The presence of pro-Moscow Chechen forces in Syria has gathered widespread attention in recent months. What motivates their deployment to the country? What role do they play in Moscow's wider foreign policy strategy? This new Leksika series will attempt to answer these questions.
In December 2016, the presence of Chechen military personnel in Syria made international headlines. According to an estimate by Caucasian Knot, between 300 and 500 fighters loyal to pro-Moscow strongman Ramzan Kadyrov were deployed throughout Assad-controlled territory with the stated mission to “protect peace and public order.” Officially known as military police, “the units are reportedly drawn from elite Spetnaz formations within the Chechen armed forces and are being employed in a role far beyond the simple rear-area guard duty that’s typical of such units: manning checkpoints, distributing aid, guarding bases, and even coordinating the defense of pro-government strongholds with regime forces.”
In late January/early February 2017, 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 servicemen from Chechnya were serving. Kadyrov used the occasion to express his personal enthusiasm for both the initial deployment of Chechen troops, as well as for their continued presence in Syria.
It now appears that units from the North Caucasus (the mostly Chechen units appear to also include a number of Ingush and even ethnic-Russian converts to Islam) played a larger role in the Battle of Aleppo than was previously realized, and are actively involved in the reconstruction of the city. Al-Monitor summarized Russian-Chechen efforts thusly:
The Regional Public Fund — which is named after Akhmat Hajji Kadyrov, Ramzan Kadyrov’s father — decided to restore the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, which was destroyed by the Islamic State (IS). The fund is a charitable foundation established in 2004 to assist Chechens, but has since extended its activities to aid people in different parts of Russia and abroad, particularly in Somalia and Syria. In February, the foundation organized the delivery of more than 10 tons of food and other relief aid to Syria.
While the presence of Chechens, Ingush, Avars, and other nationalities from the North Caucasus within jihadist ranks has been well documented, as have Russian military operations in the country, far less attention has been payed to the role pro-Kremlin Muslim forces play in Moscow’s overall strategy. This paper will take a new look at Russian military and diplomatic operations in the broader Middle East through the lens of developments in domestic Islamic populations, and propose what may be a long-term strategy in the Kremlin.
The Kadyrov Model
Might Russian military and diplomatic strategy in the Middle East be motivated by Moscow’s domestic struggles with Islamist extremism and counterterrorism?
Russia has often been criticized for targeting groups other than the Islamic State in its aerial campaign in Syria. Indeed, international observers have correctly noted that Russia concentrated its military forces against various opposition groups in and around Aleppo and Idlib, while seemingly ignoring obvious Islamic State targets elsewhere. While it is true that most of these groups have no affiliations with the Islamic State, it is also true that many espouse an Islamist ideology. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, many also have extensive connections with jihadist groups operating in the post-Soviet space, especially the North Caucasus and Central Asia.
The network of Northwest Syria-based opposition forces affiliated with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s then-official Syrian affiliate) and Jeish al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar (JMA, the “Army of the Immigrants and Helpers”) have long maintained contacts with sympathetic organizations throughout the post-Soviet space. Russian military forces therefore have a clear incentive to target these groups, a different priority from the other foreign powers involved in the Syrian conflict.
Jihadism in Eurasia has shown extreme durability in the face of brute military force. Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and northern Pakistan have each shown that armed force can only get government forces so far. The “whack-a-mole” approach of taking out specific militant leaders and cells can (and does) eliminate individual hostile actors, but one cannot kill an idea by gunfire.
Russia is in a delicate position where clash-of-civilizations conflicts are concerned. With a population which is approximately fifteen percent Muslim, Moscow cannot be perceived as pursuing overtly anti-Muslim policies without risking great backlash in the form of ethnic violence. At the same time, the Kremlin cannot be seen as too accommodating to Muslim influence without provoking ethnic/religious nationalists, whom are already suppressed to such an extent that many have left to fight alongside Ukrainian ultranationalist forces in the self-proclaimed Anti-Terrorist Operation in Donbas.
At the same time, there is a distinct sense (even coming in the form of official statements) that Russian Orthodoxy has in some ways more affinity with traditional Islam than it does with Western Christianity, especially as the latter has largely acquiesced to ‘progressive’ social ideologies.
It is in this context that Grozny’s increasingly central role in Russian diplomacy is most interesting. Representatives from the Chechen capital have engaged leaders of Arab states with increasing frequency. Grozny, largely in ruins not two decades ago, appears to be marketing itself as an Islamic cultural center, even hosting Muslim holy relics in the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque, named for the late father of the current Chechen leader.
“The Kadyrov Model,” as this paper shall refer to it, is central to how Moscow views relations with Muslim populations, both at home and abroad. This is why the title of this paper refers to the “Islamic World” rather than “the Middle East” or “Muslim-majority countries.” The Kadyrov Model emphasizes the importance of folk traditions and national histories within an Islamic moral context. High value is placed on the Chechen language, history, customs, and family structures, rejecting the modern Islamist notion that such things should be subjugated in favor of an Arab-centric puritanism in which only the first generation of Muslims should be emulated.
Where foreign policy is concerned, there is an emphasis on how a given power actually interacts with the Muslim world versus the rhetoric they use. While certain states on the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf claim themselves to be the preeminent political representatives of Islam, they have actually long supported terrorism and promote puritanical forms of the religion which did not emerge until the 19th century. The result being unprecedented levels of intra-Muslim violence, a negative consequence even for true believers.
What this paper refers to as “the Kadyrov Model” offers an alternative framework for Islamic development. The combination of traditional Islam, folk-traditions, and pro-Moscow politics is compatible with the Kremlin’s long-term political objectives, is patriotic, and seeks no direct conflict with Russian Orthodoxy. This model can easily be transferred to other Islamic populations, simply by replacing the word “Chechen” with “Tatar,” “Bashkir,” “Uzbek,” “Syrian,” etc.
Before continuing, we must also address a question of terminology. In a North Caucasian context, “traditional” refers to Islam as is historically practiced by various nationalities, whereas “conservative” has more recent, Salafist (or Salafi-inspired) connotations. This paper argues that the partners Moscow engages internationally tend to be in general sympathy with “the Kadyrov Model.” An examination of each of them will seek to demonstrate this point.
The secular Arab nationalism of the late Colonel Gadhafi fell well within the framework this paper has discussed. Though it is true that Gadhafi had supported terrorist groups such as the Irish Republican Army and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, this is a far cry from supporting actors such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. The former are secular ethno and cultural nationalists, not globally-minded Islamist millenarians.
In 2011, Moscow abstained from voting in the UN Security Council, allowing for NATO’s subsequent military intervention against Libya. This inaction was met with widespread protest in Russia. Medvedev’s perceived weakness reportedly led to a rift between him and current President Vladimir Putin. The subsequent rise of radical Sunni groups and gradual slide into chaos, has led many to conclude that the secular government in Libya was preferable and Putin publically challenged Western leaders on what authority Gaddafi was killed in the face of such catastrophic results.
Many in Russia felt that their trust was violated during this campaign. Though they tacitly permitted (what they believed would be only humanitarian) intervention, they did not approve total regime change nor the brutal death of Gaddafi. This fact directly influenced Moscow’s position on Syria, fearing the continued downward spiral of Near Eastern stability.
Given how Moscow’s concerns have turned prophetic, the Kremlin is highly likely to double down on its approach to the Islamic World. Examining the cases of Egypt and Syria will help to further demonstrate this.
During the concurrent “Arab Spring” unrest in Egypt, while much of the Western world was optimistic about potential democratic developments, Russia approached with a general view of skepticism. Concerned with the spread of instability, both Russia and China expressed caution in dealing with forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood, though such council went unheeded. Western leaders held to their dogmatic view that democratic change is an eternal good, regardless of circumstances or likely results, and an Islamist government was elected.
After the 2013 military counter-coup, Moscow showed support to the new secular government and adopted a “told you so” attitude toward Western countries. Soon after, Cairo drafted major arms deals with Russia, potentially affecting the regional balance of power. This Russian-backed Egypt has since reached out to other regional powers to attempt to form an anti-extremist coalition in the face of a changed security environment. It is unclear what prospects such a project may have however.
President Sisi has put repeated emphasis on Coptic and Muslim unity, highlighting a common Egyptian national identity. He is frequently seen with Coptic religious and community leaders, a historic first for a modern Egyptian Head of State. His government has shown consistent opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, clamped down on Islamist extremists of all affiliations, and maintained a peace agreement with Israel.
Russia has met each of these developments with enthusiasm, negotiating significant arms sales with Sisi’s government, including helicopters and air defense systems, at rates favorable to Cairo. Despite some Western concerns that such arms deals could upset regional dynamics, they went ahead without too much outcry from Tel Aviv, which also maintains relations with Moscow which are far more positive than many Westerners realize.
Syria: From Reaction to Action
Feeling twice vindicated, Moscow met Western eagerness to intervene in Syria with (once again) justifiable skepticism.
As was true in Libya, Syria is governed by a secular dictator who does not act in accordance with Western interests. Also like Libya, the regime in Damascus has long opposed Islamist movements, both political and militant. The late Hafez al-Assad was one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s most outspoken opponents, and argued that Arab states must form their identity on the basis of shared history, not modern Islamist revisionism. The Baathist model developed by the Assad family placed Arab, rather than Muslim, identity at the forefront. This is inclusive of Syria’s religious minorities, especially the ancient Christian population and those of the Alawite faith, from which the Assad family comes.
This emphasis of ethnic identity and national history is very much in line with the Kadyrov Model and could add one layer of sympathy between Moscow and Damascus, in addition to the long-held partnership dating from the Cold War and contemporary geopolitical considerations. The point has been repeatedly made that Russia is concerned not with Assad personally, but with the continuation of the Syrian government and the containment of chaos. Russian military operations in the country seem consistent with this.
The pro-Kremlin news service Russia Insider uploaded a documentary to YouTube on 21 January 2017 in which it was reported that the mostly-Chechen MP units operate under the command of the Center for Reconciliation. The multi-ethnic and multi-confessional nature of the Russian presence in Aleppo was repeatedly stressed, highlighting the presence of Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Russian Orthodox, and even one Buddhist within their ranks. Humanitarian aid from the Russian units appears to be well received by the local population, most of which had endured months of siege. It was also pointed out however, that the Arabic word for Chechen (prior to transliteration: الشيشان), “al-Shishanin,” had previously been associated with banditry, a result of the many Chechens involved in groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the JMA. A language barrier was also apparent, with the Aleppo locals understanding only a few words of Russian (if even that), and the Russian personnel needing to rely on Syrian-government interpreters.
Differentiating pro-Kremlin Chechen forces, often referred to domestically as “Kadyrovtsy,” from the Islamist radicals originating from the same mountains will be a public relations challenge for Moscow. This cost is worth the use of such units however, as Kadyrovtsy have been deployed abroad previously to great battlefield effect. Such units participated in the 2008 Russia-Georgia War (even occupying the town of Gori), and are believed to be fighting in support of the separatist Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics in Eastern Ukraine currently. Additionally, using Chechen forces allows Moscow to put some distance between itself and potential negative consequences of armed actions in Syria. Summarized bluntly by Gregory Shvedov for Caucasian Knot:
…disdain toward the region is a major factor for the deployment of these personnel. “Cynically speaking [it would be much easier for Putin] if the Chechens or other [troops] from the Caucasus would be killed in Syria … than those from other regions of Russia,” Shvedov notes.
Employing these fighters offers Moscow another major advantage. The natives of the North Caucasus are almost entirely Sunni Muslims, a faith they share with the majority of Syria’s population. Since the first units arrived in December 2016, Moscow has sought to use their shared religion and appearance to its advantage. North Caucasian units have been documented using handbooks that include helpful suggestions for dealing with locals, such as the liberal use of the word “mukhabarat” (Syrian secret police) — implying detention and other nasty repercussions — should a request be met with resistance. On a more cordial level, Chechen military police have been told to use shared Islamic words to build friendlier relations with the public, relying on various religious epithets to greet locals when on a patrol. The conversion of an ethnic Russian soldier to Sunni Islam, conducted by Chechnya’s grand mufti in front of Syrian onlookers in Aleppo, was another public relations maneuver utilizing the shared faith between Syrians and the servicemen.
Using such units therefore offer tactical, as well as strategic advantages. Their continued deployment in future Russian military operations can likely be expected.
Though a topic worthy of a paper of its own, recent developments in the Russia-Iran relationship are also worth a brief examination here. This will help to demonstrate how Iranian policy is also consistent with the Kadyrov Model.
Though overlooked by most of the Western public, the presence of ancient Christian communities in Iran, notably Georgians and Armenians, is well known to regional observers, as is the fact that Iran is home to the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel. Shi’ism has shared a common history of persecution under Sunni rule with Christians, Jews, and other minority faiths (Druze, Yezidi, Mandeans, etc.) and therefore generally pursue more tolerant policies toward them. Lebanese Hezbollah is in coalition with the Maronite (Lebanese Catholic) forces in the Lebanese parliament for example. The default sympathy of Moscow in any Sunni-Shia conflict appears to be toward the Shia as a result, though this too would need another study to be stated authoritatively. Shia Islam also holds an increasingly central place in Eurasianist thought, a subject which will be covered in depth by a forthcoming paper.
Muslim nationalities in Russia are not hermetically sealed from the broader Islamic world, they are subject to outside influences, as is true for the increasingly turbulent Muslim communities in Western Europe. With a long history of coping with migrations on the Eurasian steppe, Moscow is better positioned to manage sudden societal changes over the long term that the West is. Russian strategy seems to be to ‘steer the course’ of Muslim development to the greatest extent possible, working with various allies around the world to uphold their mutual interests. By so doing, Moscow is minimalizing the potential for widespread unrest within their domestic Muslim populations, while also stabilizing communities in their neighboring countries. Exporting the Kadyrov Model seems to be the most immediate way of doing this and is a trend that we can expect for the foreseeable future.
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