The Syrian Government claimed this week that around 1,700 people of Chechen origin are fighting in Syria, and that those Russian citizens found to be fighting in Syria will be tried and punished under Syrian law, RIA Novosti reports.
The announcement, by Syria’s Ambassador to the Russian Federation, Riad Haddad, is another reinforcement of Damascus’s line that the insurgency is dominated by foreign fighters: a stance that allows the Assad regime to claim that the civil war is not based on domestic grievances, but is supported by external interests and groups, including extremists.
In this same context, Haddad — who said that fighters from 83 countries were active in Syria — warned that Damascus would only hand over Russian nationals to Moscow if they were proven innocent of participating in armed activities. Otherwise, those found fighting in Syria would be prosecuted under Syrian law.
SO HOW MANY CHECHENS ARE FIGHTING IN SYRIA?
The Russian Security Forces Estimate
Although is impossible to calculate the exact number of fighters from Chechnya and the North Caucasus in Syria, Damascus’s claims of 1,700 does not accord with figures given by the Russian security services, who have a vested interest in quoting a higher estimate, given Russia’s support of Damascus’s line that the insurgency is “dominated” by foreign fighters, and given its own need to justify its security efforts in the North Caucasus.
On September 20, Sergei Smirnov, the deputy director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosi or FSB) said that there were around 300-400 Russian nationals fighting in Syria.
Smirnov also expressed Moscow’s main fear about Russian nationals fighting in Syria:
“They will come back, and that poses a huge threat,” he warned.
That figure is greater than an earlier estimate given in June by FSB director Aleksander Bortnikov, who told an international security conference that, “There is great concern in Russia that there are about 200 militants from the Russian Federation fighting (in North Africa and Syria) on the side of the Caucasus Emirate (militant Islamic organization considered a terrorist group by Moscow) under the flag of Al Qaeda and other affiliated structures.”
The Russian Media Estimate
Russian journalist Orhan Jemal told Russian-language news outlet Kavkazskii Uzel in November that in his estimate there are between 200-400 Russian citizens fighting in Syria, including those from Georgia and Bashkiria as well as Chechnya and Dagestan.
A figure of several hundred Russian nationals accords with estimates given by other groups in the region.
In November, Kavkazskii Uzel cited a member of the Integration Fund of the Caucasus People, Umar Idigov, as saying that around 200 Chechen-Kists from the Pankissi Gorge region of Georgia are fighting in Syria. (The Kist people are a Chechen subethnos in Georgia, mostly in the Pankissi Gorge.)
Idigov said that Kist fighters went to Syria in 2011 to support the insurgency against Assad. An imam from a mosque in the Pankissi Gorge, Ayub Borchashvili, explained that the fighters believed they had gone to “support the oppressed people” of Syria. All of those who went to Syria were connected to the insurgent group the Caucasus Emirate, considered a terror organization by Russia, according to Kavkazskii Uzel.
Although an investigation by Russian outlet Komsomolskaya Pravda found that Russian nationals were still able to travel — albeit illegally — to Syria from the North Caucasus, it is unlikely that the numbers of Russian nationals fighting in Syria has more than tripled since November.
The North Caucasus Pro-Jihad Media Estimate
Kavkaz Center, a Chechnya-based, pro-jihad outlet that reports on developments related to fighters from the North Caucasus in Syria, has said in a report in November that there are around 600 Chechens fighting in Syria, but notes that these are mostly the offspring of Chechen refugees rather than nationals of the Russian Federation:
“We recall that according to various estimates there are around 600 Chechens fighting in Syria. They have gone into various units and jamaats around the country. These are mostly the children of Chechen refugees from Europe, as well as representatives of the diaspora in Turkey, Jordan, Georgia and other countries. There are also several dozen people who came to Syria from Chechnya.”
Estimates from Analysts
Dr. Mairbek Vatchagaev, a Chechen historian and political analyst on the North Caucasus and a former senior ranking official in the Chechen government of Aslan Maskhadov, estimates that most of the Chechens fighting in Syria come from refugee populations in Europe rather than from Chechnya itself.
“The number of Chechens leaving Chechnya for Syria is not as substantial as the influx of Chechens from Europe. Probably several dozen people, up to a hundred at most, traveled to Syria from Chechnya.”
WHERE ARE INSURGENTS FROM THE NORTH CAUCASUS FIGHTING?
According to evidence from the field — video footage and statements, interviews, and reports in Russian-language, North Caucasus-based pro-jihad outlets — the bulk of the Russian-speaking, ethnic Chechen fighters and those from elsewhere in the Caucasus fought with the group Kataib al-Muhajireen, which in March merged with two other groups, Jaish Muhammad and Kataeb Khattab, to become Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Helpers).
Although mainstream media sources have tended to describe Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar as a Chechen brigade, in reality there are fighters from various parts of the North Caucasus, including Dagestan and Azerbaijan, with the faction.
There have been wide-ranging estimates on the number of fighters in Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, from several hundred to 1,700, though not all of the group’s fighters are from the North Caucasus: some are fighters who left other Islamist groups but who do not want to join the Free Syrian Army because of differing ideologies.
NOT ALL “CHECHEN FIGHTERS” ARE FROM CHECHNYA
The number of ethnic Chechen fighters and those from the North Caucasus may be greater than the figure of 400 Russian nationals quoted by the FSB, because not all ethnic Chechen fighters in Syria Russian nationals.
Apart from ethnic Chechens from the North Caucasus, some fighters are likely from Chechen Diaspora families already in Syria or neighboring Jordan.
It is known that Jaish al-Muhajareen wal Ansar also contains a battalion of fighters from Azerbaijan, which up until his death in September was led by Abu Yahya al-Azeri. (Al-Azeri is noted for expressing his jihadist ideology in an address he made to his followers in May, when he noted “we are not fighting America or Russia. Our battle on the path of Allah consists only of establishing His laws on these lands.)
RUSSIAN MEDIA REPORTS OF “1000s” OF FIGHTERS |
Even though the Russian security services have been cautious about the number of ethnic Chechens fighting in Syria, there have been some reports in the Russian media of larger numbers. These reports have not provided any sort of evidence to back up their assertions, however, and are usually based on rumor. The most prominent of these was a RIA Novosti report in September, which sourced its material from the London-based Al Quds newspaper.
(It is interesting to note that the Chechnya-based pro-jihad website Kavkaz Center reported in April that Chechen Emir Abu Abdurahman had been killed in Syria.)
According to the report, a new Chechen-led faction numbering 1,000 fighters and named Al Muhajireen had been founded in Aleppo city by Chechen fighter Abu Adurahman. Al Quds cited Abdurahman as saying that the group had established a training camp in Aleppo. There have been no other reports of the faction, however.
DISPUTES AMONG NORTH CAUCASUS INSURGENTS INDICATE 100s, NOT 1000s OF FIGHTERS
There have been two recent splits within the Chechen/ North Caucasus fighters in Syria, both of which are, at root, about ideology.
The earliest of these splits took place in August, before Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar’s involvement in the insurgent offensive and capture of Mennagh Airbase in Aleppo Province, when Jaish leader Abu Umar al-Shishani announced that he had expelled his second-in-command, Seyfullakh the Chechen, accusing him of creating a new faction within Jaish, embezzlement, and being a takfiri. Seyfullakh was expelled with his entire faction, consisting of just 27 men — hardly a sign of a large group of Chechen fighters.
In response, Seyfullakh made a video statement, in which he denied stirring up trouble. Seyfullakh said that he had more supporters than just 27 men (the video does not really back this up, however — only around 30 men are seen).
In November, Seyfullakh’s supporters issued a statement saying that the split between Abu Umar and Seyfullakh was not because of any embezzlement or fitna, but was ideological — Seyfullakh wanted Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar to distance itself from the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham, while Abu Umar was moving toward swearing allegiance to ISIS leader al-Baghdadi.
The second split occurred in November, after Abu Umar al-Shishani and several Jaish fighters did pledge an oath to Baghdadi, moving to fight with ISIS and leaving those remaining fighters who had pledged to Caucasus Emirate leader Dokka Umarov, with Jaish, now led by a Chechen named Salahuddin. Reports of the split in Russian-language pro-jihad sites did not mention “thousands” or even hundreds of fighters had pledged allegiance to Baghdadi.