Russian President Vladimir Putin’s entry this week into the long-running Syrian civil war is driven as much by concerns over the number of Russian speakers among jihadist rebel groups as it is over worries about his country’s place in the Middle East, analysts say.
Russian speakers – from Chechnya as well as other former Soviet Union republics – compose the single largest group of non-Arab foreign fighters in Syria, not just in the Islamic State but also in al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front.
On Thursday, according to a statement by a Syrian security official reported by the AFP news agency, Russian warplanes based in Syria targeted Nusra’s facilities in Idlib province where Chechen fighters maintain a significant presence. Among the groups struck, according to the AFP report, was the Army of the Emigrants, a group composed largely of Russian speakers that was once headed by Georgian-Chechen jihadist Abu Omar al Shishani.
Shishani, a hero of Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, swore allegiance to the Islamic State in November 2013 and is now one of its top military commanders. But the Army of the Emigrants, which is often referred to as JaM for its Arabic-language initials, continued, manned by many Chechen and other native Russian speakers who did not go over to the Islamic State.
The group is now headed by another ethnic Chechen, Muslim Shishani, who has sworn allegiance to the Nusra Front.
For Putin the situation is much worse because the Chechens, Dagestanis and Central Asians can come home and start actual insurgencies against Russian interests and rule.
European intelligence official
Another group of Russian-speaking jihadists left the Army of the Emigrants last month and adopted the name Imrat Kavkaz, or Caucasus Emirate, a reference to the original Chechen fighting groups that battled the Russians throughout the 1990s.
Russian speakers from predominately Muslim areas in the Caucasus Mountains as well as from Central Asian states that once belonged to the former Soviet Union also are fighting with Ahrar al Sham, perhaps the largest of the Syrian groups that espouse a radical ideology and oppose replacing the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad with a democratic system.
How many Russian speakers are fighting with the radical groups is an unknown, but they number in the thousands. One European intelligence official, who is not authorized to speak on the record to journalists but is from a NATO country that has a significant number of citizens fighting in Iraq and Syria with the Islamic State, said the the Russian-speaking fighters pose a greater military threat to Russian interests than Western European fighters offer if they return home from the Middle Eastern battlefield.
“We have hundreds of citizens and residents fighting alongside ISIS and some European countries have thousands,” he said. “Obviously this is of great concern from a national security standpoint, because we have already seen a sharp escalation in terrorist activity linked to the Syrian civil war. But for Putin the situation is much worse because the Chechens, Dagestanis and Central Asians can come home and start actual insurgencies against Russian interests and rule.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday referenced the risks to Russia’s internal security from Russian-speaking jihadis in comments criticizing the Russian bombing in Syria. He said the result of the airstrikes would be “exacerbating the extremist problem that Russia has inside of Russia.”
Russia fought two bitter wars in Chechnya in the 1990s. Putin effectively established control over the area by installing a loyalist strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, in power there. But Russian security forces and targets continue to come under occasional attack from Chechen and other rebels from the Muslim communities in the region.
One Chechen fighter who had fought with Abu Omar al Shishani as part of the Army of the Emigrants before leaving for Turkey after being wounded said in an interview earlier this year that the motivation for many Chechens to go to Syria was to establish a safe base along the nearby Turkey-Syrian border from which they could reconstitute the rebellion against Russia.
“I always understood that Tarkhan joined (the Islamic State) because they promised to re-establish an emirate in the Caucasus that could be used to restart the war for liberation by all the Muslim people in the region,” said the Chechen fighter, who spoke anonymously because of security concerns. “Fighting Russians is the one thing that binds every Chechen warrior’s will.”
Lesley Clark in Washington contributed to this report.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero