October 20, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Putin’s Chechen Nightmare in Syria
• On October 16, Putin revealed that there were 5,000-7,000 fighters from the former Soviet republics fighting in Syria; the potential for their return to destabilize Russia’s border regions is a serious concern for Moscow
• Those fighters from the Caucasus regions who have gone to Syria—particularly but not limited to Chechnya—have sorted themselves into three main extremist factions
• Chechens play an important role in the Islamic State, al-Qaeda/Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic Caucasus Emirate (ICE), an al-Qaeda-affiliated group that continues to fight against Russia in the Caucasus region
• While the reputation of Chechen fighters is prone to mythic exaggeration, they do play a prominent and often specialized military role in whatever faction they join, and present a serious and persistent terrorist threat in Syria and elsewhere.
The Syrian civil war has dramatically affirmed that the trend lines of globalization are not restricted to trade and finance, but are also fundamentally altering persistent regional conflicts. The estimated 30,000 foreign fighters that have traveled to Syria over the past four years come from more than 100 countries. Efforts to stem the flow of these fighters have proven ineffective, especially as would-be travelers learn from their predecessors' mistakes and have stopped broadcasting their intentions and journeys on social media.
As Russian military involvement in Syria escalates, a look into the fighters from Russia’s sphere of influence is in order. Combatting these fighters while they are in Syria is—according to both Russian President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev—in Russia’s ‘national interest.’ When the issue of foreign fighters from the former Soviet republics in Syria is combined with Moscow’s determination to ensure the continuity of a pro-Russian regime in Damascus, it is difficult to overstate the effort Russia will expend in the Syrian civil war.
President Putin recently disclosed that there are 5,000-7,000 fighters from the former Soviet republics who have traveled to fight in Syria. Of these, the ones that likely worry Moscow most are those from the Caucasus, particularly the region of Chechnya. Setting aside the exaggerated mythologies that surround Chechen fighters, they are indeed playing a considerable role in extremist groups in Syria, adding a measure of military capability and motivation that serves as a force multiplier wherever they are deployed.
The Chechen and Caucasus fighters have essentially divided into three extremist camps in Syria. They are ostensibly rivals, but the Chechens have tried to avoid infighting among themselves regardless of group affiliation, with varying success.
In the so-called Islamic State, the Chechens are located in Raqqa, as well as al-Bab and Manbij in Aleppo. Chechen fighters make up the backbone of the ‘Dabiq Army,’ the group’s somewhat elite unit preparing for the ‘end-of-days’ battle in Dabiq, north of Aleppo. More Chechens are believed to serve in the Jaysh al-Usra (Emergency Army), an emergency force that is deployed to shore up weakening positions in both Syria and Iraq. All of these fighters fall under the command of Tarkhan Batirashvil AKA Abu Omar al-Shishani, an ethnic Chechen from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge.
In Jabhat al-Nusra, a sizable contingent of fighters (ranging from Chechen to Tajik and others) is fighting under the name Jaysh al-Mujahideen al-Ansar, which has experienced leadership turmoil throughout the summer and is now led by a Saudi following the removal of Salakhuddin al-Shishani. The group is increasingly Arab-influenced, as the Caucasus element diminishes. Jabhat al-Nusra managed to retain a good amount of fighters when Abu Omar al-Shishani defected to the Islamic State, though he did take many with him. Two Uzbek-related groups, Imam Bukhari Jamaat and Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, are also affiliated with al-Nusra and al-Qaeda, and both are operating in Aleppo and Qualamoun. Al-Nusra’s Caucasus fighters have been instrumental in fighting around Idlib and Aleppo.
The third of the major factions (which, like everything in the civil war, have numerous and shifting sub-factions) are those fighters aligned with the Islamic Caucasus Emirate (ICE), which has sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, but has not folded itself into the official al-Qaeda Syrian affiliate of Jabhat al-Nusra. In addition to Salakhuddin al-Shishani, there are other prominent and effective military commanders for the ICE elements. Abdul Hakim al-Shishan, head of the Ajnad al-Kavkaz, has been quite active in the Assad stronghold of Latakia; as such, his forces and other Caucasus groups—such as Jund al-Sham led by Murad Margoshvili AKA Muslim al-Shishani—are a prime target for Russian airstrikes. These airstrikes accomplish two goals for Russia: lessening the threat to Assad and reducing the number of skilled fighters that could potentially return home to wage war in Russia and its borderlands.
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