Construction work in Baku, Azerbaijan, June 2016
Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

On August 8, the leaders of Azerbaijan, Iran, and Russia gathered for a rare trilateral summit in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. On paper, the summit was mostly devoted to regional economic integration projects, particularly the North-South Transport Corridor, a proposed land-and sea-based trade route linking India to Europe via Iran, the South Caucasus, and Russia. But other issues were also on the table, including the conflicts in Iraq and Syria and the threat of Islamist terrorism. The summit concluded with the three states signing a declaration to “comprehensively fight” terrorism and extremism.

Azerbaijan’s inclusion in the summit is striking. Only a few years ago, Baku was unwilling to pursue close economic or security cooperation with either Moscow or Tehran, despite its geographical proximity to both. Azerbaijan saw its 1991 independence from the Soviet Union as a chance to break free from Russia’s traditional high-handedness in dealing with its smaller neighbors, and was uninterested in Tehran’s appeals to Azerbaijan and Iran’s common Shiite faith. But Azerbaijan’s deep disappointment in the Obama administration for having supposedly taken the country for granted, combined with the rising threat of militant Islamism in the broader Caucasus region, has left the nation’s leadership with little choice.

AZERBAIJANI MOTIVES

Baku’s motivations for attending the summit are based on both geopolitics and security. In early April, the foreign ministers from the three nations pledged cooperation on a host of issues, but it was the pledge of noninterference in each other’s domestic affairs that stood out. Observers interpreted the pledge as a direct jab at Washington, which Baku has seen as having repeatedly undermined the authority of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, in particular by criticizing Aliyev’s treatment of the political opposition.

The April summit also came a few days after the latest round of skirmishes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, an Armenian-majority territory within Azerbaijan’s borders. For Baku, the pledges made by Iran and Russia at the summit to work toward solving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict—even if merely symbolic—are preferable to what it sees as chronic American inaction on the issue.

Yet the August summit was much more than just a swipe at Washington. The Azerbaijanis are increasingly concerned about the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts, in which Iran and Russia are principal actors. Azerbaijan, a majority Shiite Muslim country that is nonetheless staunchly secular in its government, is for the first time since its independence in 1991 having to confront the menace of jihadism. This security challenge requires regional cooperation. In an August 1 statement, the Islamic State (ISIS) declared jihad against Moscow, but Baku is entirely justified in seeing ISIS’ ambitions in the broader Caucasus as a direct threat to its own national security.

ISIS’ regional offshoot, the Caucasus Emirate, was established in 2015 as a call to arms for Sunni jihadists in the Russian North Caucasus. But across the mountains in the independent republics of the South Caucasus—including Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia—officials know that a resurgence of Islamist militancy inside Russia could easily spill over into their territory. 

Since the 1990s, Russia’s wars in Chechnya, Dagestan, and elsewhere in the North Caucasus have normally pitted the central government in Moscow against Russian Muslim separatists with aspirations for independence and have included only a few international jihadists. But the ideology and makeup of Islamist militancy in the North Caucasus are evolving radically, and that is a problem for Azerbaijan. As early as January 2015, some reports suggested that a number of Islamist commanders from throughout the Russian Caucasus had pledged allegiance to ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. For Shiite-majority Azerbaijan, the transformation of Russian Islamists into ISIS devotees has been alarming.

For Shiite-majority Azerbaijan, the transformation of Russian Islamists into ISIS devotees has been alarming.

Unlike earlier forms of nationalist or Islamist militancy in the region, ISIS has a totalitarian ideology devoted to international jihad and territorial expansion. ISIS’ geographic proximity to Azerbaijan thus presents an unprecedented test for Baku. Besides fearing spillover from conflicts in the North Caucasus, Azerbaijan itself has a Sunni minority—mostly in northern regions bordering Russia—and since 2011 a few hundred Azeri nationals have joined ISIS and other Islamist groups in Iraq and Syria. 

A FITTING BLUEPRINT

Azerbaijan is not alone among former Soviet republics in fearing violent Islamism. Jihadists have been successfully recruited from nearly every post-Soviet state in Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In June, Russian officials estimated that up to 10,000 militants from former Soviet republics were fighting in the ranks of jihadist groups in the Middle East. In October 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—a military alliance of post-Soviet states—that ISIS’ activities “have gone far beyond Iraq and Syria.”

Putin is no stranger to portraying himself as a fighter against jihad. When he first ran for president in 2000, he claimed as his “historic mission” the total eradication of separatist militancy in the North Caucasus. At the time, Putin linked Russian Muslim separatism with global jihad as a way of discrediting the nationalist movements in Chechnya and Dagestan. But today, with the rise of ISIS, Putin will have a much easier time convincing former Soviet republics, including Azerbaijan, about the profound threat posed by radical Islamism.

In fact, since 2011, officials in Moscow have looked the other way as Russian Muslims have travelled to Iraq and Syria, where Russian speakers control entire ISIS brigades. This exodus contributed to record-low levels of jihadist violence inside the Russian Federation in recent years. But with ISIS on its heels in the Middle East, many of its Russian-speaking fighters may be coming home again. Cutting this return flow is therefore a critical priority, and it is making for unprecedented cooperation among governments in the region. Iran’s Minister of Intelligence, Mahmoud Alavi—a man who has very rarely travelled abroad—was recently in Kyrgyzstan to consult with security officials there about the threat of terrorism in the broader region. 

For smaller countries in the region, looking to Iran and Russia for short-term leadership in combating Sunni jihadism is understandable. Yet the use of overwhelming force has been the linchpin in both regional powers’ antiterrorism policy—one that has hardly solved the problem of militancy for either country. Meanwhile, conflating jihadism with socioeconomically driven discontent—Russia’s preferred tactic—is a sure way to generate more jihadist violence across the broader Caucasus. In the longer term, then, the question for countries like Azerbaijan is whether Moscow or Tehran’s antiterrorism policy is appropriate for them.

There are two major reasons why Azerbaijan, a country of some nine million people, has not experienced much Islamist violence since independence in 1991. First, authorities in Baku decided soon after independence to maintain the country’s Soviet-era secular identity and worked hard to minimize foreign religious influence, whether from Shiite Iran or the Sunni states of the Persian Gulf. Even in the early 1990s, at the height of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Christian Armenia, Azerbaijan made sure that Islamists could not turn the dispute into a religious war. (Shamil Basayev, a leading Chechen warlord turned Islamist, took his fighters out of that war due to Baku’s commitment to secularism.) Second, thanks to its oil wealth, Azerbaijan has experienced significant economic growth and is today an upper-middle-income country. In other words, favorable socioeconomic conditions in Azerbaijan have reduced the appeal of Islamist narratives, unlike in the Russian North Caucasus, where nationalist aspirations and poverty have fed radicalization.

Azerbaijan, Iran, and Russia have numerous areas of potential cooperation, from the North-South Transport Corridor to joint energy project investments to finally reaching a decision on the demarcation of the Caspian Sea. Yet it is important for Baku to compartmentalize its priorities. Azerbaijan’s history, demographics, and socioeconomic conditions give it the ability to pursue its own campaign against violent Islamism, without needing to adopt a catchall formula from Moscow and Tehran.

  • ALEX VATANKA is a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute and at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @AlexVatanka.
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