BACKGROUND: Estimated at around a thousand men, the North Caucasians are part of an international force of mujahideen, whose numbers are currently assessed to around 10,000 fighters. As such, they are by far less than a decisive force in absolute numbers, yet their influence in Syria has been on the rise due to their commitment, fighting spirit, and last but not least, their gifted military commanders. Most North Caucasian units are composed of Dagestanis and Chechens, though members of other North Caucasian ethnic groups have also volunteered to the Syrian war along with Muslims from other post-Soviet areas.
Jihadist websites in the North Caucasus and elsewhere have frequently quoted individual volunteers to the Syrian war, revealing a number of key motivations among North Caucasians. Resolve to continue fighting the Russians, the quintessential “infidel,” and their allies in the form of al-Assad's “apostate” regime, have been among the most quoted. In this regard, Chechen émigré and old diaspora communities scattered around the world have been particularly important sources of recruits. A crucial motivation for members of the former subgroup, though many were born outside Chechnya, has been deprivation of their homeland and often a loss of relatives as a result of Russia’s controversial military campaigns in Chechnya.
Many influential Chechen jihadists have stemmed from northern Georgia’s Kist community, a subethnic group of Chechens located in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. Among Kist Chechens, a tiny community of around seven thousand, anti-Russian and jihadist sentiments have increased due to the two subsequent wars in Chechnya, exposure to an explosive mixture of jihadist ideology and Chechen nationalism emanating from neighboring Chechnya, and the presence in the Pankisi area of thousands of Chechen refugees, whose suffering has motivated many locals to volunteer to the Chechnya wars. By contrast, due to the enormous control exercised by Ramzan Kadyrov’s forces in Chechnya, volunteering from Chechnya proper has been rather rare. Dagestanis volunteering to the Syrian war have predominantly stemmed from their native republic, where the jihadist insurgency has recently been on the rise.
Importantly, as indicated in statements by various Chechen and North Caucasian insurgent leaders from Syria, their desire to establish ties with the global jihadist movement has also played a role in North Caucasians’ motivations to wage jihad in Syria. Last but not least, interviews delivered by ordinary volunteers from the North Caucasus have revealed the immense appeal of the Syrian jihad; in fact, the extent of jihadist euphoria produced by the feelings of solidarity, resolve, and devotion to the cause among international mujahedeen and their supporters can only be compared to the Soviet-Afghanistan War of the 1980s.
IMPLICATIONS: In Syria, North Caucasian jihadists have chiefly been deployed in the country’s northern areas along Turkey’s borders. Initially, most North Caucasian volunteers were part of the Jaish al-Muhajireen wa'l-Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Supporters, JMA), commanded by the charismatic Kist Chechen Tarkan Batirashvili, aka Abu Omar ash-Shishani. While fighting alongside ISIS, JMA retained its formal independence until the end of 2013. Omar Shishani then swore an oath to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, currently the most influential jihadist leader. Subsequently, most of the JMA’s North Caucasian-manned units merged with ISIS, remaining under Omar Shishani's formal command as the newly appointed leader of ISIS’ northern sector in Syria.
Another jihadist group composed of North Caucasians was Jaish Khilafah al-Islamiyya (Army of the Islamic Caliphate, JKI), initially part of Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani’s Jabhat an-Nusra li Ahl ash-Sham (The Support Front for the People of the Levant, JN) until JKI’s merger with JMA in late 2013. Until his death in early 2014, this group was commanded by another ethnic Chechen from the Pankisi Gorge, Ruslan Machalikashvili, known as amir Sayfullah ash-Shishani.
Aside from these factions, now integrated with large international jihadist armies, other separate groups comprised of, inter alia, Chechens and other North Caucasians have co-existed simultaneously in Syria. Most important among them are Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of the Levant, JSh) and the remnants of JMA after Shishani's departure to ISIS. JSh is currently under the command of another ethnic Chechen from Georgia, Muslim Margoshvili, known as Muslim Abu Walid ash-Shishani. Based in the northwestern part of Syria, JSh, comprised of a large contingent of Lebanese Sunnis and North Caucasians, has chiefly fought alongside JN. Led by Salahuddin ash-Shishani, a Chechnya-born Chechen and Omar Shishani's former deputy, JMA has fought in northern Syria along with local jihadist leaders, for instance with the Syrian brigades. While Salahuddin’s units have sworn an oath to the Caucasus Emirate, amir Muslim has sought to remain independent from any group, even though his units have closely coordinated their activities with JMA.
In 2013, frictions began to occur among various factions of the North Caucasian jihadists. The first sign of internal conflict appeared in mid-2013, when amir Omar expelled a group of Sayfullah-led North Caucasian fighters for their “bad manners.” It soon appeared that the split was caused by amir Omar’s desire to join ISIS and his pledge of allegiance to al-Baghdadi, which Sayfullah strongly objected to. Sayfullah instead joined the forces of amir Muslim and amir Abu Musa Shishani, another prominent Chechen jihadist. Months later, a larger rift occurred when Omar did join ISIS, after which several North Caucasians disapproved of Omar’s move and chose to remain in JMA, now under amir Salahuddin’s command. From then on, both groups have regularly accused each other of various sins: while ISIS-based North Caucasians have decried their JMA-based fellows and “non-aligned” North Caucasian units led by amir Muslim and amir abu Musa for their alleged indecisiveness and nationalism, the latter have accused the former of excessive use of violence against civilians.
CONCLUSIONS: In the upcoming months, the mounting split between various factions of North Caucasian-manned units, closely followed by their North Caucasian sympathizers across the world, will most likely slash the appeal of the Syrian jihad for many prospective jihadists. Against this background, the numbers of Chechen and North Caucasian volunteers willing to participate in the Syrian civil war will most likely decline accordingly. Moreover, some sources suggest that the split within the North Caucasian ranks in Syria may prompt some of them to return to their homeland, a move that a number of jihadist leaders in the North Caucasus and even Syria have approved of. The security repercussions for Russia could be enormous.
In fact, it is unlikely that all of the North Caucasian mujahedeen will eventually return home, and the high lethality rate in the Syrian war is just one reason. Some influential and well-known North Caucasian jihadists, for instance amir Omar, may choose to remain in the Middle East, aspiring to high-ranking positions in the global jihadist movement instead of isolating themselves in the North Caucasus. Over the course of the war, dozens of North Caucasian jihadists have married Syrian women, and will therefore likely prefer to remain in the area. Others, driven by the jihadist ideology, may after their Syrian anabasis seek to continue waging the “holy war” in other parts of the Muslim world, not necessarily in their homeland. But even if only part of the “Syrian North Caucasians” eventually manage to return to the North Caucasus, they would help revive the local insurgency movement, now weakened in the aftermath of the counterinsurgency operations related to the Sochi Olympics. Moreover, after the liquidation of the veterans of the two Chechen wars, the insurgency now lacks a new generation of strong leaders. Constituting a force of highly experienced, reputed, and devoted fighters, the “Syrians” could take command of the local insurgent groups, and take advantage of their extensive networks with jihadists both in the Middle East and in various areas of the post-Soviet world.
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 (Palgrave Macmillan) and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Peter Lang).
(Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons)