The recent terrorist attacks in Paris left 130 people dead, heightened security concerns and awareness in the west, brought the ongoing crisis of Syrian refugees into an even more central position in the politics of many western countries, in some cases in a very ugly manner, and changed the contours of geopolitics in the Middle East and beyond. These events will also have a complex and multi-faceted impact on Georgia. The ongoing threat of terrorism throughout much of the world, the trickle of Muslims from the Caucasus region generally going to Syria to fight with Isis, the massive flow of refugees from Syria that shows no sign of abating, and the possibly expanding role of Russia in efforts to fight ISIS, all have direct bearing on Georgia.
While Georgia is not a top tier terrorist target of ISIS or other groups, as a largely Christian country whose soldiers have, for years, fought alongside American and other troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, Georgia is still an appealing target for terrorists and has been threatened by ISIS.
Cities from Brussels to New York and governments across the west are confronting increased security concerns from terrorists and wrestling with balancing security and civil liberties. Georgia is no exception, but as a new democracy institutions protecting civil rights are not as entrenched as in some western countries. The Georgia government has already stated that it will strengthen border checks for visitors from parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and has blocked some Jihadist websites, but as it steps up its efforts to protect the country from possible terrorist threats, the need to protect civil liberties will be strong, but not easy without a deep fidelity to that ideal.
The Syrian refugee crisis has also been brought into a new focus since the Paris attacks. Many countries have reconsidered their commitments to refugees. In the US, the Republican Party has been sent into paroxysms of religious intolerance and fear, while the President is struggling to ensure that the US will be able to follow through on its modest commitment to accept some refugees. Georgia has already accepted some Syrian refugees and as the crisis continues will likely face pressure to accept more. Crafting a policy that balances the humane and decent choice with genuine, if frequently overstated, security concerns is something that Georgia, like many other countries, will have to do in the coming weeks and months.
Georgia is, like many European countries, both an potential place of refuge and safety for those fleeing the conflict in Syria as well as one that can contribute to fighting terror by addressing internal issues. For Georgia, this does not refer to a large population of immigrant Muslims who may be plotting terrorist acts in the country, as is the case in France, Germany or the UK, but to being a country that has a small number of citizens who want to fight with ISIS as well as possibly being a transit country for ISIS supporters going to Syria from the Muslim regions of southern Russia.
These developments are not new. They are just more pronounced versions of challenges that confronted Georgia before the Paris attacks. For Georgia, the most significant direct outcome of the horrors committed in Paris is the new role that Russia may play in the fight against ISIS. Russia become more involved in Syria in recent months as it has sought to ensure that its client Bashar al-Assad remains in power there. Shortly before the Paris attacks, ISIS claimed to have shot a Russian plane out of the sky over Syria killing over 200 civilians, thus ensuring Russian enmity for the radical terrorist psuedo-state. The attacks in Paris have made the potential, some might say need, for Russian and western cooperation greater than at any time in the last few years.
This obviously has a significant impact on Georgia. First, it changes the perspective of the west with regards to Putin. The speed with which the west, most notably France, evinced a willingness to work with Putin and Russia to combat ISIS, puts a quick lie to the notion that Russia was ever viewed in Washington, Paris or Brussels as the biggest threat facing the west and reveals the seemingly endless comparisons of Putin to Hitler as hyperbole that was never taken seriously by most western policy makers. The challenge of balancing the need to work with Russia in a broad coalition against ISIS, while simultaneously pursuing a Russia policy that limits the power and disruptive ability of Moscow in the post-Soviet region is one that now starkly confronts the US and some western states, but for others, like France, defeating ISIS has become a front and center project that is more important than concerns about Russia.
The confluence of some goals in the Middle East should not, and most likely will not, lead to a meaningful alliance between Russia and the west, but it will add a level of complexity to that relationship. These goals overlap partially but, even in Syria, are not the same. Russia is primarily concerned with propping up a weak and faltering, but murderous and brutal, client, Bashar al-Assad. The west seeks to destroy ISIS, but ideally in a way that does not further empower Assad. Russia’s opposition to ISIS provides some common ground with the US and Europe, but for Russia that opposition to ISIS springs as much or more from the threat ISIS proposes to Assad, than from their view of ISIS itself. Additionally, the recent shooting down of a Russian plane over Turkish airspace has escalated NATO-Russia tensions and while complicating Russia’s role in the Middle East, all but precludes meaningful and enduring cooperation between Russia and the west.
Georgia, therefore, is not likely to see its standing and support in the west suffer due to changing relations between Moscow and Washington, Paris or Brussels, but Georgia is also at risk because events in Syria, and now Paris, have somewhat repositioned Russia as primarily a Middle Eastern player, rather than just a Eurasian one. Since Russia’s increased involvement in support of Assad, Ukraine has received considerably less attention from the west, despite Russia’s ongoing nefarious role there. If this has happened to Ukraine, it is apparent the relative priority placed Georgia in western capitals today. This does not mean that the west is about to abandon Georgia, but it probably means that the kind of low level incursions and offensives into Georgia, in which Russia occasionally engages, will be met with even less pushback, rhetorical or otherwise, than usual from the west.
The attacks in Paris offer yet another opportunity for Georgia to again demonstrate its commitment to western and NATO security goals, and the extent to which it can contribute to achieving those goals. Georgia will almost certainly succeed in doing this by sharing intelligence with the west, working to make it harder for fighters to leave from or pass through Georgia to get to Syria, taking more refugees and sending troops, if it comes to that, to fight alongside NATO forces. Georgia has done similar things over the last decade and is unlikely to stop now.
Unfortunately, showing this allegiance and commitment yet again is unlikely to open any doors for Georgia in the short term. NATO expansion, for example, is one more thing that pushed further down the list of priorities of western countries. Similarly, the threat Russia poses to its neighbors may be something that is not addressed fully with Moscow until there is more clarity regarding Syria; and reminders of that threat by governments in Tbilisi and Kiev will be less likely to resonate outside of specialists in the region.
Despite renewed resolve to fight ISIS in Paris, Washington and elsewhere, it is unlikely either that any resolution will be brought to the conflict in Syria anytime soon or that Russia will back away from its support for Assad, a position that is anathema to Washington, but significantly less of a concern for several European NATO members. The combination of the salience of Syria for much of the west and the new, if very complex, role played by Russia in that conflict means that Ukraine, Georgia and the rest of post-Soviet region, Russia’s primary geographical area of concern, will receive less attention from western powers that are not capable of taking on too many conflicts and too many opponents at one time. This is not good news for Georgia as it is, in some respects, more vulnerable on two fronts, to an increased threat of Jihadist terror and to an even more unbound Russia.
The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.