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Putin’s secret weapon in Syria: Sunni-Muslim Chechen forces  

May 5, 2017 at 9:42 pm

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia on March 28, 2017. ( Sefa Karacan/ Anadolu Agency )

Russia has deployed roughly 1,000 Sunni-Muslim Special Forces from Chechnya to Syria in an effort to hide its casualty figures and curtail the Assad regime if it undermines Moscow’s wider interests in the Middle East concludes a report by the global magazine Foreign Policy.

Moscow has quietly deployed roughly 1,000 Muslim Special Forces from Russia’s southern regions since the end of last year, a clear sign that Moscow is serious about upping its ground game in Syria, say the authors.

While Moscow plans to reduce its presence in the country, report author Neil Hauer explained, Moscow is actually expanding its role in Syria by deploying “an unprecedented Russian weapon to Syria: several units of Chechen and Ingush commandos hailing from Russia’s restive North Caucasus region”.

Image of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Russia [Press Service of the President of Russia/Wikipedia]

Image of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Russia [Press Service of the President of Russia/Wikipedia]

Their deployment marks a strategic shift for the Kremlin, said Hauer: Russia now has its own elite ground personnel, drawn from its Sunni Muslim population, placed across Syria. The presence of Sunni-Muslim private military contractors which are perfectly poised to reshape events on the ground would prove vital in “curtailing any action taken by the Assad regime that would undermine Moscow’s wider interests in the Middle East.

Deploying Sunni Muslims from the Caucuses offers an effective method for the Kremlin to project power by reducing political cost, commented Hauer. Beyond their skill on the battlefield, which has been demonstrated since the first deployment of Chechen Muslim forces in December 2016, they have enabled Putin to conceal the true extent of Russian casualties in Syria, which are thought to be high. MEMO reported in March that for every 100 Russians in Syria, 50 are going back in caskets.

The report states that the Kremlin has gone to extreme lengths to hide its losses. Commenting on the sensitivity around casualty figures, it said that Moscow’s official figure of 30 dead in Syria is much lower than expected. Using “non-ethnic” Russian special personnel, allows Kremlin to protect itself from a public backlash sparked by rising battlefield casualties.

Citing Gregory Shvedov, an expert on the North Caucasus, said the report makes clear that “disdain” toward the region and its Chechen Muslim population is a major factor for the deployment of these personnel.

Cynically speaking [it would be much easier for Putin] if the Chechens or other [troops] from the Caucasus would be killed in Syria … than those from other regions of Russia

Shvedov notes.

Another crucial advantage, besides having co-religionists carrying out operations in Sunni-majority Syria, the report mentions that it enables Moscow to wield greater influence over Syria, particularly in the face of occasional tension with its Syrian and Iranian allies.

Citing the tension that arose between Russia and its allies during the late stages of the Aleppo campaign, the authors believe that the outward appearance of solidarity conceals the occasional clashes with both Damascus and Tehran. Russia intends to have some kind of insurance if Syria and Iran go rogue. The report states that Iranian officials were reportedly incensed with the terms of a ceasefire brokered for the city by Russia and Turkey in December 2016 that were imposed without their input. Iran later intentionally scuttled the deal, using its Iraqi and Syrian proxy forces to resume fighting in Aleppo. Not coincidentally, wrote Hauer, Moscow’s first Chechen soldiers arrived in Syria within weeks of that event.

While the first stage of Moscow’s Caucasian adventure in Syria ended on 27 March, the “North Caucasian battalions will continue to serve as the tip of the spear in Moscow’s wider strategy to expand its influence in Syria,” concluded the report.