The United States government is currently debating how hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to arm and train the so-called moderate rebels in Syria belonging to the Free Syrian Army. The CIA got involved in the program reluctantly, and a poorly planned and executed strategy has led to the conclusion that this is a failed program.

The FSA was never a reliable partner force and America should have known better, but in the United States we have these debates in a relatively open and public manner, with peer reviews and checks and balances of government at play. Despite this, around the world and here at home, America is often derided as an evil imperialist power that arms terrorists and pursues sinister agendas at the behest of our corporate masters.

Interestingly, countries like Russia don’t have this problem. Negative reporting about the government gets Russian journalists shot, poisoned, or disappeared. The international press is not immune either. One American journalist told me that they don’t run stories that could be damaging to the Russian government because the last time they did that their news agency was kicked out of Moscow for seven years. This results in an interesting situation where rather moderate actions by the United States are condemned and mass protests are organized, but non-democratic countries with horrible human rights records like Russia can pretty much do whatever they want without a peep from most journalists and activists.

America supports proxy forces around the world, but should we interprete the silence about Russian military and intelligence operations as confirmation that Moscow doesn’t run proxy forces themselves? In order to cut through the haze, and see if Russia has their own proxy forces at play in the ISIS conflict in Syria and Iraq, let’s take a look at past examples of the Russian government colluding with Islamists.

Godless commies pray with Wahhabis

The staunchly atheist USSR would not support religious movements or religious extremism of any kind, would it? Marxism was first introduced to Iraq in the 1920s; one of the first communist circles to pop up was in Basra in 1929. This centered around the personality of Petros Vasili as the leader of the Liberal Association, or the anti-religious party. Fluent in six languages, including Russian, Vasilis led an interesting life traveling throughout the Middle East, never staying in one place for very long, and enjoying some interesting connections to Soviet trade agencies in Persia.

In Basra, his party proposed “a radical democratic program aimed at the promotion of freedom of ideas, words, and actions; a secular state” (Salucci, 10). But the atheist dogma of Marxism didn’t fly well with the locals, who took no interest in abandoning their Islamic roots. “That was the last time the Iraqi communists came out with anti-Islamic propaganda” (Salucci, 11), demonstrating that Soviet Marxists and their proxies have often compromised their ideology to fit pragmatic reality, with communism eventually being re-invented in Iraq as the Baath Party.

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Traveling forward in time, we see the Russians playing footsie with Islamists, giving up on the idea of trying to sell Muslims on Marxist ideas. The Islamic Revival Party was formed in 1990 in former Soviet states such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as Chechnya and Dagestan. These were all areas that had achieved independence from Russia or desired it. The Islamic Revival Party followed Salafi principles, and like Wahhabis, wanted to return to a “pure” 7th-century version of Islam that supposedly existed during the time of the prophet Mohammed.

The Islamic Revival Party and its offshoots were effective at Islamizing large swathes of post-Soviet space. The end state of Salafi and Wahhabi doctrine in these regions was to divide and conquer, effectively dividing Muslims between radicals and moderates. In short, the Islamic Revival Party acted as a spoiler force, destroying any chance of secular nationalist movements, which called for greater autonomy from Moscow. The Islamist movement confronted government forces in Tajikistan, Dagestan, and Chechnya. What started out as nationalistic movements for independence became Russia’s pre-9/11 War on Terror.