ISIS on Georgia’s Mind

A glimpse at the problems of coalition building: Tbilisi would like to help fight ISIS, but weighs the many risks from its own jihadists – and from Russia.

David Mdzinarishvili / Reuter

TBILISI, Georgia — An echo of the ISIS war reached the nation of Georgia again this week. A local television channel, Rustavi-2, reported that yet another teenager had been killed in Syria: 18-year-old Beso Kushanashvili would not be coming home to his family in the Pankisi Gorge, the mountain area of Georgia mostly populated with Chechen Muslims. Kushanashvili, according to local reports, was one of about 50 teenagers between 16 and 18 who had left to fight the jihadist war in Syria.

Two other Georgian citizens appeared among 21 individuals on the U.S. sanctions list on Thursday, including a key military leader of the so-called Islamic State, the red-bearded Tarkhan Batirashvili a.k.a. Abu Omar.

It’s not surprising that the United States is looking for Georgia’s help fighting this developing terrorist menace. This country sitting between Turkey and the troubled Russian provinces of Dagestan and Chechnya is home to scores of young Muslims who’ve joined the international jihad today. And Georgia would be very interested in helping the U.S. and Arab military forces to win the struggle against ISIS. But that doesn’t mean it will.

The discussions surrounding the question of Georgian cooperation with the American-led effort to fight ISIS give a glimpse into the enormous complications of pulling together a broad coalition, weighed down as they are by past disappointments as well as present and future concerns.

Earlier this week word leaked that Georgia had offered to host training camps for the supposedly moderate Syrian rebels that the United States wants to see trained to fight ISIS on the one hand, and eventually the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad on the other.

But as soon as this development was reported in Foreign Policy magazine, Georgian officials attending the U.N. General Assembly in New York and the political establishment in Tbilisi suddenly realized that if they did such a thing – especially if they did it publicly – they would fid themselves not only in the crosshairs of ISIS and its ferocious partisans, but of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is a strong supporter of Assad. They quickly denied that any such offer had been made at all. The government press service denied to The Daily Beast on Thursday that such camps for Syrian fighters were planned and the country’s defense ministry referred to the subject as “too sensitive” to discuss.

Then there was the question of a quid pro quo.

Ever since Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia, which it lost badly, it has become pragmatic. Living as they do in the heart of the volatile Caucasus, Georgians are only too aware of the fires that surround them. By helping out American forces in the war against both ISIS and Assad, former deputy defense minister Nodar Kharshiladze told The Daily Beast on Thursday, Georgia “automatically becomes a target for Islamist organizations” and raises the dangerous ire of the pro-Assad Kremlin.

In the past, hoping to receive both political and military support from the United States, Tbilisi sent 1,300 Georgian soldiers to Iraq and 1,500 to Afghanistan to serve alongside coalition and NATO forces. Over 20 soldiers died and about 200 were wounded during those missions.

Earlier this year the U.S. Congress introduced a bill to grant Georgia a major non-NATO ally status, but the decision is still pending and it is uncertain when, or indeed if, Georgia will see that prize for its efforts to stay loyal to NATO. The Ukraine crisis has reinforced feelings among some policymakers in Washington and in Europe that NATO already is overextended and overcommitted.

Looking back at previous cooperation, Georgian officials now say they feel the West has used Georgians for various missions without giving much in return. “I don’t understand why we had to send 1,500 soldiers to Afghanistan, 200 would be enough to show our loyalty,” said Kharshiladze, now a senior fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. “NATO trained our people to use them for NATO missions; now we want something more concrete – a group of experts to decide which anti-missile and anti-tank equipment we need to defend Georgia.” The country needs “a 20-year plan to pay for the equipment, as we cannot afford paying for it right away with the budget we have,” said Kharshiladze. “We also need experts to train us to use the equipment.”

This week a group of NATO experts did arrive in Tbilisi, but to evaluate the state of Georgian military reform and democratic processes, and on that latter point the report card may not be too positive. Civil society advocates in Georgia complain that the government is putting a lot of pressure on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the media.

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As for the Russians, they leave little doubt they’ll portray any significant cooperation with the anti-ISIS operations as part of a conspiracy. “This is a purely geopolitical game again,” says Yuri Krupnov at the pro-Kremlin Moscow Institute of Demography, Migration, and Regional Development. “Americans first create an Islamist radical movement, then they fight it.” As Krupnov reads American strategy, its aim is to create “lily-pad bases” with supplies and staging areas on the periphery of Russia that could threaten Moscow’s interests.

Each country sees the ISIS crisis through its own very particular lens.