Putin has a new secret weapon in Syria: Chechens

Neil Hauer writes: The Russian intervention in Syria has been, by most accounts, a success. And Russian President Vladimir Putin is going to do everything he can to keep it that way.

Beginning with an air campaign on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September 2015, Russian forces have not only stopped regime losses but also helped Damascus retake Aleppo city in December 2016. Now with the opposition stronghold under government control and Assad’s hold on power no longer in question, Moscow has said it plans to reduce its presence in the country. But while some Russian forces did initially depart in early January, Moscow is actually expanding its role in Syria. Russian officials announced major expansions to Russian military bases in the country while the number of private contractors fighting on the Kremlin’s behalf also swelled.

Most interestingly, however, Putin deployed an unprecedented Russian weapon to Syria: several units of Chechen and Ingush commandos hailing from Russia’s restive North Caucasus region.

Until recently, regular Russian forces in Syria were largely limited to being a support crew for aircraft conducting strikes across the country. Apart from a few notable exceptions — artillery and special forces deployments in Hama province and military advisors alongside Syrian troops in Latakia — Moscow’s ground game in Syria has been minimal. But the ongoing deployment of the Chechen and Ingush brigades marks a strategic shift for the Kremlin: Russia now has its own elite ground personnel, drawn from its Sunni Muslim population, placed across Syria. This growing presence allows the Kremlin to have a greater role in shaping events on the ground as it digs in for the long term. Such forces could prove vital in curtailing any action taken by the Assad regime that would undermine Moscow’s wider interests in the Middle East while offering a highly effective method for the Kremlin to project power at a reduced political cost.

The exact role and size of the Kremlin’s new brigades are still uncertain. Initial open-source reports on the ground placed the number of Chechens deployed in December at around 500, while some estimates suggested a total of 300-400. The number of Ingush is reportedly slightly smaller, at roughly 300. Despite their designation 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.

“I think this represents Moscow’s grudging recognition that it’s stuck in a quagmire,” says Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. In their hybrid civil-military role, capable of a wide range of operations, these brigades have become a go-to deployment for the Kremlin as it seeks to assert itself in various theaters abroad. Chechen fighters have appeared alongside pro-separatist Russian “volunteers” in eastern Ukraine, and several battalions of Chechen servicemen also entered Georgia during its brief war with Russia in August 2008, occupying the town of Gori. At least some of the Chechen troops deployed in Syria have combat experience in eastern Ukraine, with the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reporting that one of the Chechen commanders is Apti Bolotkhanov, who spent substantial time fighting alongside pro-Russian forces in the Donbass.

But beyond their skill on the battlefield, the brigades are valuable to Moscow for other reasons. Russian society and leadership have proved extremely sensitive to casualties in Syria; the Kremlin has gone to extreme lengths to hide its losses. Casualties are often only publicly confirmed after observers find the tombstones of deceased soldiers in their hometown cemeteries. Moscow’s official figures only account for 30 dead in Syria — with the true figure likely much higher. Using nonethnic Russian special personnel might protect the Kremlin from a public backlash sparked by rising battlefield casualties. Losses incurred by the new, North Caucasian contingent are unlikely to trigger such a response. Russian society carries a deep-seated resentment toward natives of the region, in particular Chechens, after two wars in the 1990s and multiple terrorist attacks since.

Gregory Shvedov, the editor of the Caucasian Knot website and an expert on the North Caucasus, says popular 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. [Continue reading…]

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