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Russia is Bombing a Lot of Familiar Faces in Syria

The presence of Chechen fighters in Syria — veterans of two wars against Moscow — are a big reason why Russia is bombing targets in the country. The Russian effort is effectively a reenactment of the US' "flypaper" strategy in Iraq.

by Torie Rose DeGhett
Oct 14 2015, 5:55pm

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura in Moscow, Russia, 13 October 2015. (Maxim Shipenkov/EPA)

Although Russian airstrikes on Syria are a new development, Moscow will be dropping bombs on a lot of familiar faces. Many of the foreign fighters in Syria were Chechens recruited through the Islamic State's presence in the North Caucasus. These particular militants are long-time enemies of Russia, and that they once again find themselves on opposite sides is not incidental.

Syria has become a melting pot of foreign fighters, tens of thousands of whom have made the journey from more than 100 countries around the world. At least 1,700 Russians — maybe more — are currently fighting in rebel and extremist groups in Syria and northern Iraq, making Russia the fourth largest contributor of foreign fighters, after Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan (and the largest contributor from the non-Muslim world).

These fighters are products, even veterans, of previous conflicts with Moscow. Some fighters are going to Syria from the Caucasus with their own personal vendettas against the Russians. Abu Omar al-Shishani, an Islamic State commander whose assumed surname literally means "the Chechen," is originally from an ethnically Chechen enclave of Georgia and has fought Russia twice before, as a rebel in the Second Chechen War and as a member of the Georgian army during the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. In a McClatchy profile, published last month, he is described as having a top leadership role, not just among fellow Chechens fighting in the Islamic State, but in the group's operations in Syria.

It shouldn't be too great a surprise that Chechens figure in this conflict; Moscow has waged war against them twice in contemporary post-Soviet history. The first time, in 1994, was a Russian military response to Chechnya's 1991 declaration of independence, and the second, in 1999, started after a brigade of Islamist Chechen fighters invaded neighboring Dagestan. Both wars were bloodbaths.

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Between the First and Second Chechen Wars, what began as a secular nationalist push for independence transformed into militant fundamentalism based on a Salafist interpretation of Islam.

"The North Caucasus radicalized to a very large extent because of Russia's own counterproductive policies," said Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. This radicalization laid the groundwork for the Islamic State's presence in Syria, and the desire of some Chechens for the "prestige" of fighting for the cause of a greater jihad.

The threat of Chechen-sourced terrorism in Russia is vivid for many. "Those memories are still fresh," said Alexey Khlebnikov, a Russian military analyst and editor of Russia Direct.

The country marked the 11th anniversary of the Beslan school massacre in September, remembering the 2004 attack in which Chechen terrorists took 1,100 hostages, most of them children, at a school in North Ossetia. The siege lasted three days; 334 people died, 186 of whom were children. The attack is notable both for the brutality of the terrorists in targeting children and the brutality of the Russian government, whose blunt-force end to the siege was responsible for a large number of the deaths.

The rawness of the memory of this and other attacks gives the Russian government footing to justify its intervention in Syria. For them, this is about stability, about keeping the fight outside of Russia's borders. (It should be noted, of course, that Western governments are no strangers to these tactics, and engage in their own versions of this kind of thinking about the War on Terror.)

Russian President Vladimir Putin is famous for his stances on terrorism and separatism in Chechnya, infamously declaring that he would "wipe them out in the outhouse." It was on this kind of bravado, and the promise of security in the face of terrorism, that he initially came to power at the turn of the millennium, coinciding with the start of the Second Chechen War. Fear was at a peak because of a series of deadly apartment bombings attributed to Chechen separatists, though it has been alleged more than once since that the real architects of the attacks were state security services.

Recent polling shows that leveraging the Russian population's concerns over terrorism continues to be a viable political strategy. New public opinion polling data from the Levada Center in Moscow shows 72 percent of Russians support the airstrikes in Syria.

"We are protecting Russian people from the terrorist threat because it is better to do this abroad than to fight terrorism within the country," Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev told the Rossiya-24 television channel on October 3, encapsulating the Kremlin's public line of rhetoric.

Russia presents itself as a rightful and logical participant in the long-running War on Terror engaged in by the US and its allies.

"Domestically, and, frankly, internationally, the message is 'we are the only ones fighting terrorism,'" Borshchevskaya said.

The official Kremlin line, she said, argues that Russia is "fighting terrorism in Syria to protect the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad, and Bashar al-Assad is the only force on the ground that's really preventing terrorism, that he is a force for stability."

Many analysts lay the blame for radicalization and the regional strength of fundamentalist groups like the Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra on Assad and the long-running governance of Syria's Alawite minority. Rather than being a bulwark against terror, Assad's policies contributed to it — a refrain that echoes in many corners of the battle against extremism.

Khlebnikov said he sees Moscow's intervention as trying "to kill two birds with one stone. Firstly, to eliminate the ISIS threat, and also to support and increase military capabilities of the Syrian regime, of Assad."

Borshchevskaya sees the situation differently. "In theory," she said, "Russia has every reason to want to genuinely cooperate on fighting ISIS, precisely because Russia has its own terrorism problem in the Caucasus."

However, she argued, the counterterrorism justification is disingenuous, covering the Kremlin's desire to prop up its faltering ally.

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Moscow sees a combination of anti-Assad groups as terrorists, including some groups backed by the United States. "From the perspective of the Russian leadership, ISIS is pursued in broader terms than in the West," Khlebnikov said. "So what Russia calls ISIS actually kind of combines other groups."

"If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it's a terrorist, right?" said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, addressing reporters at the United Nations in New York last week. This statement could equally describe Russia's views on how to handle Chechnya.

It is easy to think of this fight as the next iteration of America's War on Terror, but it is also a new chapter in the Chechen conflict. Chechen participation in the war against Assad is an expansion of the religious radicalization that changed the character of country's original struggle for independence. It is also a new addition to the long-running saga of the Kremlin's own harsh counterterrorism measures.

The current situation in Syria is now a product of multiple, competing wars on terror. Fed by radicalization from all corners of the globe and sitting at the intersection of too many geopolitical and strategic interests to count, the Syrian civil war now reverberates with the consequences of counterterrorism policies implemented not just in the Middle East, but much further afield in the North Caucasus.

Follow Torie Rose DeGhett on Twitter: @trdeghett

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