Foreign Affairs

Russia Supporting Jihadi Terrorism?

Vice President Dick Cheney recently blasted the Russians for supporting state-sponsors of terrorism.

"Russia has sold advanced weapons to the regimes in Syria and Iran,” Cheney said in remarks to the The Ambrosetti Forum, a European security conference in Cernobbio, Italy, on Sept. 6. “Some of the Russian weapons sold to Damascus have been channeled to terrorist fighters in Lebanon and Iraq."

But we have to connect the dots from Russia and its ongoing arms sales (from assault rifles to air-defense systems) to both Syria and Iran; to the relationships between sometimes-unlikely allies like Syria, Iran, Lebanon-based Shia Hizballah even Gaza-based Sunni Hamas; to the ongoing weapons and cash smuggling operations between the Islamists allies; and finally to the various Russian-made weapons in the arsenals of Hizballah and others in order to appreciate the “channel” Cheney speaks of.

Russia’s support of terrorists may run much deeper, and if we connect more dots we begin to see Russia’s direct and indirect support of international terrorism coming full circle in both Eastern and Western Hemispheres. And the beginnings of a Russian Naval exercise off Venezuela may well play into the broader picture.

First we have Russia’s recent military aggressiveness: Russia’s resumption of long-range bomber patrols far beyond its airspace, Russia’s aircraft buzzing U.S. warships on the high seas, Russia’s threats made to European nations which agree to allow U.S. missile defense systems on their soil, Russia’s increased military buildup, and Russia’s recent invasion of Georgia. These actions would not necessarily fall under the definitions or descriptions of acts of terrorism or terrorist-supporting, but they certainly speak to Russia’s willingness to defy international convention. And this is a dot we connect to Syria.

In August, Syrian President Bashar Assad publicly expressed his support for Russia’s invasion of Georgia, reaffirmed his defense pact with Moscow and agreed to increased military cooperation between the two countries. Discussions since have suggested the Russian Navy may soon gain full access to Syrian ports. After all, as Igor Belyaev, the Russian charge d’affaires in Damascus, says, "[Russia’s] Navy presence in the Mediterranean will increase."

Meanwhile, Syria has reportedly stepped up its intelligence operations in Lebanon in the wake of Hizballah’s attacks against pro-government forces in May. The attacks, which were operationally supported by Syrian intelligence operatives and Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fighters, resulted in Hizballah’s acquisition of far-greater political and military power in Lebanon than the terrorist group had previously held.

And this past week, reports from Arabic open sources have indicated that senior leaders from the Quds force (the IRGC’s special operations arm) were in Beirut reminding Hizballah leaders that Iran was calling the shots. Moreover, Syrian special forces have reportedly crossed into Lebanon from the north in support of pro-Hizballah Alawites in-and-around the city of Tripoli.

Though based in Lebanon, Hizballah has increased its global reach since the summer 2006 war with Israel. Hizballah and Quds force fighters have been heavily involved in Iraq and to a limited degree in Afghanistan. Hizballah is in Africa, Europe, North America (cells and supporting communities in the U.S. and Canada), and South America, which brings us to Venezuela.

On Wednesday, two Russian Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bombers landed in Venezuela, kicking off what will be the first major Russian Naval exercise near the continental United States since the end of the Cold War. The joint maneuvers between the Russian and Venezuelan navies will include the nuclear-powered cruiser, "Peter the Great", a destroyer, "Admiral Chabanenko", other combat and combat-support ships, and aircraft.

"Russia is returning to the stage in its power and international relations which it, regrettably, lost at the end of the last century,” Adm. Eduard Baltin, former commander of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, told Russia’s Interfax news agency. “No one loves the weak.”

Venezuelan Pres. Hugo Chavez, who — like his staunch ally, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — has called for the elimination of the U.S. and suggested a defense pact between Iran and Venezuela, says he welcomes Russian ships and planes. Chavez has already purchased billions of dollars worth of Russian weapons over the past few years and is seeking to buy more.

Chavez also welcomes Iran’s proxy army, Hizballah, which according to human and open sources, is actively involved in Venezuela, developing cells, and facilitating movement of terrorists transiting through the Americas. Additionally, young Venezuelan Arabs have reportedly been recruited by Hizballah and shipped to training camps in south Lebanon. And senior officials within the Chavez government have reportedly assisted in the coordination of these operations.

Of course, Russia has dealt with terrorism on its own turf, and former Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to express support for America in our fight against terrorism in the wake of the attacks of 9/11. But it has become apparent that Russia believes it can regain some semblance of strategic leverage lost after the Cold War by cozying up to terrorists and state sponsors or terrorism. Let’s not forget many of Russia’s senior political leaders — Putin included — hail from backgrounds in that country’s infamous intelligence services like the KGB and FSB: organizations that have not shied away from employing degrees of terrorism as a means to an end. And as my late father was fond of saying, “Son, you can’t perfume a hog.”

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