In March 2013, Fiona Hill wrote: For Putin, Syria is all too reminiscent of Chechnya. Both conflicts pitted the state against disparate and leaderless opposition forces, which over time came to include extremist Sunni Islamist groups. In Putin’s view — one that he stresses repeatedly in meetings with his U.S. and European counterparts — Syria is the latest battleground in a global, multi-decade struggle between secular states and Sunni Islamism, which first began in Afghanistan with the Taliban, then moved to Chechnya, and has torn a number of Arab countries apart. Ever since he took office (first as prime minister in 1999 and then as president in 2000) and was confronted by the Chechen war, Putin has expressed his fear of Sunni Islamist extremism and of the risks that “jihadist” groups pose to Russia, with its large, indigenous, Sunni Muslim population, concentrated in the North Caucasus, the Volga region, and in major cities such as Moscow. A desire to contain extremism is a major reason why Putin offered help to the United States in battling the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11. It is also why Russia maintains close relations with Shia Iran, which acts as a counterweight to Sunni powers.
In the case of Chechnya, Putin made it clear that retaking the republic from its “extremist opposition forces” was worth every sacrifice. In a speech in September 1999, he promised to pursue Chechen rebels and terrorists even into “the outhouse.” He did just that, and some opposition leaders were killed by missile attacks at their most vulnerable moments. The Chechen capital city of Grozny was reduced to rubble. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed, along with jihadist fighters who came into Chechnya with the encouragement of extremist groups from the Arab world, including from Syria. Moscow and other Russian cities endured devastating terrorist attacks. Putin’s treatment of Chechnya became a cautionary tale of what would happen to rebels and terrorists — and indeed to entire groups of people — if they threatened the Russian state. They would either be eliminated or brought to their knees — exactly the fate Putin wishes for today’s Syrian rebels.
After two decades of secessionist strife, Putin has contained Chechnya’s uprising. Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel who switched his allegiance to Moscow, now leads the republic. Putin granted Kadyrov and his supporters amnesty and gave them a mandate to go after other militants and political opponents. Kadyrov has rebuilt Grozny (with ample funds from Moscow) and created his own version of an Islamist and Chechen republic that is condemned by human rights organizations for its brutal suppression of dissent.
For the past two years, Putin has hoped that Assad would be able to do what he did in Chechnya and beat back the opposition. Based on the brutal record of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, in suppressing uprisings, Putin anticipated that the regime would have no problem keeping the state together. [Continue reading…]