The world press recently began to discuss the fact that some Chechens are involved in the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The number Chechens fighting in the Syria seems inconsequential. The involvement of Chechens, however, indicates that the Syrian conflict is about more than discontent on the part of Syrian Sunnis with the Alawite ruling minority.
Chechen involvement in the Syrian rebellion became evident following the news in August that Rustam Gelaev, son of the renowned Chechen commander Khamzat Gelaev (a.k.a. Ruslan Gelaev), had been killed in the Syrian fighting (www.gazeta.ru/politics/2012/08/22_a_4734433.shtml). The Russian authorities, in the person of Ramzan Kadyrov, flatly rejected even the remote possibility that Chechen militants might be involved in the war against Moscow’s ally, Bashar al-Assad (www.mk.ru/politics/news/2012/07/23/728425-kadyirov-oproverg-soobscheniya-o-chechentsah-voyuyuschih-na-storone-siriyskoy-oppozitsii.html). Kadyrov called the reports of Chechens fighting in Syria a flagrant lie. More surprising was the statement made by Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov in an October 2012 video address (www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyACOPqsdjA&feature=player_embedded), in which he rebuked Chechens who were fighting in Syria. Umarov reiterated that he considered Assad an enemy and a dictator and that the North Caucasian mujahideen were praying for a Syrian mujahideen victory in Syria. However, Umarov pointed out he could not pray for those who wanted to replace Assad with a Western puppet. According to Umarov, the jihad in the North Caucasus is more brutal than in in Syria. He noted that some Chechens who were fighting in Syria did not recognize the jihad in Chechnya and were engaged in divisive behavior in the North Caucasus and continuing attempts to fragment the mujahideen forces while in Syria. The North Caucasian militant leader called on his audience not to listen to the Chechens fighting in Syria who had slipped out from under his control. It can be assumed that the Chechens and other North Caucasians fighting in Syria chose to do so not because they were against Umarov’s struggle in the North Caucasus, but because they view Assad as a murderer of Muslims who are not followers of Alawite teaching. Alawite doctrine falls somewhere between an extreme version of Shi’ism and an entirely separate religion (www.islam-center.net/ru/components/com_book/books/islam-center.net-ru_alaqida_al-wasitiyah621112982.pdf). It should be remembered that no Chechens fought in Iraq against Saddam Hussein or fought against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, because, even though in both those cases the fight was against dictators, both sides were Sunni. In Syria, the fight is between Sunnis and Shi’ites, and that is why the Chechens consider it possible to participate in the conflict there. The Pakistan Christian Post newspaper attempted to portray Chechen involvement in Syria as a joint plot by the Georgian and Turkish security services (www.pakistanchristianpost.com/headlinenewsd.php?hnewsid=3955). However, neither Turkey nor Georgia would be able to control and create such movements using Chechens. That view indicates a misunderstanding of the Chechen psyche. Chechens are not mercenaries looking for adventure. Chechens do not subscribe to foreign armies’ goals or adhere to foreign rules. For the Chechens who are fighting in Syria, including some students at Islamic universities, it is an opportunity to prove that they are prepared to fight and die for the same ideals as those people fighting in the North Caucasus. They join the anti-Assad struggle outside the North Caucasus not because they are afraid to join the insurgency in Russia, but rather because they cannot get home. The fact that Chechens appear to be positioned in the north of Syria does not necessarily mean that Turkey is involved. Journalists and analysts should take into account that this area is where North Caucasian ethnic groups have resided since the start of the 20th century. The area is also known for being overwhelmingly dominated by Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds. One Syrian battalion whose military victories have been recorded on video is notably named after former Chechen President Jokhar Dudaev (d. 1996) in acknowledgement of Chechnya’s leadership during the Ichkeria period (www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=lN8ReprKveE). Apart from this battalion, there are also battalions in Syria named after Shamil Basaev and Emir Khattab. Those names, however, do not make those detachments Chechen; indeed, members of those battalions are native Syrians, and there are no Chechens among them. So it is hard to distinguish between actual Chechen militants and Syrians who have assumed the titles of Chechen heroes. A journalist with the British newspaper The Guardian wrote in September that the Chechens fighting in Syria are among those who are better organized and who display great courage. According to the British journalist, there were only 30 people in the group headed by the Chechen commander Abu Omar in Aleppo (www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/sep/23/syria-foreign-fighters-joining-war). It is unlikely that there are even 100 Chechens fighting in Syria. Numbers are less important for the Syrian opposition than simply the fact that Turks, Caucasians and others are fighting on their side. On November 21, the government of Bashar al-Assad handed over a list of foreigners killed fighting on the opposition’s side to the United Nations (RT, November 22; http://www.bbc.co.uk/russian/rolling_news/2012/11/121121_rn_syria_un_list.shtml). There were 143 people from 20 countries on the list, reportedly including some Chechens. Meanwhile, the Russian authorities are trying to play down the Chechen factor in Syria, advancing the view that the Chechens who moved to Syria at the turn of the 20th century have maintained neutrality in the conflict. According to the Chechen authorities in Grozny, several hundred Chechen families from Syria would like to move back to Chechnya (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/210970/), which is practically impossible since Moscow would be frightened of having Chechens from the Middle East settle in the North Caucasus. Thus, in reporting on Chechens in Syria, the media is trying to show how bad the situation in the country is. The Chechen example is used to encourage the rebels to fight until the end. The involvement of Chechens in the conflict only supports the idea that the war in Syria has ceased to be an internal matter. The number of foreign participants in the Syrian conflict will increase the longer the conflict grinds on, further complicating any possible resolution.