Has the Number of Chechens Fighting in Syria Reached Its Peak?

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 2

The situation in Syria has not changed significantly in the past month, but the same cannot be said about the Chechens who are fighting there. Indeed, the Chechen groups in Syria have evidently radicalized and split into different factions because of the dispute between al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) led by al-Baghdadi (http://fisyria.com/?p=2287).

Moreover, arguments over who is bad and good in the Syrian conflict resulted in clashes between ISIS and Jabhat al-Islamiyya (http://usudusham.com/2014/01/%D0%B0%D0%B1%D0%B4%D1%83%D0%BB%D0%BB%D0%B0%D1%85-%D0%B1%D0%B8%D0%BD-%D0%BC%D1%83%D1%85%D0%B0%D0%BC%D0%BC%D0%B0%D0%B4-%D0%B0%D0%BB%D1%8C-%D0%BC%D1%83%D1%85%D0%B0%D0%B9%D1%81%D0%B8%D0%BD%D0%B8-%D1%84/). The fact that the first truce agreement in the conflict between the ISIS and another rebel organization, Ahraru Syam, was signed by Umar Shishani, the military emir of ISIS’s Northern Front in Syria who is acting as ISIS’s representative (http://www.beladusham.com/0585.html), makes him practically the most prominent ISIS figure in Syria. For a man who barely speaks Arabic to reach such a rank in an organization mainly made up of Arabs from Syria and Iraq is highly unusual. This must have been a tactical move by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. By elevating a Chechen, he is preventing a potential Arab leader from depriving him of the leading role in Syria. In addition, a Chechen, who has the image of a warrior able to fight a country as big as Russia, means much for the opposition forces at the moment and carries a large symbolic role within the resistance.

Shishani complained that the Syrians were “ungrateful.” The message was posted on his personal webpage on the Russian Internet (http://vk.com/shamtoday?w=wall-61198210_2218). The commander tried to justify his choice in favor of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by asserting that he made that choice after a detailed analysis of the situation in the country (www.youtube.com/watch?v=NlFN1mg0kQ0).  According to Shishani, only al-Baghdadi met the Chechens with open arms and promised to incorporate them into the structure of al-Qaeda. This has been the aim of many Chechen and North Caucasian radicals for a long time. It is no secret that Chechen jihadists have sought ways for the past 15 years to be recognized as a formal part of global jihadist circles. This has not happened but until recently. Chechen jihadists are linked to al-Qaeda only indirectly through public statements posted online and not through any operational linkage simply because the North Caucasus has been cut off from the outside world due to Russia’s strict border control and closure of the frontier to western visitors to the region. Not until Shishani pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi, one of the al-Qaeda leaders, was there a formal indication that the Chechen and North Caucasus jihadists fighting in Syria were an operationally aligned al-Qaeda group.

Recently Shishani has revealed interesting information about the number of fighters who have relocated from the North Caucasus, indicating how strong an attraction the conflict has become for recruiting fighters from Russia. Shishani stated that so far about 500 North Caucasians have been killed in Syria. One should take this figure with a degree of skepticism, however, since it may be part of the Syrian opposition’s propaganda campaign.

Umar Shishani’s former deputy, Emir Salahuddin Shishani, disagrees with him. After Umar Shishani pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi, Emir Salahuddin, along with a majority of the other Chechen fighters, renounced him and set up their own brigade with the same name as Umar Shishani’s—Jaish al-Muhajideen wal Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Helpers) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=roWTooT_Lf4). To balance out ISIS, Salahuddin Shishani (Shishani is the Arabic word for Chechen and Salahuddin is no relation to Umar) and his group allied with Jabhat al-Nusra, which falls under the command of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and does not recognize ISIS’s claims of leadership in Syria. Consequently, Salahuddin Shishani then rejected al-Baghdadi’s offer to pledge allegiance to him and took the side of Jabhat al-Nusra in its conflict with ISIS. Emir Salahuddin, on the other hand, appears to be positioning himself as the representative of the Caucasus Emirate in Syria and demonstrates it even in his clothing, which has the inscriptions of the Caucasus Emirate  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CQmb_kF5co). Salahuddin is against Chechens going in large numbers to fight in Syria and recommends that if possible they stay in the Caucasus to wage war against Russia. Apparently, he did not pledge allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra, but rather agreed to consider himself and his group to be temporarily associated with al-Nusra.

Meanwhile, another Chechen militant leader, Emir Seifullah, also has chosen al-Nusra over ISIS, its rival (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPiaYXAoNVM&feature=youtube_gdata_player). Unlike Salahuddin, Emir Seifullah actually pledged allegiance to al-Nusra. Seifullah’s oath demonstrates the differences between the two branches of al-Qaeda, one under the command of al-Zawahiri and the other under the command of al-Baghdadi.

So far Chechen commanders Emir Muslim and Emir Abu Musa have remained independent. Although they have not yet determined their preferences, they are unlikely to choose ISIS because of widespread condemnation of the latter, as well as their opposition to Emir Umar Shishani.

Umar Shishani’s choice in favor of al-Baghdadi is strategically disadvantageous. The condemnation of ISIS by the Sheikh Abu Basir al-Tartusi, who is recognized by the mujahideen, took them by surprise (http://www.beladusham.com/0607.html). The denunciation of the supporters of ISIS by Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who is in a Jordanian prison, particularly made a big impression on the North Caucasian rebels (http://www.aljazeera.net/news/pages/5ac99a8a-d14a-4ed0-8425-32c3970c1e49). Few people anticipated such a development. These opinions have a significant impact on the preferences of the North Caucasians, and many of them have started to leave ISIS to join Jabhat al-Nusra.

The fact that the Chechens are in opposing groups helps save hundreds and possibly even thousands of lives in the ongoing conflict between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. The Chechens on both sides find it easier to reach agreements than do local Arab commanders (http://usudusham.com/2014/01/%D0%B0%D0%BC%D0%B8%D1%80-%D0%B4%D0%B6%D0%B5%D0%B9%D1%88-%D0%BC%D1%83%D1%85%D0%B0%D0%B4%D0%B6%D0%B8%D1%80%D0%B8%D0%BD-%D0%B2%D0%B0-%D0%B0%D0%BD%D1%81%D0%B0%D1%80-%D1%81%D0%B0%D0%BB%D0%B0%D1%85%D1%83/).

The Chechens fighting in Syria attract a disproportionately large amount of attention, given their actual numbers in the country. Many think that the fighters, having acquired experience in Syria, will derail the security situation in the North Caucasus by returning to fight there. However, this scenario, while possible, is highly unlikely. Since they started arriving in Syria several years ago Chechens have advanced to a new level of political influence there and now see their sphere of influence as more than just Chechnya and the North Caucasus. Indeed, they also aspire for a political role in areas far away from their historical homeland.

Increasingly, it is appearing that the influx of Chechens into Syria may have reached its peak. By this author’s estimate, which is based upon months of closely following death notices posted on jihadist websites, the number of Chechens fighting in Syria probably total several hundred or, at the most, no more than a thousand. Despite the ongoing attempts of Chechens to infiltrate their way into Syria, the number will drop, given the mounting disagreements between the various forces that oppose President Bashar al-Assad. The unpleasant aftertaste of the war in Syria, which has turned out so far from being a holy one, will linger among the youth, and this may be considered a positive result of this confrontation, which, in the long run, will likely cause a decline in the number of volunteers leaving from the North Caucasus to fight against the al-Assad regime in Syria.