After the Kremlin denied having ground troops in Syria, the Russian leadership was surprised by Ramzan Kadyrov’s statement that Chechen special forces were fighting in the Middle East against the Islamic State (IS). A trailer for a program produced by the Russian federal TV channel Rossiya 1 (Russia.tv, February 7) states that “Chechen special forces obtain information about the structure and the number of terrorists in the Islamic State and identify targets for Russian airstrikes” (Kommersant, February 8). Last October, Kadyrov did ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to dispatch his men to Syria to fight the Islamic State (RIA Novosti, October 2, 2015), and it is likely that the Kremlin approved the Chechen ruler’s initiative. Kadyrov said in the Rossiya 1 program that he “sent the republic’s best fighters there” (Vesti.ru, February 7).
On February 8, however, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that in regard to Russian forces in Syria, the public should first of all rely on the “statements of the Russian defense ministry,” which, he said, “makes it clear that the position of our government is that we rule out a ground operation” (Vesti.ru, February 8). Officials in Grozny then realized that their statements did not please Moscow. Even if Chechen special forces were participating in the Syrian conflict, the Russian authorities apparently did not intend to make it public. The Russian foreign ministry also refuted Kadyrov’s claims, stating that there are no Russian ground forces in Syria.
Following Peskov’s statement, Kadyrov’s spokesman, Alvi Kerimov, hastily stated that Kadyrov “never said that Chechen units are fighting in Syria.” According to Kerimov, “some young volunteers are in Syria” (Chechnyatoday.com, February 9), which is even more improbable. An official source in Grozny clarified that the Chechens who are fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq are not serving in the Russian military or police (Kavkaz.versia.ru, February 9).
The same thing happened earlier in eastern Ukraine, where Chechens fought on the Russian side against the Ukrainian authorities. First, Kadyrov confirmed that his men were taking part in the conflict, but later his spokesman tried to take back his words (Onkavkaz.com, July 31, 2015). It is possible that the involvement of Chechen forces in the conflict in Donbas was part of the plan to prepare them for the conflict in Syria.
Instructors from the Alpha group of elite Russian forces, which is part of Directorate “A” of the Center of Special Operations of the Federal Security Service (FSB), have taken part in training the Chechen special forces. A former member of Alpha, Major Daniil Martynov, is officially an aide to Kadyrov (Aif.ru, May 21, 2014). A new training center for Chechen special forces was built in the city of Gudermes (Vesti.ru, February 21, 2015). Kadyrov is even hoping to turn that center into an international training camp for the security services. Chechen special forces also participated in drills in Syria, which allowed them to become used to the Middle Eastern environment. Their victory in an international competition of security services held in Jordan gave them the image of a new unit that is not part of the FSB or Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) and is prepared to carry out special operations abroad (TASS, April 23, 2015).
The Chechen special forces’ advantages include the fact that they are Muslims and look Middle Eastern. Thus, the Russian government probably preferred the Chechen forces over others for deployment in Syria. However, Alexey Malashenko, the chairman of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security Program, disagrees and says that “dispatching young people to Syria is useless” (Kavkazsky Uzel, February 9). Nevertheless, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta quoted a source as saying that “back in October of last year, two weeks after the start of the Russian forces’ operation in Syria, two dozen servicemen unexpectedly left Chechnya’s Sever battalion, which is part of the Russian interior ministry and has been implicated in the murder of the Russian opposition figure, Boris Nemtsov. Sources in the Chechen diaspora alleged that the servicemen who were dismissed went to Syria to fight as “volunteers” (Kavkazsky Uzel, February 9).
Some observers pointed out that Kadyrov had exposed his network of agents in the Islamic State. In fact, Kadyrov may have done it on purpose to sow distrust in the ranks of Islamic State. Now the rebel organization may start to distrust the Chechens who want to join the organization, fearing infiltration by Kadyrov’s agents (Novayagazeta.ru, February 9). Some Russian experts draw an even more far-reaching conclusion—that Kadyrov’s statement was a signal to Moscow (Echo.msk.ru, February 9). However, Kadyrov is completely dependent on Putin and quite concerned about being reappointed to the position of republican governor when his term runs out in a month and a half. Kadyrov is not in a position to make demands on Moscow. Instead, to be reappointed as governor of Chechnya, he has to show his utmost loyalty to the Kremlin.
Kadyrov’s statement appears to be circumstantial evidence that Russian ground forces are involved in the Syrian conflict—a claim that the Russian defense ministry has vigorously rejected. When Chechens turned out to be playing an important role in the armed rebel coalition that is fighting Bashar al-Assad, the Russians realized that they should neutralize the Chechen groups and undermine their reputation among the other rebel groups in the Middle East. Russian officials understood that the rise of the Chechens in the Middle East would sooner or later affect the situation in the North Caucasus, where an underground armed Islamist opposition already exists. Officials in Moscow believed that the Chechens fighting in the Middle East would eventually return to Russia with their newly acquired fighting skills, experience and connections with other radicals. Moscow is not willing to admit that its forces are fighting in support of the Syrian government, because Russian Muslims are Sunnis and would not support such operations on behalf of al-Assad, who in the view of many Russian Muslims is an enemy of Islam.