As Moscow’s Military Involvement in Syria Receives More Attention, Its Officials Focus on Russians Fighting Against al-Assad

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 16 Issue: 18

The Russian media ramped up coverage of Syria after reports emerged that the Russian military is actively taking part in the conflict on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. To distract Russian citizens from domestic issues and justify intervention in the conflict, the authorities in Moscow have started providing figures on the number of Russian citizens fighting in Syria against al-Assad.

Last summer, Russian Security Council Deputy Secretary Yevgeny Lukyanov stated that up to 2,000 Russian citizens were fighting in Syria and Iraq, in the ranks of the Islamic State (IS) extremist militant organization. According to Lukyanov, some of those militants have started to return home. The majority of those fighters, he said, were from the North Caucasus, although he conceded that some of them came from other Russian regions. Russian citizens have participated in the conflict in Syria and Iraq for a long time (, July 25). Lukyanov said that if al-Assad’s regime were to fall, the IS radicals would next target Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. The latter statement must have been aimed at signaling to the United States that its interests in the region would be affected if the regime in Syria crumbled.

Two months after Lukyanov’s statements, the chairwoman of the science consulting council under the Antiterrorist Center of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, Marianna Kochubei, put forward different estimates. “According to the National Antiterrorist Committee, from 800 to 1,500 citizens of Russia are fighting in the ranks of the ‘Islamic State’ in Syria,” she said. “Over 170 of them have been killed.” Kochubei specified that the figure for those killed covered the entire period of the existence of the Islamic State (, September 16).

The consulting council under the Antiterrorist Center of the CIS countries apparently receives less reliable information than other government bodies. Otherwise, it is hard to explain where the estimate of 170 casualties among the Russian citizens fighting with the Islamic State for the entire duration of the war in the Middle East comes from. Earlier reports suggested that there were large casualties among the Chechens fighting in the ranks of the Islamic State in the Syrian city of Kobanî (a.k.a. Ayn al-Arab) alone (, Oсtober 25, 2014). According to unconfirmed sources, the Chechens suffered over 100 casualties out of the entire toll of several hundred casualties in the fighting against the Kurds in Kobanî. IS military commander Umar al-Shishani stated that his group lost 500 militants in the fighting with the Syrian opposition in 2013 alone. An estimated 300 Chechens died during the siege of Syria’s Minnag military airport. Chechnya’s ruler Ramzan Kadyrov has also spoken of large casualties among the Chechens in Syria (YouTube, May 21, 2013). It is therefore unclear where the estimate of 170 casualties comes from. Perhaps, the figure reflects only those casualties that the Russian government could reliably confirm.

The day after Kochubei’s statements, Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev put forward another set of figures. “According to the interior ministry, 1,800 Russian citizens are fighting in the ranks of ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—a former name for the Islamic State],” he said. “We have launched 477 criminal inquests” (TASS, September 17). This statement indicates that the Russian government has managed to identify 477 out of 1,800 fighters and launched criminal investigation against them for participating in armed activities abroad.

The day after Kolokoltsev’s statement, the Federal Security Service’s (FSB) First Deputy Sergei Smirnov came out with yet another estimate, stating that 2,400 Russian citizens are fighting with the Islamic State, noting that “this is a fairly large number” (, September 18).

One of Ramzan Kadyrov’s closest associates, Chechen parliamentary speaker Magomed Daudov, stated last month that “according to the latest information, over 3,000 of our young people are participating in war in Syria” (YouTube, August 30). Daudov’s figure may be the most accurate: indeed, 3,000–4,000 Chechens may be fighting in the ranks of the Islamic State and other groups fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime. About a thousand Dagestanis and hundreds of individuals from other ethnic groups in Russia, such as the Ingush, Kabardins, Karachays, Tatars and others, are also in the Middle East. Thus the total number of militants from Russia fighting in Syria may be up to 5,000. As time goes by, some of those fighters will return to the Russian Federation from the Middle East and try to use their fighting experience against Russia. Russian government forces recently killed one such militant, Abu Dujan (Magomed Abdullaev), in Dagestan (, August 17). The Russian authorities have put some of the people who returned from Syria on trial. However, nobody can guarantee that a number of the fighters did not slip through the Russian authorities’ defenses and are currently waiting for the right moment to declare a “worldwide jihad.”

In confronting the West in Syria, Russia may be igniting a fire it will not be able to extinguish on its own.