Grozny and Aleppo: a look at the historical parallels

Years on from the end of the Chechen wars, we examine the lessons from that conflict and what we can expect in Syria.

Russian soldiers raise a flag over the ruins of an apartment building in Grozny, Chechnya, in March 2000. AP Photo.
Powered by automated translation

Russian warplanes are back in the skies above the Middle East in numbers not seen since Syria and Egypt’s Soviet-era MiG-21s sparred with Israeli F-4 Phantoms over the Golan Heights and Sinai peninsula during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Only this time, the Russians are following tactics perfected in the skies above the forested mountains of the Caucasus.

The barrage of media reports from Aleppo of bombed hospitals; casualty-filled morgues; declarations of "humanitarian corridors" out of government besieged neighbourhoods; heavy bombardments of towns by long-range Russian bombers; outrage by western human rights groups; and strafing runs by deadly "Hind" attack helicopters on communities uniformly described as "terrorists" sound familiar. That's because they are strikingly similar to the media reports of Russia's war against Chechnya. We have seen this airborne assault – so reminiscent of the bombing that inspired Pablo Picasso's Guernica – before, in the campaign against the tiny breakaway republic of Chechnya from 1999 to 2000.

The rain of bombs on the ancient city Aleppo is, in many ways, simply a reprise of the street-by-street tactical obliteration of what was once the greatest city in the northern Caucasus. A city that became known at the turn of the century as the “Caucasian Hiroshima”.

In the autumn of 1999, Russia was wracked by a series of unexplained bombings in Moscow and cities to the south that were blamed on the Chechens, a Sovietised Sufi Muslim nation of less than a million that defeated the Russian Federation in a war for independence in 1996.

At the time, Russian president Vladimir Putin, a relatively unknown FSB (the new KGB) officer who had been chosen by an ailing president Boris Yeltsin to be his then prime minister, promised to punish the Chechens for this mysterious bombing spree that killed up to 300 Russians in apartment buildings. This would become known as the Second Chechen War.

Investigations into the mysterious bombings would eventually exonerate the Chechens and place the blame on a Saudi extremist named Ibn Al Khattab and unofficially on FSB operatives involved in a false flag operation designed to blame Chechens. But before they even began, the Russian Air Force started to bomb Grozny – the capital of independent Chechnya. The logic for the dropping of bombs across a city packed with tens of thousands of civilians seemed to be that this action would somehow avenge the dead Russians.

Regardless of the shaky premise, thousands of civilians began to die in Grozny as their apartments were turned into rubble. Tens of thousands of civilians from the “Chechen terror nation” would ultimately die as payback for the mysterious autumn 1999 bombings in Russia. The tactical destruction of the once beautiful city of Grozny by notoriously imprecise Scud missiles; Buratino thermobaric and fuel-air bombs (that ignite the air being breathed by people hiding in basements); cluster munitions; T-90 “Vladimir” main battle tanks; Mil Mi-24 “Hind” attack helicopters; and other weapons banned by the Geneva Conventions in civilian-populated areas horrified world leaders.

In a typical attack, a wave of massive “hypersonic” Scud missiles fired from the neighbouring republic of North Ossetia (later home to Russian planes that would bomb Aleppo) descended on a Grozny hospital and the city’s main outdoor market as it was packed with shoppers, killing 137 people, in October 1999.

The Russian government described the targets as “well known terrorist centres”. An eyewitness account of the slaughter described it differently, in heartbreaking terms, as follows: “After the first hit, I saw a man who was sitting in a car. His head had been blown off, but his hands were still holding the wheel. Corpses were everywhere in the market. They were lying on the stalls.”

Human rights activists and western leaders were outraged by such bald lies, as well as Putin’s subsequent designation of anyone who refused to leave the besieged city in so-called “humanitarian corridors” as “terrorists”. But in these corridors, Chechen fighting-age men were arrested and, on several occasions, the refugee columns were bombed. But even as Grozny burned, so brightly that it was observable from space – when Google Earth went live you could watch the city on fire, with plumes of smoke drifting across Chechnya in the images – and as western leaders, including United States president George W Bush, condemned him, Putin’s popularity soared in Russia. The previously unknown KGBnik rose on the hate-filled currents of anti-Chechenism, which were stoked across Russia, leading to thousands of Chechen arrests and Putin’s victory in the 2000 presidential election.

But the glow surrounding Putin’s inaugural celebrations was dimmed by the fact that a small band of several thousand stubborn, battle-hardened Chechen soldiers armed with nothing more than rocket propelled grenades, mines and assault rifles, were able to ambush and obliterate tank columns that probed into the centre of the “urban forest” of Grozny’s shattered ruins.

And so an uneven war began, between 80,000 Russian troops who besieged Grozny supported by an air armada, and just 5,000 Chechen “urban rats” on the ground, from September 1999 until January 30, 2000.

On that snowy night, the Chechen rebels broke through rings of Russian armour, artillery and landmine fields to fight their way into the mist-covered mountains of the south, where they then scattered.

Meanwhile, in the US, Mohammed Atta’s “Hamburg Cell” killed up to 3,000 people on 9/11 and Bush launched the “War on Terror”. Kremlin spokesmen conflated their secessionist enemies, a Sovietised mountain people who had fought Russia for independence on-and-off since their conquest in 1861, with Osama bin Laden’s Afghanistan-based Arab Salafi-Takfiri-Wahhabi terrorist group, Al Qaeda.

The Bush administration bought into this narrative and the Americans came to define the Chechen mountaineers – more socialist than religious – as notorious Al Qaeda henchmen.

In the end, Chechnya’s president, a former Soviet artillery officer named Aslan Maskhadov who had long called for peaceful relations with Russia and fought to expel religious extremists like Khattab, (who for his part had tried grafting religious war onto the Chechens’ struggle for a Balkan Republics-style independence), was hunted down by Russian forces and killed. Most of his boyeviks (Chechen fighters) also died.

As for the globetrotting Khattab, whose Kavkaz Complex camp was not even located in Grozny but far to the southeast in the mountains near Dagestan, he was ironically killed by a poisoned letter sent from the FSB in March 2002.

Following the crushing of Chechen independence in the name of killing Khattab’s terrorists, Putin was lauded as the hero who had saved Velikii Rus (Great Russia) from the Chechen terror menace.

The rubble of Grozny was bulldozed and a strongman named Ramzan Kadyrov was put in charge. The estimated 300,000 people killed during both Russian-Chechen wars (according to the new Chechen administration’s deputy minister) were buried, and Grozny (described by the United Nations as the “most destroyed city on earth”, was flushed down the memory hole for most non-Chechens.

Putin and Kadyrov then constructed a skyscraper-studded, “Potemkin village”. Today Chechnya is enjoying a period of relative calm but sporadic attacks by jihadists continue and many people still live in extreme poverty.

Flash forward to September 30, 2015. Putin surprises the world by intervening in the Syrian civil war that pits president Bashar Al Assad against a group of disparate rebels. At the time, this array of rebel groups was described in by the Kremlin once again as “terrorists”. And once again, the Russians began dropping bombs on neighbourhoods to defeat the “terrorists” said to be hiding in them. This time round it was eastern Aleppo.

Today, Russian news is once again filled with coverage of a war against “terrorists”, in what has been described as “Operation Vozmezdie (Retribution)” in a bid to maintain Russia’s influence in the Middle East. Assad and his father bought billions of dollars of equipment from the Russians and Soviets, and Russia maintains a naval base at Tartous. Another issue is that many former Chechen rebels are fighting in Syria. It’s hard to put a figure on the numbers but a recent Russian government estimate put the number of fighters in Syria from Chechnya and the Commonwealth of Independent States at 2,400. Russian accounts of the high-altitude bombardments of Aleppo by Tu-22M3 Backfire, Tu-160 Blackjack, and Tu-95MS Bear strategic bombers from North Ossetia, claim that bombs dropped from 2,000 feet onto civilian-packed neighbourhoods below can somehow distinguish between civilians and terrorists.

A typical account recently appeared on the Russian ministry of defence website (which was repeated by an unquestioning Russian media), and said: “During a massive air strike today, 14 important ISIL targets were destroyed by 34 air-launched cruise missiles. The targets destroyed include command posts that were used to coordinate ISIL activities in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, munition and supply depots in the northwestern part of Syria.”

Of course ISIL’s strongholds lie far to the southeast of the northwestern town of Aleppo in the central Syrian desert.

In the meantime though, the world seems to be rejecting this attempt by Russia to conflate rebels with international terrorists, contrary to his previous successes with the Chechens. But that may change if Putin’s manages to forge a working relationship with new US president Donald Trump.

Should Trump turn a blind eye to the stepped-up bombing campaign in eastern Aleppo, and should the Sunni rebels be defeated, then perhaps the Russian government can pour money into the city to rebuild it.

But that is speculation. For now, Aleppo is in ruins. A recent BBC report captured Putin’s response to what’s happening: “Mr Putin told France’s TF1 TV channel that Russia would pursue ‘terrorists’ even if they hid among civilians. ‘We can’t allow terrorists to use people as human shields and blackmail the entire world,’ he said, adding that civilian deaths were the ‘sad reality of war’.”

Brian Glyn Williams is a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts and the author of Inferno in Chechnya: The Russian-Chechen Wars, the Al Qaeda Myth, and the Boston Marathon Bombings. His most recent book is Counter Jihad: America’s Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.