria’s eastern frontiers first and foremost, but also the entire border, as a kind of unified system with its own social and infrastructural characteristics. While Hafez al-Assad paid special attention to the country’s tribes, granting their leaders various privileges and taking their views into consideration in political life, his son Bashar all but forgot about them, which combined with drought in the regions and the misallocation of resources created the conditions for social upheaval. The years spent under the control of radical groups transformed the tribal social fabric even more. At present, the regime relies primarily on the Suqur al-Furat militia, which contains members of the Al-Shaitat tribe, to carry out its activities in the eastern part of the country. The tribe attempted a revolt against the Islamic State rule in 2014 but was defeated in a gruesome fashion. Damascus used this as a pretext to organize a military training programme for the tribe’s members and announced an amnesty for them.
If Damascus is unable to hold a constructive dialogue with the Sunni tribes, then there is a risk that the Islamic State will emerge once again in one form or another as a result of the joint efforts of independent Sunni groups and radicals (operatives, preachers, etc.), who will be able to remain in the country. It is all the more important to deal with the cadres who are familiar with the local terrain in the east of the country could help prevent smuggling, with which both Damascus and Baghdad have well-documented issues.
*Anton Mardasov, Military Observer Head of the Department of Middle Eastern Conflicts at the Institute of Innovative Development
First published in our partner RIAC
Central Asian Jihadi Groups Joined Taliban’s “Al-Fath Jihadi Operations”
Al Qaeda-backed jihadist groups Katibat Imam al Bukhari (KIB), the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), consisting mainly of Uzbeks from the Fergana Valley of Central Asia and Uyghurs of Chinese Xinjiang, jointly conduct “Al-Fath Jihadi Operations” alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan amid the US-Taliban negotiation. KIB’s online media channel “Katibat Imam al-Bukhari under the Islamic Emirateof Afghanistan” that implies a Taliban’s subsidiary began to regularly publish news about the “victorious offensives of the warriors of Islam.” As well as IJU’s main two social media channels Badr at-Tawhid and al-Sodiqlar TV (al-Sodiqlar in Uzbek, which means ‘The Truthful’) often release videos featuring both the Taliban and IJU on the joint battleground.
For example, on April 14, 2019, KIB’s Telegram channel reported that “al Bukhari’s Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate attacked enemy positions and killed 36 militaries of the Kabul administration, among which 4 were high-ranking commanders.”As evidence of its successful attack, KIB published video and photo materials. Another report, dated May 3, 2019, states that “Mujahideen of our Jamaat blew up the Ranger vehicle in Zabul province as a result 7 government soldiers were killed.”
Telegram’s online channel also published an audio message by the emir of the KIB’s Afghan division Jumabai Hafizahulloh, who calls on the Mujahideen to “commit Istighfar (the act of seeking forgiveness from Allah) to defeat foreign invaders led by the United States of Satan and establish Sharia law in Afghanistan.”In his speech, he frequently refers to religious works of the famous Sunni Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiyyah whose worldviews influenced the development of Salafism and Takfirism and became the basis of the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIS. At the end of the speech, he called on all Muslims to join the jihad against the “American occupiers.”
According to audio and video materials distributed by al-Sodiqlar TV on Telegram, Uzbek militants of IJU have frequently taken part in “Al-Fath Jihadi Operations” alongside the Taliban, fighting against Afghan security forces. For example, on April 14, 2019, IJU released a video showing how Uzbek militants under the leadership of the Taliban attacking an Afghan security forces’ convoy in Baghlan province’s capital Puli Khumri and seizing heavy trucks on the Baghlan-Balkh highway, part of the Ring Road which links Kabul to the north.
TIP, KIB and IJU’s videos in Telegram once again reaffirmed al Qaeda-backed Central Asian jihadists’ role within the Taliban insurgency, as the jihadists fight together to resurrect the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Features of the Taliban military operation
As is known, the Taliban annually conducts military operations under various formidable names that have an ideological and religious implication. In 2018, its military action was called ‘Al Khandaq Jihadi Operations’ (from the name of the famous Battle of Khandaq led by the Prophet Mohammed in 627), which also involved Sunni violent extremist groups: Uyghurs’ TIP and Uzbeks’ KIB. On April 12, 2019, the Taliban announced the launch of a new “Al-Fath Jihadi Operations” (which means Victory), which was published on the website ‘Voice of Jihad’ of ‘the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ (Taliban so refers to itself).
A distinctive feature of “Al-Fath Jihadi Operations” from previous military actions is that the Taliban this year applies new tactics of attacks aimed against the government and municipal officials, the military and police forces of Afghanistan, and does not prioritize attacks on US and NATO forces. Perhaps that is why the Taliban-backed Uzbek and Uyghur jihadist groups often report on successful military operations, as local officials and government offices in remote provinces become an easy target for them.
Another distinguishing feature of “Al-Fath Jihadi Operations” that it is conducted against the backdrop of US-Taliban peace talks. Trump administration’s decision to pull American forces out of Afghanistan and begin direct peace talks between the US and the Taliban without inviting official Kabul inspired the Taliban to tighten the “al-Fath Jihadi Operations”, and was ablow to the morale of Afghan generals. The Taliban are already stronger today than they have been since their ouster in 2001, controlling or holding sway over 60 percent of Afghanistan’s districts. Therefore, they in advance methodically and cynically rejectedLoya Jirga (Afghan grand assembly) demands for a cease-fire and shunned direct talks with the Afghan government, describing it with insulting terms like “a US-imposed puppet regime,” “domestic stooges,” “the hollow Kabul administration” and “cabinet offoreign invaders “.
The main topics of Doha’s peace talks between US peace envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and co-founder of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, were the full withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and ensuring that Afghanistan is not used as a base for foreign terrorist organizations, above all for al Qaeda and ISIS, to attack other countries.
After the completion of the sixth round of negotiations, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, in a May 9 statement, assessed the outcome of the meeting as “positive” and the parties made “progress” on some points. But the activities of al Qaeda-linked Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups KIB, IJU and TIP in Afghanistan and their active participation in “al-Fath Operations” testified, there is not any “progress” to cut the Taliban’s cooperation with al Qaida.
To achieve international recognition the Taliban in July 2016 issued a statement for the Central Asian countries, in which it assured its neighbors that “the Islamic Emirate does not seek to interfere in the internal affairs of others nor will it allow anyone to use the land under the control of Islamic Emirate against anyone else.” During the Moscow Conference in February 2019, the Taliban reiterated “we do not allow anyone to use the soil of Afghanistan against other countries including neighboring countries.”
But all these false claims are a political ploy aimed at hiding the Taliban’s ties with al Qaeda and its Central Asian affiliates. The KIB, IJU and TIP’s media arm has shown the Taliban keeps using the Uzbek and Uyghur jihadists against West Coalition and Afghan forces, and collaborating with al Qaeda inside Afghanistan, despite assurances to the contrary.
Taliban and al Qaida are the “godfathers” of Uzbek and Uyghur jihadist groups
As is known, the first contact between Uyghur and Uzbek Islamists with the Taliban and al Qaeda occurred in the early 1990s, when members of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, pursued by the Chinese and Uzbek authorities, fled to Afghanistan. Since then, the Taliban and al Qaeda became the “godfathers” of the Central Asian Islamist groups and widely opened the doors of global jihad for them.
The Taliban have been continuously working alongside Uzbek and Uyghur jihadist groups that have sworn allegiance both to al Qaeda and the Taliban, and today this bayat (an oath of allegiance) is effectively operating. In turn, the leaders of al Qaeda bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri both swore allegiance to the Taliban, with the result that IMU and TIP (former ETIM) were under double tutelage and control. Although the Taliban staunchly focused on Afghanistan and has not demonstrated al-Qaeda’s global jihadist ambitions outside the country, nevertheless, it continues to host Uzbek and Uyghur militant groups with far-reaching goals.
Under the influence of “godfathers,” ideological views of Uzbek and Uyghur militants expanded significantly with global aspirations. Today, they are not limited to the local agendas to overthrow the political regimes in Central Asia and China and set themselves global tasks to create a world caliphate.
Recently the UN Security Council in its twenty-second comprehensive report confirmed: “The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan still commands about 500 fighters in Afghanistan, concentrated in Faryab, Sari Pul, Jowzjan, Kunduz, Baghlan, Takhar and Badakhshan provinces. Around another 500 Central Asian fighters are distributed between Khatibat Imam Al-Bukhari, Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, Islamic Jihad Union… The Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement commands 400 fighters in Badakhshan” (page 15-16, section “Central and South Asia”).
This Russian and Turkic-speaking terrorist groups are trusted by al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and have become a link in their strategic ties. In different years, TIP, IMU and IJU were added to the United Nations Security Council Sanctions List as being associated with al Qaeda and the Taliban. In addition, the US State Department designated all of these Central Asian jihadist groups, including Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, as “global terrorist organizations” because of their involvement in terrorist attacks alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda.
The Taliban nervously reacts when Central Asian groups break their bayat al Qaeda and considers betrayal an unforgivable crime. In December 2015, the Taliban captured and executed about 60 Uzbek jihadists led by IMU leader Usmon Ghazi in the Zabul province who broke al-Qaeda oath and pledged to Islamic State.
Sometimes the Taliban, as befits a good “godfather,” forgive Central Asian militants who violated their oath to al Qaeda. After the Taliban’s elimination of the self-proclaimed Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS branch in Afghanistan) in the northern Afghan province of Jawzjan,20 Central Asian fighters (citizens of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan)from Qari Hikmatullah’s ISIS network, who surrendered to the Taliban, were evacuated, along with their families, to Kohistanat district of Sar-e Pul province. Today they serve the Taliban, who has become their new master.
Taliban’s religious roots in support foreign terrorist groups
As the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation ZalmayKhalilzad stated in March 2019, the US and the Taliban “agreed in draft”that covers two key issues: a “Coalition’s withdrawal timeline” and “effective counterterrorism measures.”According to this “draft”, the Taliban would provide “counter-terrorism assurances” that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for terrorist groups to attack foreign countries.
Despite the Taliban’s generous promises, after it comes to power in the future (judging by the tone of the negotiations, today’s events are developing precisely in this vein), there are no guarantees that the Taliban will renounce al Qaeda and stop supporting Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups. The problem is not the reluctance of the Taliban, but in its radical Islamist ideology and Sharia law, according to which the framework of relations between Ansar [natives] and Muhajireen [foreign fighters] are clearly outlined.
As is known from the history of Islam, mutual relations between Ansar and Muhajireen relies on Islamic values when the local inhabitants [Ansar] of Medina warmly welcomed, provided shelter and supported the Prophet Muhammad and his followers [Muhajireen], who had left their homes behind for widespread Islam during the fight against unbelievers in 622.
The Surahs of the Qur’an, Al-Anfal [8:72] and Al-Hashr [59:9], detail the responsibilities of the Ansar and Muhajireen relationship. For example, Al-Anfal obliges Ansar to help Muhajireen: “Indeed, those who have believed and emigrated and fought with their wealth and lives in the cause of Allah and those who gave shelter and aided – they are allies of one another. But those who believed and did not emigrate – for you there is no guardianship of them until they emigrate. And if they seek help of you for the religion, then you must help, except against a people between yourselves and whom is a treaty.”
As the ups and downs of the Taliban rule showed, the Taliban is strict followers of the Ansar doctrine. During the rule of the Taliban, its territory, so-called “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” became the main shelter for Muhajireen of al Qaeda and other foreign terrorist groups. Central Asian Islamists massively migrated there. During the reign of the Taliban, IMU in 1999-2000 twice attacked southern Kyrgyzstan. These fighting clashes went down in history under the name of the Batken War, during which more than 50 soldiers of the Kyrgyz army were killed.
The ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda proved to be so strong that after 9/11 the Taliban refused to hand over the main terrorist Bin Ladin to the US. There is much evidence, including joining Central Asian jihadists to “Al-Fath Jihadi Operations”, that the Taliban and al Qaeda ties remain strong. Therefore, it can be expected that in the event of the US withdrawal and the coming to power of the Taliban, Afghanistan will again become home to international terrorist groups.
The Russian Mafia
Since 1992, the Russian word Mafyia has been officially used in the Russian Federation’s documents to refer above all to organized crime, structured through stable groups that repeatedly perpetrate severe crimes and offences. In particular, this word refers to the interests of the world “below” – the invisible universe of organized crime – with the world “above”, namely institutions, ruling classes, politicians and companies.
Both the real Mafia, namely the Sicilian one, and the Russian one were born around mid-19th century.
The Sicilian Mafia became the “parallel State” in a region where the Unitary State did not exist or counted for nothing. A case in point is the Baron of Sant’Agata, the feudal lord of Calatafimi, who ordered his mobsters to “side with the winners”, when he realized that Garibaldi’s troops, the so-called “Garibaldini” were winning in the plain.
The Sicilian “organization”, which had long-standing roots -probably Arab and in any case independent of the Kingdom centred on Naples and the Campania region – discovered its political role precisely with Garibaldi-led Expedition of the Thousand that landed in Sicily, after which it became the primary mediator between the small group of “Piedmontese” soldiers and the great mass of peasants. It immediately agreed with the feudal lords, who helped it considering that it was winning.
The Mafia itself was both the improper bank of the wealthy feudal lords and the only form of effective social control, solely in favour of the Sicilian feudal elites – and hence also of the Unitary Kingdom.
As happened also in Naples, when Garibaldi appointed Liborio Romano – who was also the Head of Camorra – as Chief of Police. An inevitably very effective policeman.
Conversely, in Russia organized crime was initially used – in politics – by various revolutionary groups to fight the Tsar.
Later, there was the magic moment of an important “friend of the people”, namely Nicholai Ishutin.
He was the first to establish a group of professional revolutionaries, in 1864, simply called “the Organization”.
However, with a view to better achieving the revolutionary, anarchist and violent aims of his Organizacjia, Ishutin created another new structure. It was called the “Hell” and had to engage in all possible illegal activities, together with the already active criminals: murder, theft and blackmail. All this had to happen while the “Organization” was running its lawful social and organizational activities.
Hence, for the first time politics became the cover for a criminal organization. Goodness knows how many imitators Comrade Ishutin had.
It was the beginning of a very strong bond – also at theoretical level, through many excerpts from Lenin’s texts that exalted Russian revolutionary populism – between organized crime and the Bolshevik Communist Party.
In fact, on June 26, 1907, a bank stagecoach of the State Bank of the Russian Empire was attacked and robbed in Tiflis, Georgia. It was a robbery fully organized by top-level Bolsheviks, including Lenin and Stalin.
There was also the strong support of local criminals led by Ter-Petrosian (“Kamo”), the Head of the Georgian mob and also Stalin’s early associate.
The relationship between organized crime and Bolshevism – particularly with reference to the “agrarian reform” of 1930-1932 – remained central.
The Soviet power absolutely needed its extra legem left hand to harshly bring peasants into line and to militarily organize the conquest of factories, as well as to control or physically eliminate the entrepreneurs or bureaucrats of the old Tsarist regime.
Everything changed with Stalin, who, together with the stabilization of the Bolshevik regime, made possible also the verticalization and creation of a unitary command hierarchy in the vast world of Russian crime – and in the Party.
Hence the Organizatsja was founded, i.e. a strongly verticistic Panrussian structure – as indeed the Bolshevik Party was.
The “Organization” – full of symbols and particular rites, like the many para-Masonic organizations of the revolutionary Napoleonic network in Italy, which imitated the secret society of Carbonari (the so-called Carboneria) or, precisely, Freemasonry, albeit with entirely new mechanisms and symbols – was sung heroically by one of the poets, former “Thief-in-Law” (the generic term used by Stalin to designate all the members of the Organization), but much loved by Stalin, namely Mikhail Djomin, who exalted the achievements of the Vorovskoi Mir, the Thieves’ World, that had only one code of conduct and revenge throughout the USSR.
Hence the Party established the first organizational structure of the “Thieves-in-Law”, who much operated during the Stalinist regime: the Mir “brigades” were led by a “reserve group” that generated and selected an additional covert group that had to be permanently related to the Soviet political, economic and financial power.
In fact, the “Vory v Zakone”, the Thieves-in-Law, had relations on an equal footing with the Party and State leaders. They dealt with the various “brigades” and managed the odshak, the cash pool, through an ad hoc Committee.
Through the odshak, said Committee mainly paid salaries to the Organization soldiers, but above all invested its proceeds in the so-called “white” economy.
Without the criminal organizations and their autonomous finance, there would have been neither the Soviet normalization after Stalin’s purges, nor the money for Leninist industrialization and the funds – extremely needed for the USSR – targeted to foreign trade and the related sales of raw materials from 1930 onwards.
This also applied to the Sicilian Mafia, a true organization between two worlds, the American and the Italian ones, which invested in real estate in Sicily when there was no capital, in the aftermath of the Second World War, or refinanced capitalism in Northern Italy after the political and union storm in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Without Mafia’s capital and without the protection provided by some entrepreneurs to the most important fugitives in Milan, there would have been no economic recovery after the disaster of 1968.
Reverting to the Bolsheviks, Stalin accepted the presence of the “Thieves-in-Law” in their main sectors of activity, in exchange for their careful persecution of his personal and Soviet regime’s political adversaries.
Years later, even de Gaulle did so when proposing to the Corsican underworld – one of the most ferocious in Europe – to fight the OAS and eliminate it, in exchange for some State favours and the transfer of many gangsters of the Brise de Mer – as the Corsican Mafia was called – to Marseille.
Hence there is no modern power that could do without its particular “Thieves-in-Law”. A case in point was China, in the phase of the “Four Modernizations” and the subsequent Tiananmen Square movement, or the United States itself, which dealt primarily with its various Mafias, especially in periods of severe financial crisis.
In the 1950s, shortly before Stalin’s death, inter alia, a very close relationship was established between the “Organization” and the Soviet power leaders.
It was exactly the underground economy – fully in the hands of the “Thieves-in-Law”- which, in Brezhnev’s time, became the meeting point between Mafia and Communists.
The Organizatsjia already had excellent relations with the parallel “capitalist” organizations – relations which were established upon the creation of the Russian structure in the meeting held in Lviv in 1950 – and it became essential to find the goods which were never found on the Russian market, including weapons and illicit capital flows.
Corruption became the real axis of bureaucracy and of the Party itself, while there was a spreading of poverty that closely resembled the poverty of Ukrainian and Crimean peasants during the so-called “agrarian reform” of 1930-1931.
Later, always in agreement with the Bolshevik leadership, Mafyia organized – in every factory or office – “clandestine units”, not falling within the scope of the collectivist system, which created an underground market that, from 1980 to 1991, was even worth 35-38% of the Soviet GDP.
The proceeds from that semi-clandestine trade were shared between the Party, the “Organization” and the law enforcement agencies. No one could escape that mechanism.
Again in the 1980s, precisely due to the social and political pervasiveness of the “Thieves-in-Law”, the Organizatsjia was structured into units for each commodity sector, especially with units specialized in oil, minerals, wood, precious stones and even caviar.
At that stage, however, many Soviet Party and State leaders were officially accepted in the Organizatsjia, thus becoming the necessary link between the “Thieves-in-Law” and the institutions.
Furthermore, with Gorbachev’s reforms, Mafyia was no longer only an important part of the economic system,but became the economic system in its entirety.
The elimination of the old political apparatus and fast privatizations enabled the old leaders of the various “clandestine units” to quickly collect the initial capital to buy everything going from companies onto the now apparently liberalized market.
Sometimes Mafia’s intimidation was also needed, when the old employees did not want to assign – for a few roubles – their shares that the law allowed to be allotted between workers and managers of the old State-owned factories.
In 1992 Yeltsin himself admitted that over two thirds of the Russian production and commercial structure were in the hands of the “Organization”.
However, in memory of the old ties with similar organizations abroad, only Mafyia did start the first joint-venture contracts with Western companies and 72% of that opening onto the world market was only the work of the Organizatsija.
That was exactly what Judge Falcone would have dealt with in Russia with his Russian colleague Stepankov, if he had not been killed with his wife and three agents of his escort in a bomb attack.
The joint venture worked as follows: firstly, foreign capitalists put their money into the companies of the “Organization” and later – without realising it and only with the hard ways – they were in the hands of the old “Thieves-in-Law”.
Nevertheless, it was from 1990 to 1992 that the Russian Mafia structure penetrated the West with vast illegal funds managed together with the local Mafias.
Not surprisingly, a few days after the Capaci bombing, Giovanni Falcone was to fly to Russia to talk with the Russian Prosecutor General, Valentin Stepankov, who was investigating into the CPSU funds that had disappeared in the West.
The intermediary of the operation could only be the “Organization” that knew the Sicilian Mafia very well, at least since the aforementioned meeting held in Lviv in 1950.
A huge amount of money went from the CPSU to the “sister” parties and probably the issue regarded also the failed coup against Gorbachev in August 1991.
Each CPSU faction had its autonomous funds – often huge ones – given to “sister” parties but, above all, to their most similar internal wings. Here a significant role was played by the covert bank accounts held in Zurich, together with the Wednesday air transfers to the local Narodny Bank, as well as the money transfers that took place during the visits of the CPSU executives to the various local “comrades”.
Nevertheless, the cash flows -managed only by the Organization -were regarded by the CPSU’s “old guard” mainly as a source of personal survival and a basis for future political action at national level. Everyone, ranged face to face upon the field of the new CPSU factions, thought to said cash flows.
Coincidentally, it was exactly in those years and months that the Sicilian Mafia expanded – for its drug business – to the Caucasus and Anatolian Turkey, on the border with the new Russian Federation.
At that time – as currently – the Russian Mafyia had preferential relations with the Sicilian Mafia, the Neapolitan Camorra, the Chinese triads and the Turkish Mafia.
Also the relations with Latin American and Arab criminal organizations have been mediated by Sicilians or Calabrians (in South America), Turks (in Central Asia and India) and Chinese (in Maghreb and Africa).
Currently the Organization’s yearly turnover is still 2,000 billion roubles approximately, with weapons – including nuclear ones – which were provided by the Mafyia sections within the Soviet and later Russian Armed Forces.
As even Luciano Violante – the former President of an important anti-Mafia Parliamentary Committee – maintained, both the CPSU and the KGB have long had excellent relations with the Sicilian Mafia. The Russian Mafyia itself is now the world centre where money laundering strategies, as well as the division of territories at international level and the new strategies of relations with the various ruling classes, are managed.
Violante used to say that the CPSU and the KGBhad put in place the most recent Russian Mafia, with which they were gradually confused.
Hence the new post-Soviet oligarchy – selected after Mafia wars that,between 1990 and 1995, exacted a toll of 30,000 victims – has now merged with the ruling class.
As Solzhenitsyn used to say, currently in Russia a maximum of 150 people rules. Putin deals with the “Organization”, but he is certainly not linked to it.
Furthermore, according to the most reliable Russian sources, currently the “Thieves-in-Law” network is composed of about 50,000 people, including managers and mere “soldiers”.
Nevertheless, their network of intimidation and capital makes them essential in carrying out any kind of “white” operation. They are the bank of the new Russia, considering that all the official banks are part of the “Organization”.
In the Russian media jargon, the Russian Mafia bosses who have reinvented themselves in the legal business are called avtoritet(“authorities”).
The Russian Mafyia also operate abroad, throughout Europe, but does not operate directly in the territory of the various countries. If anything, it seeks relations with the State and bureaucracy, through the national criminal networks, without by-passing them.
Currently the Russian money laundering hub is still France, while recently the “Organization” has been spreading quickly within the German economic, banking and commercial fabric.
In Italy, it operates mainly in Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and, obviously, Rome.
According to the Italian police sources, the capital flows of the Russian “Organization” in Italy are equal to 38.5 billion a year, while the flow of Russian money laundering is still focused on France, albeit with some operations made in Spain and Portugal. A diversification already underway, which could also affect Italy.
The first channel has always been Latvia, used by Russian mobsters to enter the Euro area directly.
With a view to penetrating Latvia, the Russian “Organization” created dummy companies based in London.
Later a Russian company lent money to the company based in London – a company with main headquarters often located in Moldova.
The Russian company did not repay the debt – hence a corrupt judge in Moldova forced the Russian company to transfer capital to a Moldavian account.
Hence the money entered Latvia in a perfectly legal way and later the Euro area and Western economies.
The network has already endangered 753 Western banks – and money laundering is still one of the primary business activities of the Russian “Organization”.
AI, Foreign Policy, and National Governance Impact: Focus on China
How China’s AI technology exports may lead to the emergence of new power structures outside the control of existing governance and accountability frameworks and impact the rules-based global order and geopolitical alliances.
The notion of power and geopolitical influence in the digital era
Until recently, analytical attention to the development of digital technologies, including AI, has tended to focus on corporations such as Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon (GAFAs). These GAFAs, some of them deemed to be more powerful than some states, have changed the notion of power and geopolitical influence. These corporations are leveraging the power of AI, networks, data intelligence infrastructures, and regulatory frameworks to impact public space around the world. This is leading to the emergence of new power structures outside the control of existing liberal democratic and human rights accountability frameworks, to the extent that even democratic societies resent this power over their public space.
Meanwhile, less noticed but arguably more effective in its consequences, is the Chinese government’s investment in the development and application of these same technologies, —aimed at strengthening its state intelligence infrastructure—strongly suggesting that AI could shape society and government in very different ways than the originators of said technologies at issue may have anticipated. Capitalizing on these current structural and technological shifts in the global information environment—enabled by algorithms, artificial intelligence, and other new opportunities created, China and its allies are able to censor and manipulate information at its source and control what populations can see and say on the internet. While Russia’s role in undermining Western democracies through algorithms is well documented and debated, it is China’s combination of state-directed capitalism and coercive economic diplomacy which will potentially upend the rules-based global order and a geopolitical re-alignment, possibly leading to a real multipolar world. Together with its allies it will, among other strategies that constitute its sharp power, do so through AI-driven applications and ironically by exploiting the vulnerabilities in the openness of democracies. All in all, it will be an attempt to create a new political order which challenges states’ sovereignty.
Chinese AI capabilities and domestic objectives
China is spending vast sums on research related to AI technologies, as cyberpower sits at the intersection of a number of its national domestic and foreign policy priorities.
China’s international cyber ambitions are closely paired with its existing and growing use of AI technologies for surveillance and social control at home. This is evident from the intrusive AI-driven surveillance infrastructures being employed in Xinjiang state and that of the Great Fire Wall (GFW). Although American companies took an early lead in AI, for example, as measured by the application of machine learning and number of AI patents registration, China is closing the gap with the U.S. At the current technological advancement rate, it is predicted that by 2025 China will surpass the U.S. and by 2030it will dominate the industries of AI. This poses significant implications to the economic, political, security, cultural, and human rights global order.
China’s foreign objectives
To advance its “going out” foreign investment public diplomacy policy, in 2017 the Chinese government outlined its roadmap for turning itself into the “world’s primary AI innovation Centre” by 2030. The Chinese state-backed “AI National Team,” a group of leading Chinese technology firms, are investing in the development and exporting of new technologies with state backing. Coupled with sizable state investment in cyber technology development, this suggests China aims to become an AI-centered “cyber-superpower”.
In recent years, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s export of AI technologies to developing countries, ‘operating both within the Global South and the international community, ’has grown rapidly, reinforcing the idealized South-South development model and a geopolitical re-alignment. There has been a widely held view amongst development practitioners and policymakers operating within the Global South, that the South-South development model has largely been conducive for economic growth, particularly in terms of attracting investment, infrastructure, including internet infrastructure, and diversifying the landscape of trading partners, diverging from former colonial ties. However, an unintended consequence of this has been that the pro South-South stance has hindered critical thinking in relation to discerning the negative repercussions.
As the democracy and human rights implications stemming from the unregulated export of Chinese AI to the Global South are beginning to surface, it is imperative that this idealized narrative is challenged. It is clear that China’s export of AI technologies exceeds mere economic purposes. In addition to expanding its cyber-industry market share, these exports allow Beijing to use developing countries as laboratories to test, diversify, and improve its surveillance technologies. This goes beyond conventional trading parameters, constituting instead a form of economic exploitation that leans toward extractive dynamics. Perhaps this is an emerging form of cyber colonization?
Recently, China signed agreements with Zimbabwe, Angola and Ethiopia, ostensibly to diversify algorithm training data. Despite the potential economic gains of China’s AI technology exports to Africa, the prospective implications of such unregulated trade on democratic, participatory governance, and human rights in Africa may be extremely negative. Particularly susceptible are countries with long histories of human rights abuses and poor records regarding the rule of law, where China’s surveillance technologies are proving increasingly attractive to governments facing strong domestic opposition, ongoing insurgencies, and other security challenges, including popular protests.
The unregulated export of Chinese AI technologies to countries that fit this profile is likely to reinforce existing systemic repression as well as introduce new ones. AI-driven applications will soon allow authoritarians to analyze patterns in a population’s online activity, identify those most susceptible to a particular message, and target them more precisely with propaganda.AI will create persuasion infrastructures at scale…to manipulate individuals one by one, using their personal, individual weaknesses and vulnerabilities”. Such influencing campaigns –aimed at either specific populations of authoritarian countries or those of democracies abroad – undermine free speech, political participation, and other liberal principles in countries around the world through coercive economic diplomacy.
How does this affect the liberal world order and liberal democracies in the west?
China’s growing development and export of AI technologies is fostering state monitoring and control of society, censorship, and the empowerment of states often unaccountable to their populations. Under the guise of BRI, China is seeking to export and globalize its policy of authoritarian cyber controls, which directly run counter to democratic societies’ aspirations for a free and open global internet. However, China’s efforts to influence cyberspace and the rules-based global order is part of larger trends and patterns relating to authoritarian cooperation and innovation, including the emergence of authoritarian cyber counter-norms and its effort to actively contest democratic development, the democratic ideal, and liberal order. Since the end of the Cold War, China and its allies sensed the democratic state’s reluctance to defend the liberal order and a wrong assumption that China would liberalize. Despite their divergent views, China, Russia, and Iran all agree on the goal of weakening the global democratic norms encouraged by the West. Cyberspace and in particular AI provides a new frontier through which to realize their shared ambitions to undermine human rights, in particular freedom of speech, by controlling information at the source and carrying out influence campaigns as outlined above.
Companies and governments that are using AI at a global level should adopt global standards. They should apply human rights law, which provides global standards, for example, article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which protects everyone’s right to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers.”
In the same way they have done on the internet, the West should promote a distributed model of AI governance that involves the GAFAs, technical bodies, the private sector, civil society, and governments. They should categorically reject Beijing’s preferred state-centric and UN-led multilateral approach to governing cyberspace as China can easily use its diplomatic clout at the UN to frustrate the distributed model of internet governance. The West should strengthen the voice of marginalized populations, which include urban and rural poor communities, women, youth, LGBTQ, ethnic and racial groups, people with disabilities – and particularly those at the intersection of these marginalized groups, by insisting that:
Companies that own global AI platforms should involve local communities in governing their AI-driven platforms and take measures to create a workforce that includes marginalized populations;
Governments and companies that use AI must be more accountable and transparent in disclosing radically more information about the nature of their rulemaking and enforcement concerning expression on their platforms.
At a technological level, the West should avoid the so called AI race but proactively fortify their own and foreign digital diplomacy through robust government-backed policies and programs that foster a healthy AI ecosystem, like the EU, based on trust. In practical terms, this should include investing in public spatial data infrastructure projects in the Global South in order to monitor and control data flows, building better algorithms that effectively counter Chinese information strategies. The West should also seek ways to engage countries that violate-human rights by showing them the long-term benefits of a liberal world order and cushioning them from being victims of the current geopolitical and geoeconomic realignment contest.
Just like the European Union, these countries should adopt a more assertive policy stance towards Beijing over the openness of Chinese markets and the role of state-led firms, and in this context, the Chinese AI firms such as Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu also.
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