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A War Within a War: Chechnya’s Expanding Role in Syria

Over the past year, Chechnya significantly expanded its role and foothold in Syria, including funding the reconstruction of major Syrian mosques and deploying highly trained Chechen military forces to some of the toughest front lines.

Written by Neil Hauer Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Aleppo-bron Ziyad Sabsabi, a Russian senator, speaks during a press conference during the handing over of Chechen nationals back to Russia on November 12, 2017, in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

TBILISI – International actors have been positioning themselves to exploit new realities in Syria and solidify their involvement in rebuilding the country. Among the usual cast of world players, however, a new contender has emerged: Chechnya.

While it may seem strange to discuss a Russian federal subject in the same breath as independent states, the level of Syria’s recent engagement with Chechen authorities is unprecedented. Chechnya’s role in Syria – and that of its leader, Ramzan Kadyrov – has grown significantly in the past year: Chechen military forces play a crucial role in the de-escalation zones, and diplomatic relations have significantly strengthened. While Moscow claims to have sanctioned most of this involvement, Chechnya’s interest in the country extends far beyond the Kremlin’s official word.

For Chechnya, Syria is partly an extension of its domestic battle between government forces and insurgents. Russia’s brutal reconquest of separatist Chechnya in 2000 started a long rebel insurgency against Moscow-backed government troops, during which Kadyrov’s father defected to the Russian side (a move the Kremlin later rewarded with the Chechen presidency).

With government forces gaining the upper hand at home, Chechen Islamist fighters shifted their operations to a new battlefield. At least 600 Chechen insurgents left for the conflict in Syria in 2014, along with hundreds of Chechens from Europe. Many of them joined the so-called Islamic State, including Umar al-Shishani, the group’s infamous “minister of war.”

Though Kadyrov announced his desire to kill “these devils” in Syria as early as in October 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly forbade him to deploy troops until last winter. (However, during this time, ISIS claimed to have executed several Chechen spies acting on Kadyrov’s behalf.)

The Chechen Military Police

Chechen security forces first publicly deployed to Syria in late December 2016. By the end of the month, roughly 500 servicemen were stationed in Aleppo city, where Russian media showed them policing a rebel evacuation and distributing humanitarian aid. In February, a battalion from Ingushetia, a Russian North Caucasian republic bordering Chechnya, joined these troops. Since then, these three battalions made several personnel rotations and have dispersed to other front lines. Some were sent to Manbij to defuse tensions between U.S.-backed Kurdish forces and Turkish-backed rebels, while others oversaw the rebel evacuation in the besieged al-Waer district of Homs.

The role and number of Chechen fighters increased in May after Russia, Turkey and Iran reached the de-escalation zone agreement. Russia deployed an additional 400 Chechen military police to the southern province of Daraa and later established Chechen-manned checkpoints in Eastern Ghouta and near Rastan, north of Homs city. By late July, Russia had sent at least four military police battalions from the North Caucasus region to Syria, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu said in June.

Until recently, Chechen military police played the backline garrison role, but a recent incident in Idlib, home to Chechen-dominant Islamist groups like Ajnad al-Kavkaz and Malhama Tactical, points to a deeper involvement that now involves Chechen-on-Chechen violence.

Six days after 29 Russian military police established two checkpoints in southeastern Idlib province, purported Jabhat al-Nusra (now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, HTS) fighters launched an attack, surrounding the group. A video of the battle shows a soldier with the Turkic name Alkhan gasping on the ground amid the sound of outgoing gunfire. The cameraman in the video is heard speaking Chechen, and a soldier with a Chechen accent is later interviewed about the battle.

Russian special forces units relieved the military police after several hours of intense combat. Russia initially denied claims of losses, but later that week, a member of the unit, Magomed Terbulatov, was buried in his home village in Chechnya. Terbulatov was on his second tour in Syria and had served in Chechnya’s internal ministry forces, a role that connotes significant combat experience in domestic counterterrorist operations. Numerous reports in Russian media claim that all of Chechnya’s forces in Syria have previous combat experience and were trained by the uppermost echelons of Russia’s special forces units.

Chechen units “have the experience, the skill and the capabilities other units might not have,” said Maxim Suchkov, editor of Al-Monitor’s Russia coverage.

Having battled insurgents at home for years, they have few problems operating in the Syrian environment, and their Sunni Islamic background makes them more amenable to the local population, Suchkov added.

Religion and Reconstruction

Military support, however, is just one way in which Chechen authorities are engaging with Damascus. Kadyrov casts himself as a leader of the international Muslim community, regularly engaging with Arab and other Muslim countries on Moscow’s behalf, and Syria is no exception.

Syrian religious figures have visited the Chechen capital, Grozny, a number of times since mid-2016. On November 5, a Syrian religious delegation arrived in Grozny for discussions with Chechen officials and university students. Syrian officials also recently announced their plan to build a Damascus University campus in Grozny.

Chechen officials, including the deputy head of the Russian State Duma, Adam Delimkhanov, and the Grand Mufti of Chechnya, Salah Mezhiev, also visited Syria. Mezhiev even accepted an ethnic Russian soldier’s conversion to Islam before a crowd of onlookers in Aleppo.

The Akhmat Kadyrov Foundation, a Chechen government-run charity, will also fund the restoration of two iconic Syrian mosques: the Khalid ibn Walid mosque in Homs, and the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo. Grozny Mufti Makhmud Akem announced in September that the foundation would transfer $14 million for the Umayyad Mosque alone, double Syria’s July estimate.

Expanding Role

In the past three months, Chechen and Syrian officials have had more regular communication than ever before, largely due to Kadyrov’s recent push to repatriate the wives and roughly 350 children of North Caucasian ISIS fighters killed in Syria and Iraq. Overseeing these efforts is Kadyrov’s primary Middle Eastern envoy and translator Ziad Sabsabi, an Aleppo-born Chechen, who, last month, said he would work “until all Russian [citizens] have returned home.”

Although Chechen forces are now in all four of Syria’s de-escalation zones, Russia could expand their presence to Idlib, where Russian forces have engaged in face-to-face discussions with HTS or near the Golan Heights. Chechen fighters played a similar role securing the southern Syrian area near al-Tanf in the aftermath of U.S. airstrikes on Iran-backed forces, and photographs purporting to show military police in Quneitra on the border with Israel.

For now, Kadyrov’s increasingly autonomous actions aren’t likely to trouble Russia in Syria, but could set a possibly ominous precedent for Moscow elsewhere. Kadyrov has been moving beyond the Kremlin’s control for several years now, and recently openly opposed Russia’s official stance of non-interventionism in Myanmar, organizing protests in Grozny and Moscow. On the domestic front, Kadyrov’s newfound willingness to express opposition combined with his access to thousands of loyal, highly trained security forces is likely far more concerning for Russia.

However, as long as Kadyrov’s and Russian interests in Syria remain aligned, Chechnya’s military, political and economic involvement is likely to continue to deepen.

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