Syria Analysis: How Russia Justifies Military Intervention — The Case of the “Chechen Islamic State Terrorists”

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IMAGE: Chechen fighters celebrate capture of a hilltop in northern Latakia Province, March 2014


Russia’s current political-military campaign to keep President Assad in power is its most intense in Syria’s 4 1/2-year conflict, matched only by the effort in autumn 2013 to prevent punishment of the Assad regime for its chemical weapons attacks near Damascus.

The Russian build-up of equipment and supplies in western Syria has already succeeded in capturing international media. And there is evidence that its proposal of an international conference to keep Assad in power during a political transition has made headway: Germany’s leaders have indicated that the initiative must be pursued, and the British Foreign Secretary has indicating a willingness for Assad to remain for “up to six months”.

Moscow’s campaign rests on a central message to turn Western nations from opposition to Assad’s rule into a “coalition” working with the President and the Syrian military. The primary threat is not the regime — despite hundreds of thousands killed and 11 million Syrians as refugees or displaced within the country — it is the Islamic State.

If you look carefully, the argument is shaky. Russia’s deliveries of military equipment, supporting both air and ground forces, are not for a fight against the Islamic State. They are to prop up a Syrian military which has been defeated by rebels across northwest Syria and is now threatened in the Assad “heartland” of Latakia Province in the west. Assad does not have a track record of challenging the Islamic State: to the contrary, his 2011 strategy of releasing “extremists” from prison — to “poison” the Syrian opposition — and fragmentation of Syria provided fertile ground for the spread of the militant group.

But, of course, you are not supposed to look carefully. Instead, you take the statements at face value, such as Assad’s declaration to Russian State TV, broadcast on Wednesday: “Who are ISIS? And who are these groups? They are simply extremist products of the West.”

“Chechen Islamic State Terrorists”

Writing for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Joanna Paraszczuk offers a snapshot of how far the campaign extends — not just for an international audience, but for the Russian population — and how much it relies on deceptive claims:

Two weeks before these reports [of Russian military intervention in Syria] broke, Life News, a tabloid-style Russian website with links to the security services,…warn[ed] of the threat posed by the Islamic State…in Latakia.

And in an emotional appeal to its Russian readers, it framed the “War on Terror” in Latakia as an extension of Russia’s own struggle against Islamic militancy in the North Caucasus.

Life News said the Islamic State dispatched “natives of Caucasus republics” to Latakia: “Among them are militants who took part in actions against the Russian Army during the Chechen campaigns, and then fled from Russia. Their skills aid in the development and implementation of operations in the Latakia heights.”

Investigating the claim, Paraszczuk notes that three of the several Chechen groups in Latakia Province have fighters from the insurgency in the North Caucasus.

However, none of the three groups is connected with the Islamic State. Instead, they are fighting along Ahrar al-Sham — which is part of the rebel coalition at war with the Islamic State since January 2014 — and the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra, which split from the Islamic State in spring 2014.

No matter. Life News’s false portrayal feeds the image of the Islamic State — not the rebels, who have been the successful force — marching across Syria if it is not checked. The Chechen-led groups have advanced into Latakia from Idlib Province, it says, and they will move “into Hama Province” to the east.

And that in turn bolsters Moscow’s wider message to the West: you have a choice between opposing Assad and letting the Islamic State take over Syria, or standing with Russia and Damascus to stop a threat not just to the country but to the world.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday, “The need of uniting the efforts in the struggle against terrorism is undoubtedly coming to the foreground. It is impossible without this to solve other essential and intensifying problems, including the refugee problem.”

Or, in the blunt words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday, “Excluding the Syrian Army from the fight against the Islamic State is absurd.”

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19 COMMENTS

  1. Scott: Do you think Being a NATO state Turkey will find is easy having Russia building an Air-Base and probably Army-base Near its border? I know it is impossible to stop Russia at this stage not doing so. But, can Turkey do more to contain Assad and Russia only in Latakia, not allowing them to connect up to Damascus? I personally believe Putin will play a card game in Syria for getting some concession in Ukraine. And Russia will find’s it gateway in Mideast-Persia via Syria. This may push the gulf sates back to USA’s romance once again which lately looked otherwise. Lets see what Isrel thinks and reacts about the latest development. I think American influence in the region is fading away. With Russia’s help Syria-Iraq and Iran will make Mideast ”NATO” and bully the idiot filthy rich Arabs.

    • ForSyria, no it`s surely the other way around. Since two weeks the ukraine front is nearly quiet. Translation – Putin says: let me do an russian intervention in syria – and you can gain a quiet border between Ukraine and Luhansk (part of Ukraine under separatist rule). US influence isn`t fading away – after Iraq US has made the decision to leave middle east – obama had said US is much interested inside Asia.

      That`s one of many reason why iran and russia are trying to gain influence ………………….

  2. Messaging aside, I see a number of strategic parallels between Latakia and Sevastopol. The Russian government (justifiably) places a lot of value on the Black Sea-Eastern Mediterranean corridor for its exertion of influence in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. To that end, both Crimea and Syria are pivotal. I’m not so sure if Putin cares which specific government is in charge of Syria, as long as it preserves his basing rights on the Eastern Med. If the rebels straight up win the civil war, such a government is unlikely to be in place. With this recent build-up, the Russians will at the very least be able to force the conflict into any number of positive outcomes:
    1. Creating a stand-off with de facto partition of the country.
    2. Swapping out Assad for a relatively pro-Russian transitional government.
    3. Winning the war for Assad.

    This also suggests that the Caucasus/terrorism narrative is an improbable explanation for Russian intervention. In Chechnya, the Russian military has effectively outsourced the combating of Islamist extremism to Khadyrov’s thugs anyway. To Putin, Caucasus terrorists are not (anymore) the kind of security threat that warrants a response as drastic as he’s putting in place in Latakia.

  3. “And that in turn bolsters Moscow’s wider message to the West: you have a choice between opposing Assad and letting the Islamic State take over Syria, or standing with Russia and Damascus to stop a threat not just to the country but to the world.”

    “As Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday, “The need of uniting the efforts in the struggle against terrorism is undoubtedly coming to the foreground. It is impossible without this to solve other essential and intensifying problems, including the refugee problem.”

    LOL. But russian propaganda always tell us that the Islamic State is only a tool of the evil westerners so why would the “West” want to unite the efforts against its puppet?, would no that be like asking Iran to unite efforts against Hezbollah?. Can someone explain this paradox?. Could it be that russia have been lying to their useful idiots?.

  4. My take about Bibi going to see Putin sometimes by tomorrow.: Russia somehow toppled Assad’s regime in. damascus, they are moving south and now in Hama. Most likely they will be in damascus soon. Russia will have the grip on major Syrian cities and then talk about negotiation of surrender terms for rebels. Or at best leaving the desert and Idleb and demolished Aleppo for the Sunni population.

        • No, eu is convinced that Ukraine and Syria is one thing – russia is playing the ukraine card being quiet at Ukraine but intervention in syria. France is surely against Assad – one thing is clear: It would be a miracle if eu will come to a united reaction against putin.

          Germany wants to talk like alwas – because germans had made some good points about elections at separatist areas at ukraine –
          it depends on GB and US only how the west will react.

  5. So are Chechenyns like Iraqis racailly because they come in diffrent colours (in the pic one is white with a red beared and the others are light brown with black hair) but have simmilar facail and bone structures?

    Also should russia not be greatful that they out of Russia in a far off war where they could easily be killed?

  6. Sighting of R-166-0.5 signals vehicle affirms inflow of Russian military into Syria —–
    belingcat — Brown Moses – is back displaying the russian intervention

    The past few days have seen a steep increase of evidence revealing the true extent of direct military involvement by the Russian military on the ground in Syria.

    The sighting of recently delivered Russian UAVs and Russian BTR-82A infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) in addition to sound fragments confirming Russian military personnel directly participated in one of regime’s offensives in the Lattakia Governorate all proved Russia was deeper involved in the Syrian Civil War than many previously thought.

    https://www.bellingcat.com/news/2015/09/16/sighting-of-r-166-0-5-signals-vehicle-affirms-inflow-of-russian-military-into-syria/

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