Having recently won the crucial battle for Aleppo, which has changed the layout of the ongoing Syrian proxy war between the Assad regime (with the Kremlin’s backing), and “rebel” forces including various Al-Qaeda elements (supported by the US-led alliance), hardly content with this crucial victory Russian president Vladimir Putin is only just getting started, and as the Daily Beast confirms reports that had previously circulated in the Russian press, dozens of highly trained “Chechen killer” Russian special military units in red berets are being transported to Syria.
Their mission there is largely a mystery.
Chechnya, a North Caucasus republic that fought and lost two separatist wars against Russia in 1994-1996 and 1999-2006, is sending hundreds of its highly trained soldiers to the Middle East to fight against Islamist groups, including the Islamic State, where many soldiers and some leaders are Chechen, too. Various Russian reports mention from 3,500 to 5,000 Chechens enlisted with extremist groups in Syria and Iraq.
Why the dispatch? Because, as the Beast writes, “it is one thing to tell the world that Russian President Vladimir Putin brought peace to Aleppo in Syria, and a completely different story to maintain control over pro-Moscow regions on the ground. The Kremlin is strengthening its aviation and land troop bases in Latakia. The Russian military, meanwhile, sees an advantage in Syria, a chance for officers to ‘get under fire,’ to grow more experienced.”
The effort is relatively new: Chechen commanders have been recruiting soldiers for the “Syrian” special units for several months, Novaya Gazeta, the Russian independent newspaper, reported on Tuesday.
“This year ends in the best way for Moscow, beyond its wildest dreams,” Sergei Markov, a Russian official and adviser to the government, told The Daily Beast. “President Putin has won his battles on many fields, including Syria’s Aleppo, America and the EU. More and more people agree that he is right, that Russia’s power and rightness is growing,” said Markov. “The agenda for Chechens is secret but most probably they will be participating in combat against ISIS in Raqqa [the ISIS capital] in the north of Syria.”
The Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov spent a lot of effort building special units, widely known as “death squads,” of men fearless, merciless, experienced in warfare in the streets and in the mountains.
As the Beast adds, in a video report by a local Chechen TV channel Kadyrov personally reviewed his soldiers. Kadyrov told me back in 2014 it was “a matter of honor” to bring Chechens back home from ISIS. He said that he personally traveled to Syria to consult with Bashar Assad’s military and help Chechen relatives find their daughters and sons in Syria.
That means that alongside various Iranian special forces fighting quietly alongside the Russian, and of course, Syrian government troops, the next line of special forces escalation will be arrival of hundreds of Chechens to keep any ISIS guerilla operations at bay.
Carnegie Moscow Center has argued that the issue of Chechens in ISIS is a crucial test for Kadyrov’s power: Islamists have already promised to support a revolution in Chechnya and even offered a $25 million reward for the heads of Kadyrov and his associates.
Ultimately, It seems that at the end of 2016, Putin’s Russia is in a hurry to fight and keep its ground on many fronts. Inspired by success in Syria, Putin reportedly plans support a strong Libyan military leader, Khalifa Haftar (who once was reputedly in bed with the American CIA). Ukraine continues to blame Russia for attacking its military. And another hacker scandal erupted in the past week: this time the Ukrainian military claimed that its soldiers’ cell phones were hacked by a Moscow group.
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Incidentally, Putin’s recent dispatch of Chechen special forces to Syria was also the topic of a recent post by the Saker, whose take on these recent surprising development is presented below:
First, even though the Russian sources make it sound like we are talking about two full battalions, I suspect that this is not the case and that a few companies will be formed from elements drawn from these battalions. Why? Because these battalions are part the backbone of the Russian security system in the Caucasus and that to use such elite forces just to guard 2 military installations makes no sense.
Second, this does beg the question of what these “Chechens” (actually a misnomer – see below) will really be doing Syria. The only circumstance in which it would make sense to send them to protect the Russian bases in Kheimim and Tartus would be if a massive attack was expected against these installations and no other reinforcements were available, which is clearly not the case.
Third, these two battalions are mostly, but not exclusively, composed of Sunni Muslim operators. That yields obvious advantages. Furthermore, these battalions have had a history of successfully defeating the Wahabi insurgency in Chechnia. This might be crucially important because Wahabi Chechens also compose some of the best forces available to the Daesh/ISIS/US command in Syria.
So what is really happening here?
First, it should be stressed that these two battalions are really quite unique units. While formally they are just part of the larger Russian special forces community, they have a unique history and unique reputation. Traditionally, Russia has always relied on elite Muslim shock forces, and most of those have been Chechen. This was true before the 1917 Revolution as it was true after. For example, the so-called “Muslim battalion” played a key role in the invasion of Afghanistan. And 2008, the Chechen battalions “West” and “East” played a key role in the Russian counter-offensive against the Georgian forces. To make a long story short: not only are these battalions known for their amazing courage and skills, their appearance often sends the opposing forces into a panic.
Second, Ramzan Kadyrov has been pouring huge resources, with the full support of Putin, of course, into the creation of a unique special forces training facility Chechnia were special operators from all over Russia are coming to learn, teach and share their experience. As a result, the so-called “Chechen” units are, in reality, a mix of special operators from all over Russia who have been specially trained to deal with Daesh-like insurgencies.
This means that regardless of the actual size of the force sent to Syria, to use it to protect installations is total overkill and nobody in Russia really believes that all these lads will be doing is manning check-points. Their true mission will be something very different.
Some Russian analysts have been speculating that their real function will be to clear Aleppo from the remaining al-Nusra/Daesh/ISIS forces. Maybe, but I doubt it. I find it much more likely that these men will be sent in to train Syrian special forces in advanced counter-insurgency intelligence operations. For one thing, the Russians have admitted that they have Chechen intelligence agents infiltrated into Daesh. It would only make sense now for the Russians to share their experience with their Syrian counterparts. The key reason here is that rather than fighting the war for the Syrians, the Russians needs to enable the Syrians to fight their own war.
Alas, the actual record of the Syrian security forces has been, according to Russian sources, checkered at best and the Russians are, reportedly, unimpressed. While the Syrians do have some elite combat units, they do not have high quality intelligence operatives. What is needed in this case is not just a good solider (say, like a Russian paratrooper or a US Ranger), but a fully trained combatant and a fully trained intelligence officer, something similar to the CIA’s Special Activities Division or the Russian “Vympel” force. The kind of training needed to prepare for such a function is much more complex, costly and time-consuming than what it takes to train a good paratrooper or Ranger. My guess is that while the “Chechens” will, when needed, provide immediate support for the Syrians, they will also have a longtime role in organizing an effective counter-terrorist/counter-insurgency force.