Chechen militants in Syria have been going through organizational changes since last summer. The position of the Chechen militants in the Middle East was especially damaged by a conflict within the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar group and the difficult situation inside the Junud al-Sham group. Those militant organizations have been led, respectively, by Salahudin Shishani (Paizulla Margoshvili) and Muslim Shishani (Murad Margoshvili). Both men are ethnic Chechens from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge.
In the summer of 2015, Amir Salahudin left Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, one of the best known groups comprised of citizens of countries of the former Soviet Union (Infochechen.com, June 6, 2015), and formed another group, Jaish al-Usrah. The new group again tried to recruit members from the Caucasus. The former Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar brigade, which no longer had Chechens or Amir Salahudin, allied itself with the al-Nusra Front and lost the high status it had enjoyed in Syria when it was led by Chechen commanders (Justpaste.it, June 2015).
Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar once had 1,500 to 2,000 militants, while Amir Salahudin’s current group has only of about 200 members—those militants who decided to stay with him to the end. Many of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar’s militants left the group after Amir Salahudin was removed as its commander and joined the so-called Islamic State. The rest of the group became an al-Nusra Front affiliate, which Salahudin had not agreed with (Kavkazsky Uzel, October 3, 2015).
Amir Salahudin still wears the Caucasus Emirate’s logo on his clothes, which means he remains faithful to the organization. He still considers himself to be the Caucasus Emirate’s representative in Syria. Even though the Caucasus Emirate has been significantly transformed in the North Caucasus, Amir Salahudin can claim partial credit for the fact that it still exists. Salahudin’s group in Syria is bigger than all the militants in the underground movement of the North Caucasus put together.
Salahudin’s group is currently fighting in the region north of Aleppo, including areas along the Syrian-Turkish border populated by Syrian Turkmen. The presence of Salahudin’s forces in the area may explain why it has been heavily bombed by Russian warplanes. It is also the area where the Turkish Air Force downed a Russian military jet last November (Onkavkaz.com, November 26, 2015). If this presumption is true, it means that the Russian military in Syria is deliberately going after forces associated with the Caucasus militants, including in areas where amirs Salahudin, Muslim, Abu Jihad, Abu Bakr, Abdulkhakim and others operate (Eadaily.com, January 28).
The Russian military does not care whether the militants are allied with the Islamic State, al-Nusra Front or the Free Syrian Army: Moscow’s primary objective appears to be to strike the Chechens and the North Caucasians in general. Russian forces have carried out strikes in Latakia, where there are no Islamic State forces, but where Chechen groups operate. The Chechens are not strategic allies for the Syrian Turkmen, who are prepared to ally with anyone who helps them fight Bashar al-Assad and the Kurdish groups. Thus, Russia’s attempt to efface the small Turkmen minority in Syria simply because some Chechen groups are in the area is unjustified.
The dire situation of the Chechen militants in Syria can be seen in a video address by the well-known Chechen amir, Muslim Shishani, posted to the Internet in early January. In the Russian-language address, Muslim Shishani appealed to Sham’s mujahedeen for help (YouTube, January 13). The fact that he chose to deliver the appeal in Russian signaled that his primary audience was citizens of former Soviet states. He reprimanded those who had not helped him for several months, saying that the militants under his command had suffered significantly. Many people apparently left his group. Although Muslim Shishani claimed that he could not sustain his group and hence had sent them away, many Chechens from his group in fact joined the Islamic State. His address had many interesting details, but its primary message was that he urgently needed assistance.
The main problem of the Chechen commanders in Syria is that the North Caucasian militants in their groups have been defecting to the Islamic State. The groups led by these Chechen commanders’ no longer have thousands of militants, as they did back in 2014. Today, the Chechen groups operating in Syria rarely have even several hundred members, and half of the members are not North Caucasians, but rather members of local tribes. Apart from the ordinary militants who have switched their allegiances to Islamic State commander Umar Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili, from the Pankisi Gorge, in Georgia), some militant commanders who were allied with Salahudin and Muslim Abdulkhakim have also pledged loyalty to the Islamic State. For example, Amir Al Bara, the commander of a small Chechen group, is now fighting together with his men under the command of the Islamic State (Chechensinsyria.com, February 10).
Thus, it appears that the Chechen groups in Syria are currently in a period of crisis and transition. First of all, they need more potent allies who can finance them. The Chechen groups’ attempts to stay independent of larger groups like the Free Syrian Army, al-Nusra Front and Islamic State have put the independent Chechen militants on the verge of going out of business. This means the Chechen groups will likely soon align themselves with the larger groups, which have the resources to support them.