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The Boston Bombings and Syria

In the wake of the Boston bombings, there have been a few articles discussing the effects that the Tsarnaevs’ Chechen background might have on U.S.-Russian relations and diplomacy related to the conflict in Syria. I doubt that there will be much of a discernible effect on either of these, but they’re worth pondering. A recent Postarticle began this way:

The possible link between the Boston Marathon bombings and Chechnya’s struggle for independence from Russia is likely to harden Russian opposition to any outside intervention in Syria and complicate the question of whether to arm the Syrian rebels.

It’s probably true that the Boston bombings will reinforce anti-interventionists’ existing views, but other than that I don’t see the attack having much of an effect. Considering how strongly opposed Russia already was to Western intervention and to any Western support for the Syrian opposition, I don’t know that their opposition can be “hardened” much more than it is. American public opinion was already heavily against greater U.S. involvement in Syria before the bombings, and the Syria policy debate among politicians and pundits will likely remain more or less unchanged. Arming the Syrian opposition has always been a poor idea, and one reason for that is the inherent difficulty in keeping weapons supplied to one group from falling into the hands of others. Nothing that happened in Boston over the last week makes this any more or less complicated than it already is. The case for intervention in Syria certainly doesn’t look any better than it did before, but that is because it was never persuasive in the first place. As for U.S.-Russian relations, any Russian attempts to exploit the bombings in order to advance other policy arguments will most likely backfire and sour relations with Washington further, but otherwise I don’t see significant improvement or deterioration in the relationship happening in the near future.

Charles King elaborated on the possibility that this could influence the Syria debate in an article for Foreign Affairs:

Now, Russians have already begun to portray the Tsarnaevs as an unlikely link between Boston and Damascus. There are somewhere “between 600 and 6,000” Chechens from the North Caucasus fighting in Syria, said [Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Vladimir] Kotliar in a recent interview with Russian media, “and from what happened in Boston, perhaps Americans will finally draw the lesson that there are no good terrorists and bad terrorists, no ‘ours’ and ‘yours.’” Keep arming the Syrian rebels, the argument goes, and sooner or later you will have to face the consequences of a Syria overtaken by Islamist radicals.

That might not be a bad line of reasoning, especially given what we know about the complicated mix of ideologies and motivations inside the Syrian opposition movement. And after Boston, Moscow now has an additional argument, however tenuous, against greater international involvement in Syria.

I have seen the “Chechens in Syria” claim before, and it is possible that there are some fighting on the side of anti-Assad forces, but it is a claim that never seems to be corroborated. Even if there are Chechens fighting Assad in Syria, some interventionists will come up with some way to blame Russia for that as well. There are jihadist groups among the anti-Assad forces, but if this hasn’t discouraged advocates for intervention or arming the opposition before now I’m not sure why the Tsarnaevs’ attack would change that.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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