BACKGROUND: The statements of both rival leaders suggest that the participation of Chechens, as well as other North Caucasians, in the Syrian civil war has gained momentum in recent months, a fact that many foreign observers have increasingly pointed out. According to some estimates, hundreds of North Caucasians along with natives of Central Asian republics, particularly Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and to a lesser extent the Volga-Ural region and Azerbaijan have been fighting on Syrian battlefields, with Chechens and Dagestanis in the numerical lead.
Recently, Andrei Konin, the head of the FSB’s regional branch, admitted that about 200 residents of Dagestan are currently in Syria, most of which are fighting alongside the rebels. The actual number of Chechens is likely even higher. The majority of post-Soviet Muslims recruited to the Syrian jihad come from their respective native countries. However, due to strict surveillance and a threat of collective punishment for insurgents and their family members imposed by the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities as part of the highly controversial counterinsurgency policy within the republic, the majority of Chechen fighters stem either from among the ethnic Chechen community in northern Georgia, Chechen diaspora groups in Europe (particularly Norway, France, Austria, and Poland), or Chechen students of Islamic theology in the Middle Eastern countries.
The increasing numbers of North Caucasian fighters have been paralleled by a growing inflow into Syria of mujahedeen from across the Islamic world, not least from Arab countries and Turkey. This illustrates the increasing appeal of the Syria jihad, whilst multiplying reports of inhuman treatment of innocent people at the hands of the Assad forces and pro-regime militia has caught the imagination of pious Sunni Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia. Accordingly, anger toward the Putin regime’s blatant support of the “Assadites” along with the brutal counterinsurgency practices in the North Caucasus seems to play a leading role among the North Caucasian volunteers who decide to join the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Post-Soviet insurgents usually form distinct groups fighting on their own with leaders stemming from their native areas, and the extent of cooperation with the FSA varies significantly from group to group. As a rule, North Caucasian volunteers are inclined to acting on their own, showing relatively little subordination to the FSA’s divided leadership, even some of their units have recently started to merge with the FSA’s unified battalions. This is the case of the recently formed Jaish al-Muhajireen corps, which is composed of the mostly Arab Hattab and Jaish brigades and the mostly Chechen Muhajireen Brigade.
On average, the North Caucasian fighters are regarded as more professional, experienced and well-equipped than Syrian fighters. They have earned a reputation as fierce warriors and hence enjoy respect among the international network of jihadi fighters, even though their involvement has sometimes sparked controversy among the local population.
IMPLICATIONS: According to some local sources, a quite effective network of Salafi activists has recently been established in Russia with the aim of coordinating the recruitment of North Caucasian, Central Asian, and Tatar fighters to Syrian battlefields. They are increasingly adopting a virtual mode of operation. In this regard, a Russian media outlet has recently alleged that Salman Bulgar, also known as Ayrat Vahitov, an ethnic Tatar originally from Naberezhnie Chelny in Tatarstan who is himself a Salafi with military experience from the Afghanistan war, is considered one of the “recruitment officers” in charge of headhunting through internet resources, running a Facebook profile and several other virtual resources as a sort of recruitment department. Yet sources believe that some sort of recommendation is still needed for the application to be taken seriously by the “recruitment officers.” In order to prevent Russian agents from infiltrating the recruitment process as well as fraud, the potential recruits usually need some previous experience with membership in Salafi communities and thus a recommendation from the leaders of those communities. However, other sources assert that such activities cannot take place without at least surveillance by the Russian secret services.
Indeed, at the time being, the Russian authorities appear to avoid impeding the process of recruitment, although according to some sources, they routinely monitor the activities of the Salafi activists in the Internet and elsewhere. It seems that their major aim is to allow for would-be Jihadists to travel from Russia in relatively large numbers to ensure they do not join the ongoing insurgency in the North Caucasus or the Volga-Ural area, which would aggravate the security of the forthcoming Olympics in Sochi. Albeit enabling the transfer of young Russia-based Jihadists to Syria possibly suits Moscow’s interests in the short term, this will potentially create a serious problem for Russian authorities after the civil war in Syria is over and the jihadists, trained in guerilla warfare, will seek to return to their homeland in Russia’s predominantly Muslim areas with the ultimate aim of continuing the jihad. It will hence be crucial for Russian authorities to either prevent their return to Russia or imprison them on arrival. On the other hand, a part of the jihadists are likely to die on Syrian battlefields, which could be another explanation for Moscow’s relaxed attitude towards the engagement of North Caucasians in the conflict. Russian authorities have seemingly concluded that the outmigration of jihadists from the country will reduce the vitality of the domestic insurgency.
Some sources claim that experienced jihadists are likely to travel also to areas like Afghanistan and Iraq in an effort to carry out Jihad. This could help destabilizing West-supported regimes in both countries and constitute a relative blow to U.S. interests, which might also suit Moscow’s agenda of weakening U.S. positions in those key areas. The fact that the Russian secret services routinely record the identities of Russian citizens traveling abroad is crucial for effectively hampering their return to Russia.
CONCLUSIONS: The involvement of North Caucasian fighters in the Syrian war is also sponsored by Persian Gulf countries. Moscow’s concerted efforts to disable international support for the Sunni insurgents, its material support for the Assad regime, and the growing number of Iran-backed and Moscow-approved Shia fighters in the war have infuriated the sheikhs who have become eager to provide solid support for the North Caucasus insurgency, centered on logistical issues. Salafi activists obtain financial resources from Gulf countries, most notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, that enable the fighters to travel to Turkey and then cross the Turkish-Syrian border to join the ranks the FSA. Money is usually transported from Istanbul to Moscow, Rostov-na-Donu, Kazan and some other Russian cities through a network of agents, some of whom pose as Turkish or Russian businessmen. Given the deterioration of relations between certain Gulf countries and Russia, the forces of the Caucasus Emirate might in the foreseeable future enjoy solid financial support and possibly also a safe haven from the sheikhs. Along with the hundreds of experienced fighters that will soon seek to return to the North Caucasus, this might pose a serious threat to Moscow’s interests in the region in general, and Russia’s internal security in particular.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Emil Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2013) and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007).