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.
Part I of this series covered the high-profile deployment of Chechen military personnel to Syria in late 2016, and their possible role in the long-term strategy of the Kremlin. Part II will offer a more in-depth examination of Russian cultural diplomacy efforts in Syria, with a specific eye on the central role played by Chechen state institutions
Acceleration On All Fronts
Described as “Chechnya's Best-Kept Secret,” the Akhmad Kadyrov Fund (named for the late father of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov) has been an unofficial instrument of state power since 2004. Though officially registered as a non-governmental organization, or NGO, the Fund has long acted on direct behalf of Kadyrov’s interests. The documentary film “Family” produced by Mikhail Khodorkovsky's NGO Open Russia alleges that all Chechen residents are required to donate a percentage of their income to the Fund, resulting in an unofficial extra-legal tax collection mechanism. While such claims are hard to substantiate, it is known that the Fund supports the travel of Chechens to Mecca for the Hajj, and has provided humanitarian assistance to help re-build the Chechen Republic following the Second Chechen War, as well as to Somalia and the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics in eastern Ukraine.
The Fund is declared to be valued at more than 57 billion rubles, and is therefore well suited as an instrument for soft-power projection (even if it is less-than-transparent where this money comes from). It was little surprise therefore, when over 120 tons of food were delivered to Syrian civilians by the Fund in mid-2016, a move which made major headlines. Most coverage however failed to recognize that such activity fits within a larger soft-power strategy. Together with the visits of prominent Chechen clerics to the country, a larger pattern begins to emerge in which Chechnya acts as Russia’s cultural ambassador to the Islamic world. As analyst Neil Hauer points out:
Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov and Grand Mufti of Chechnya Salah-haji Mezhiev have emerged as a key conduit of Russian soft power with regard to Syrian civilian and Islamic figures. Russia’s North Caucasus-led efforts to engage with Syrian society expanded throughout 2017, but have vastly increased recently, hinting at further growth to come.
Damascus has been very receptive to such efforts, and has responded in kind. The Syrian government recently sent religious figures to Makhachkala, capital of the North Caucasus Republic of Dagestan, in order to “discuss local authorities’ counterradicalization efforts.” Such cooperation fits well within the “Kadyrov Model” strategy outlined in Part I (especially considering that almost 1500 Dagestanis traveled to join various jihadist organizations in Iraq and Syria over the past five years). This strategy also takes advantage of the existing Caucasian diasporas in region, another factor noted by Hauer:
Beyond religious links, the large ethnic diaspora of North Caucasians in the Levant facilitates such ties: Ziad Sabsabi, Kadyrov’s point man in Syria and Iraq, was himself born to a Chechen family in Aleppo.
A Merging of Russian and Syrian Institutions?
Perhaps the most substantive areas of Chechen-led cultural diplomacy to date are to be found in religious and educational outreach. Hauer summarizes:
Meanwhile, official Chechen-Syrian interactions reached an unprecedented level. Grand Mufti Mezhiev made a three-day visit to Syria from Jan. 6-8, meeting with the governor of Aleppo and religious figures as he toured the site of the Umayyad Mosque, where Chechen-funded reconstruction is ongoing. On Jan. 14, a Syrian religious delegation visited Chechnya, meeting with Mezhiev and visiting local religious education institutions. Several days afterward, Chechen and Syrian authorities established Grozny’s new “Union of Learners in the Syrian Arab Republic,” designed to further educational contacts between the two. Combined with extant plans to establish a campus of Damascus University in Grozny, educational links between Syria and Chechnya are reaching heights not seen even between Damascus and Moscow.
Such developments build on earlier efforts, such as Russian language instruction being made available in Syrian state-run schools and educational resources being donated by the Russian military to Syrian universities. There is a clear drive to invest in this kind of people-to-people contact on the part of both Moscow and Damascus, with Grozny often acting as an intermediary. At the same time, Russian contractors are being given privileged access to the Syrian market as the country begins its long road to recovery. Assad has repeatedly stated that Russia will play a key role in the post-war reconstruction of the country, in such varied areas as infrastructure, railroads, new port facilities, and the energy sector.
It would not be a significant stretch to say that the Syrian state is now as dependent on Russian assistance as it has previously been on Iranian aid. For its part, Tehran maintains pragmatic relations with Moscow, but their cooperation with Russia in Syria is driven more by common short-term interests than on any long-term affinity. The difficult, on-and-off, relationship between these two powers has been noted by many analysts, and has previously been covered by Leksika. Despite some Eurasianist ideas to the contrary, a Russia-Iran alliance is by no means a foregone conclusion, but this is a topic for another time.
The recent return of nearly 400 Chechen military police to Grozny can be seen as evidence of both the success and effectiveness of Kadyrov’s contributions to the war in Syria. The use of Russian Muslim forces in the Kremlin’s campaign is a trend which is highly likely to continue, even if it is overshadowed by other developments in the country, such as Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch. In this case too however, it is interesting to note that most of the on-the-ground fighting is being done by Turkey’s various Syrian allies, rather than by the Turkish Army itself. Just as servicemen from Russia’s Muslim regions are being used in hopes of achieving better relations with local populations, such Turkish proxies are being used. The Turkish electorate is likely to be less upset by the deaths of such forces, in a similar way as the Russian electorate is less concerned about the fate of Kadyrov’s personal forces.
Both Russia and Turkey are invested in Syria for the long haul, and both have resolved to using local forces to support their long-term objectives. For Russia, there is a clear interest in preventing the growth of jihadist organizations with ties to the post-Soviet space. For Turkey, the stabilization of their southern border is critical, and neither the permanent presence of Kurdish or jihadist forces will be tolerated. This seems to be true across most of the Turkish political spectrum, as even much of the Turkish opposition supports the Afrin intervention.
With this is mind, we can expect to see the persistent long-term use local forces by both powers. Chechen and other Russian Muslim forces in Syria will play a role disproportional to their size, with organizations such as the Akhmad Kadyrov Fund maintaining center stage. Chechen military police battalions, and even special operations forces, will continue to serve in combat and security roles, especially so long as Syrian regime forces are engaged elsewhere.
To be continued in part III