Chechen special forces deployed to Syria to 'protect peace and public order'

With memories still fresh war in Afghanistan that lasted from 1979 to 1989, there is little political appetite within Moscow for sending rank-and-file Russian troops to Syria. Sending battle-hardened Chechens is the obvious solution

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The Independent Online

The President of Russia’s semi-autonomous Chechen Republic took to Instagram last week to make one of the most understated announcements of Russia’s ruthless military intervention in the Syria’s war. President Ramzan Kadyrov, famed for his nearly decade-long tyrannical rule over Chechnya, confirmed to his 2.3 million followers what many already suspected: feared battalions of Chechen special forces had been deployed to northern Syrian in an effort to protect “peace and public order”.

The announcement came after the deputy speaker of the Chechen parliament, Adam Delimkhanov, travelled to Syria alongside Mufti Salakh-Hadzhi Mezhiyev where they met Maher Al Assad, the brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and visited a Russian military police battalion, “where young Chechens are serving”.

“The soldiers said with pride that they have been given the honour of serving to protect peace and public order in Aleppo, defending the civilian population from terrorist attacks,” Kadyrov wrote alongside a video which has been viewed nearly 100,000 times. Russia’s intervention in the war in Syria on the side of President Assad began in September 2015. The Kremlin vowed to “stabilise the legitimate power in Syria and create the conditions for political compromise”. Instead, Moscow has been accused of bombing civilian infrastructures and UN aid convoys.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Chechnya's leader Ramzan Kadyrov at the Kremlin in March 2016 (Getty)

“Russia’s intervention in Syria shaped the conflict from an impending defeat for Assad’s forces to what is de facto a victory, destroying or radicalising would be alternatives, and recapturing key areas,” says Michael Kofman, a security analyst at the Centre for Naval Analyses and a fellow at the Wilson Centre.

“Russia has secured not just its interests, but more importantly demonstrated itself to be a power broker in this intractable conflict, which may lead to other political aspirations for an influential role in the Middle East,” Kofman told The Independent.

Although details of the deployment are still under wraps, unconfirmed reports that Chechen battalions were preparing to deploy to Syria began to surface in December 2016. Their mission was reportedly to guard Russia's Hmeimim air base, near the coastal city of Latakia. Russian media said booklets that included basic phrases in Arabic and insignia of armed factions in Aleppo were being distributed to troops at a base near the Chechen capital Grozny. These initial reports were first denied by Kadyrov.

The President turned to his infamous Instagram account to announce that the battalions supposedly being deployed didn’t even exist. The Chechen strongman did, however, assert that armed forces in his republic were eager to fight “scum” in Syria if they were given the green light from the Kremlin.

Shortly after the Chechen President’s announcement on Instagram, pro-Kremlin media outlets began posting footage of the feared Chechen battalions patrolling the battle scarred streets of Aleppo and handing out food to smiling civilians. Another report shows an ethnic-Russian member of the deployment converting to Islam in a pompous ceremony conducted by a Chechen mufti. Then, a foundation established in memory of Kadyrov’s father, which is run by his mother, announced it would fund the construction of the Unesco protected Umayyad Mosque, destroyed in fighting between rebel factions and regime forces in 2013. Additional reports surfaced that Kadyrov’s government would fund the construction of an orphanage in Aleppo.

According to Katya Sokirianskaia, a Russia analyst at the International Crisis Group, there is little political appetite within Moscow for sending regular rank and file Russian troops to Syria. Apart from the political, human and military cost a of major deployment, Sokirianskaia says this reluctance is a hangover from the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan, when the USSR suffered staggering losses at the hands of Taliban fighters. Memories of the 1979 war are still fresh among Russians who fear a repeat of a protracted war with major fatalities.

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Chechen special forces from Vostok army unit outside the Georgian village of Zemo Nikozi in 2008 (Reuters)

“For the Kremlin, sending Chechens is a very good solution strategically because the deployment isn’t going to resonate in Russian society that much,” Sokirianskaia told The Independent. Sending Chechen forces, who are under the Kremlin’s control and battle-hardened and trained in counter-insurgency, “maximises the efficiency of Russia’s presence in Syria and minimises the costs of this presence”.

Maxim Suchkov, a Russian International Affairs Council analyst, explained that Moscow had deployed Chechen special forces as military police, in part to gain influence on the ground in Aleppo and to keep competing armed forces in check. “Now that Syrian government forces control Aleppo, Moscow has sought to control part of it to create its own leverage on the ground,” Suchkov told The Independent.

The deployment is also to balance the influence of Iranian backed militia in Syria, he added. “Ever since the recapturing of Aleppo, there have been reports of some Iran-backed Shia militias troubling the local Sunni population. Sending the Sunni Chechen forces is a way for the Russians to shield the population from these acts and score some reputation points among the locals,” Suchkov added.

Contrary to President Kadyrov’s Instagram post, which claimed “young Chechen men” were serving in Syria, footage of the troops patrolling Aleppo show battle-hardened foot soldiers. According to the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, the “East” and “West” special forces battalions deployed to Syria are less police forces comprised of young Chechens as they are “two infamous special battalions formed in 2003, manned by former Chechen separatists, who switched sides to fight under the Russian flag. Battalion “East” in August 2008 spearheaded the Russian military invasion of Georgia”.

The infamous battalions, which are routinely drawn up and then disbanded by Kadyrov in an effort to cloak their existence, specialise in mountain and urban warfare and have a reputation for brutality and human rights violations, according to Strategic Forecasting, a geopolitical analysis firm. These Kadyrov loyalists, experienced in guerrilla warfare and counter-terrorism operations against insurgents at home, are well placed to assert control over retaken Aleppo.

By the middle of 2015, 4,700 jihadists from Russia and Central Asia had travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the Isis. The Soufan Group (TSG) estimated that the flow of fighters from Russia and the former Soviet Union had increased 300 per cent from June 2014. The majority of those, TGS estimated, hailed from Chechnya and the North Caucasus. Maxim Suchkov told The Independent that part of the impetus to deploy predominantly Chechen battalions to Aleppo was an effort to reclaim the reputation of Chechens, who were otherwise thought of as being effective Isis fighters.

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Soviet soldiers stand in front of their tanks as they take one final look at local scenery in Afghanistan in 1986 (Reuters)

“Tasking the battalions with police functions guarding the population is an attempt to rebrand the image of Chechens,” Suchkov says. Another prominent analyst, speaking to The Independent on the condition of anonymity because of his work on Syria, says the battalions deployed to Syria had in fact been instructed by Kadyrov’s regime to hunt down anti-Russian insurgents who had travelled to Syria to join the ranks of opposition groups. In the predominantly Sunni Chechen Republic, which has sent hundreds of fighters to join opposition groups in the fight against Bashar Al Assad, the deployment of Chechen troops is unpopular, says Katya Sokirianskaia.

Alongside the initial deployment reports that surfaced in December last year, a dozen Chechen soldiers in the federal army were dismissed after refusing to deploy to Syria. “Fighting on the side of Assad is something that Chechens are reluctant to do as a whole,” Sokirianskaia says. But in Kadyrov’s Chechnya, there is little incentive to protest the move. Before last year’s elections in Russia, which saw Kadyrov retain his title with 97 per cent of the ballot, Human Rights Watch described Chechyna as a place where “even the mildest expressions of dissent about the situation in Chechnya or comments contradicting official policies or paradigms, whether expressed openly or in closed groups on social media, or through off-hand comments to a journalist or in a public place, can trigger ruthless reprisals”.

“If it weren’t for such a repressive regime in Chechnya, there would be major protests against the deployment, ” Sokirianskaia says. “Chechens are Sunni Muslims and they don’t want to fight against other Muslims, especially alongside Assad’s Shia regime.”

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