Boston bombings may complicate U.S.-Russian diplomacy over Syria

April 19, 2013

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.

Russia fought two wars to put down Chechen separatists and is accused of ongoing brutality involving what it calls terrorist elements in majority-Muslim Chechnya and the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan. The experience underpins Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his two-year fight to put down a rebellion he calls terrorism.

With Chechnya in mind, Russia opposes U.N. Security Council action to punish Assad or support the rebels. Moscow also strongly opposes any international military action similar to the 2011 NATO no-fly zone in Libya. Russia continues to resupply Assad’s army, which has fought the rebels to a deadlock in many parts of the country.

The United States is edging toward stronger backing for the Syrian rebels and hopes to win at least tacit Russian assent for measures that could end the civil war short of supplying weapons. Still, Russia is leery of any international action that legitimizes the rebels.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry will lobby his Russian counterpart on Syria early next week in their second meeting in three weeks. He is also meeting European and Persian Gulf partners that are much more deeply involved in Syria’s civil war.

At least two nations, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are providing substantial amounts of weapons to the rebels. The Obama administration has refused to join them, saying the weapons could too easily fall into the hands of extremists and terrorists in the rebel ranks.

“Moscow will undoubtedly point to the bombing to further its argument that terrorists are active in Syria as well as Chechnya,” said Mark N. Katz, a Russia scholar at George Mason University.

U.S. authorities have so far not asked Russia for help in the investigation into the Boston bombings, Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters gathered in Sochi.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has likened violence in Chechnya to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, and Russia has been generally supportive of U.S. counterterror operations globally.

The United States has not always been a vocal critic of Russian action in Chechnya and has never recognized the region as independent.

Still, the United States would be an unusual target for Chechen separatist terrorism, said Michael Newcity, a Duke University Slavic and Eastern European studies professor. Separatists were disappointed not to recruit more U.S. support, but their fight has always been with Moscow.

The Chechen heritage of suspects Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev may matter mostly because of their religion and not their birthplace, Newcity added. He said a more likely motivation was generalized anger over U.S. actions and attitudes towards Islam.

“Any attempts to draw a parallel between Chechnya and the Tsarnaevs, if they are guilty, are futile,” Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed current Chechen leader, said in comments posted online Friday. “They grew up in the U.S., and their views and beliefs were formed there. The roots of the evil should be looked for in America.”

Kerry declined to address the possible role of Chechen separatism in the attack and referred questions about the investigation to the FBI.

“Terror anywhere in the world, against any country, is unacceptable,” Kerry said Friday.

Will Englund in Moscow contributed to this report.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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