Hundreds of North Caucasians Have Joined the Ranks of Syria’s Rebels

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 166

Foreign fighters in Syria (Source: sofrep.com)

Following Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem’s September 9 visit to Moscow at the invitation of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (http://kommersant.ru/doc/2275019), the issue of the involvement of Chechens in the Syrian war once again came to the fore.

At a press conference, Muallem insisted that his country is fighting not against the opposition, but foreign terrorists—who, he claimed, are being armed and trained by Turkey. “People from the Caucasus and Chechnya are among the terrorists,” he said. “Turkey trains terrorists from 83 countries” (http://ru.apa.az/news/255100).

Then, at a meeting with State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin, Muallem again alleged that people from the Caucasus were among those who had infiltrated Syria from Turkey (http://www.itar-tass.com/c303/871685.html). Against the backdrop of these statements, another irresponsible article appeared in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, headlined “The Syrian Beachhead of the North Caucasian Militants” (http://www.ng.ru/world/2013-09-04/7_placdarm.html). The author of the article, citing the notorious head of the anna-news.info website, Marat Musin, asserted that the number of militants from Russia in Syria has reached 4,000. According to Musin, ethnic Kyrgyz meet the militants who arrive from Turkey, and the majority of militants arriving in Syria are Azerbaijanis. Thus, Shi’ite Azeris are putatively going to Syria to fight against Shi’ite Syrians. Reading Musin’s writings, one acquires the impression that the analyst is describing the military actions in the North Caucasus, not in Syria. The author uses the same rhetorical tools for Syria that the Russian government has used for the North Caucasus—“counter-terrorist operation against foreign terrorists,” “Syrian army and people’s militia,” “paid foreign mercenaries,” etc.

It was not an accident that during the Syrian minister’s visit, the Russian media announced that a Chechen militant, Aslan Sigauri, was located in Syria. Sigauri was once arrested by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) for an alleged attempt to blow up the main building of Moscow State University. In 2011, the Russian security services included Sigauri (a.k.a. Variev) on their list of the 52 most dangerous rebels in the North Caucasus capable of launching an attack in any part of Russia (www.rosbalt.ru/moscow/2013/09/02/1170915.html). This example was supposed to demonstrate the face of the foreign militants in Syria.

According to some estimates, the overall number of foreigners who traveled to Syria to fight the Assad regime is now 10,000 (http://newsland.com/news/detail/id/1232477/). The overall number of militants from the North Caucasus cannot exceed 1,000 (http://www.kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2013/07/26/99507.shtml).

The Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Helpers) brigade is made up of Chechens and North Caucasians, but, unsurprisingly, the group also contains a large number of local Arabs, so the total number of people in the brigade could be 1,500. An ethnic Chechen from Georgia, Abu Umar Shishani (a.k.a. Umar Gorgashvili), is the leader of this group. In the past, Gorgashvili fought in Chechnya and served in the Georgian special forces during the 2008 war with Russia (www.rosbalt.ru/main/2013/08/20/1166093.html). Since last summer, Gorgashvili has been elevated to the position of the commander of the northern sector of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (http://shamcenter.info/news/92/134/obraschenie-komanduyuschego-severnym-napravleniem-islamskogo-gosudarstva-iraka-i-shama-amira-umara-ash-shishani/d,detail-de/). There are also other well-known Chechen commanders, such as Emir Muslim (Muslim Margoshvili), Emir Seifullah (Ruslan Machaliashvili), Emir Salakhdin and Emir Abu-Musaaba (Musa). Emir Seifullah was expelled from Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar for embezzlement and erroneous interpretation of Islamic values during a time of jihad and his actions during jihad (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yU6K1mq38jw). Another Chechen emir, Mussaba, became known after Kurdish groups captured him in the summer of 2013. In response, the Chechens captured over 500 Kurds and demanded that their commander be freed, which the Kurds did without delay (http://www.rbc.ru/rbcfreenews/20130723203058.shtml).

While the number of Chechens fighting in Syria may reach several hundred, according to sources close to the Dagestani interior minister, 126 Dagestanis are also believed to be fighting in Syria (http://kavkazpress.ru/archives/21454). The figure for the number of Dagestanis probably does not include individuals who left Dagestan prior to the start of the second Russian-Chechen war in 1999 and arrived in Syria from other Arab countries. So the figure of about 200 people, cited by the Dagestani branch of the FSB, is probably closer to reality (www.ekhokavkaza.com/archive/news/20130703/3235/2759.html?id=25035761). Emir Abu Banat (a.k.a. Magomed Abdurakhmanov) was among the most notorious individuals in Syria. An ethnic Dargin, Abdurakhmanov came from the village of Khajalmakhi in Dagestan’s Levashi district (http://www.alarab.qa/details.php?iss…8&artid=249862) and is accused of violence and robbing civilians. The Dagestani militant was also accused of the killing of two Catholic priests. Eventually, he had to leave Syria on the orders of Umar Shishani because of his controversial activities (http://www.sabah.com.tr/Dunya/2013/0…a-bogan-video/).

The first Chechen arrivals in Syria came from the Chechen student population in Arab countries, mainly Syria and Egypt. Later, Chechens who had received refugee status in various European countries also started to trickle in. Most of the Chechen volunteers from Europe came to Syria from Austria, whose parliament was even forced to query the country’s interior minister about the exodus of Chechen asylees from Austria to fight in Syria (www.parlament.gv.at/SUCH/?view=publicsppublished&mode=simple&s.sm.query=GZ%3A+BMI-LR2220%2F0581-II%2F2013. Moreover, as of 2009, Austria reportedly had over 25,000 Chechen refugees who arrived since the 1999 war (http://www.wienerzeitung.at/nachrichten/oesterreich/politik/230644_Tschetschenen-Asyl-wird-restriktiver.html). According to some unofficial estimates, those numbers have climbed to as high as 42,000, but this number is unconfirmed http://kavpolit.com/vena-i-groznyj-xotyat-vernut-chechencev-na-rodinu) During the first two years of unrest in Syria, few Chechens came from Chechnya itself. However, this subsequently changed. For example, it is known that not only men, but also some females have traveled to Syria from Chechnya, including the daughter of a top official in the government of Ramzan Kadyrov (http://kavkazpress.ru/archives/17132). To make matters worse, the Russian government makes it relatively easy to travel from the North Caucasus to Syria as the Kadyrov government in Chechnya, for example, offers a daily flight to Istanbul. There are two to three daily flights from the North Caucasus to Turkey, and Russian citizens do not need visas to visit Turkey.

Therefore, information that periodically surfaces about Chechens fighting in Syria indicates their numbers are growing. Meanwhile, there are growing conflicts within the leadership of the Syrian militants, who are divided over policies toward the local population, including the Kurds. The Chechens in the Syrian insurgency are attempting to navigate between the different factions of the Syrian opposition, trying to retain their complete independence. Regardless, the growing importance of fighters from the North Caucasus in the Syrian insurgency is now becoming such an issue that the Syrian foreign minister in Moscow was forced to recognize its impact on the war.