The Syrian conflict has created more reasons for the Russian government to be concerned about the North Caucasus. A new category of rebels has been added to the existing rebels of the Caucasus Emirate—Syrian militants whose roots are in the North Caucasus and who total 1,000 to 2,000 fighters (http://www.newsru.com/world/19sep2013/chechsiria.html).
In comparison to the 11,000 foreign militants from 70 countries fighting in Syria, this is a high number (http://news.mail.ru/politics/16173449/), especially given the fact that the North Caucasus is a relatively small region. Tatar volunteers are also fighting in Syria (http://www.fssb.su/research/research-reviews/428-inostrannye-naemniki-v-sirii.html), so it is highly likely that the Federal Security Service (FSB) already has a department focusing on identifying and eliminating those who fought in Syria.
Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar is an organization of North Caucasian militants formed in 2012–2013 in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Practically all of the world’s security services are interested in this unit because, in just a year, it rose to a level of prominence equaling the large military units of the Syrian opposition. The Russians have an especially keen interest in this North Caucasian unit since they are concerned about what will happen when its members return to Russia after the Syrian conflict is over.
At the start of January 2014, a Chechen, Shahid Temirbulatov, became the first Russian citizen criminally prosecuted for allegedly having fought in Syria (http://haaman.com/developments/1884-na-zhitelya-chechni-zaveli-delo-za-uchastie-v-vojne-v-siri.html). The suspect is accused of violating Part 2 of Article 208 of the Russian Criminal Code, which forbids Russian citizens from joining an “armed formation on the territory of a foreign state that is not designated by that state and acts against the interests of Russian Federation.” According to the Chechen prosecutor’s office, Temirbulatov arrived in Syria in July 2013 and “joined an armed group and has been actively engaged in fighting the government forces of Syria” (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/236388/).
If convicted, Temirbulatov could be sentenced to three to five years in prison, but he is still in Syria and it is unlikely he will return to Russia face prosecution. This case was widely publicized in the Chechen media to demonstrate that the authorities know who fights in Syria and that the mercenaries will not go unpunished.
It is unclear why the Russian authorities picked the virtually unknown Shahid Temirbulatov rather than a better known Chechen field commander to prosecute. Either there was an information leak from the Chechens fighting in Syria or Temirbulatov himself published something on the Internet, which allowed the Russian security services to identify him. The fact that the Russian authorities have failed to identify and launch investigations against better known Chechen commanders in Syria means that so far the FSB and GRU (Russian military intelligence) have not been able to plant a mole in the ranks of the Chechens in Syria. This, however, cannot be ruled out in the future.
Another Russian citizen, 24-year-old Shamil Nurmagomedov, a resident of Dagestan’s Tsumada district, was also accused of participating in illegal armed groups on the territory of a foreign country. Nurmagomedov was arrested on December 7, 2013, in the city of Khasavyurt. The indictment says that he voluntarily went to the Syrian Arab Republic in July 2013 “to join an armed formation on the territory of a foreign state that is not designated by that state and acts against the interests of the Russian Federation.” According to the investigators, Nurmagomedov received military training at a camp in the Syrian village of Atma and later joined Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar. At the time, the group was made up almost exclusively of North Caucasians and headed by Emir Umar Shishani, who has since become the right hand of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria. The indictment says that Nurmagomedov “took part in combat operations against Syrian government forces on the opposition side from July to November 20, 2013” (http://dagestan.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/239126/).
According to investigators, Nurmagomedov spent only four months in Syria, which does not look plausible. The rules for Syrian rebels specify that all newcomers undergo four months of training, during which time they are not allowed to leave Syria. Thus, the suspect appears to have left Syria immediately after his training was completed, so he cannot really be accused of participating in the war, since he did not actually fight.
In both the Dagestani’s case and the Chechen’s case, the government must have sought to impose punishment severe enough to scare off potential recruits in these respective republics. It is unclear why some notorious rebels avoided prosecution—for example, Magomed Abdurakhmanov (a.k.a. Abu Banat) of the village Khojalmakhi, who is suspected of having ties to the Russian security services. According to the Russian analyst Orkhan Jemal, Abdurakhmanov served for a long time as an officer of the Dagestani Center for Combating Extremism before leaving his job. In Syria, Abdurakhmanov allegedly executed two Christian priests on camera and demanded that all locals accept Sharia (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eML7Cz2FPik). It would have made much more sense for the Russian authorities to start investigating those who were trained by the Russian government and whom the government knows well.
Russia, it seems, is not serious about taking action against Chechens and other North Caucasians who were living in Europe and went to fight Bashar al-Assad’s regime, because such people will ultimately bring more harm to Europe than to Russia. At the same time, Russia has a keen interest in those who were living in the North Caucasus and went to fight in Syria. Thus, this is just another government campaign that will oscillate as the North Caucasians carry on fighting al-Assad. Even if the North Caucasians divide into competing groups and fight each other in Syria, Russia will pay little attention to them.