Chechens fighting in Syria complicate a complex conflict
The presence of Chechen fighters among the armed opposition forces in Syria, long suspected, was slow to be proven. But in the first week of February, Chechen fighters announced their involvement in the Syrian crisis through video posted on YouTube. They spoke in their own ancient language, Nokhchi Mott. Similar videos have since followed.
Fewer than two million people in the world speak that language, which makes it an essential factor in identifying Chechen individuals. For instance, various reports have alleged the presence of Chechen fighters in conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq, but no evidence has been provided, nor any example of a single Chechen speaking his language.
Syria, as a battlefield, is attracting fighters from all over the world and not limited to those who are coming from Arab countries to fight forces loyal to the president, Bashar Al Assad. According to a recent study by King's College in London, about 600 individuals from 14 European countries including the UK, Austria, Spain, Sweden and Germany have taken part in the conflict since it began.
The presence of Chechens, however, is unique.
Syria could be the first battlefield on which Chechens are fighting outside of their homeland in the North Caucasus, where they have been embroiled in a protracted conflict to gain independence from Russia since the 18th century. The most recent chapter of this conflict began in the mid-1990s, with two bloody wars with Russia - in 1994 and 1999.
The first Chechen fighter to die in Syria was 24-year-old Rustam Gelayev, reportedly killed in Aleppo in August 2012. Gelayev was the son of Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelayev (also known as Hamzat), who played a prominent role in fighting against Russian troops in the 1990s. Before he was killed in 2004, Hamzat was carrying out attacks from Pankisi Valley in Georgia, located on the border with Chechnya.
This is where Rustam Gelayev settled before moving to Egypt to study Arabic. And from Egypt, the younger Gelayev joined the Syrian revolution.
Most Chechen fighters in Syria followed a similar route: they were studying in Arab countries, mainly Egypt and Syria, before they joined the Syrian rebels. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many students from the region have travelled to the Middle East to learn Arabic and study Islam, which was prohibited under communism.
In fact, the bulk of the Chechen fighters in Syria - like Abu Omar and the military leader, Saifullah - are from Pankisi in north-east Georgia. Chechens settled in Pankisi during various periods of conflict in the North Caucasus.
The Chechen fighters in Syria have shown remarkable skill and have gained a positive reputation among some Syrians. However, the question remains: why Syria and not the North Caucasus, which has been the scene of a guerrilla war for years now?
It's worth mentioning that there are Syrians with roots in the North Caucasus (Circassians, Chechens, Ingush and Dagestani) as descendants of immigrants from the region to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Yet this alone does not explain the fighters' push into Syria.
Analysts say there are three principal reasons why Chechens, particularly those from Pankisi, are volunteering to fight against the Assad regime.
First, because Chechnya's border is closely monitored by Russian troops, making it nearly impossible to fight closer to home.
Second, in defence of civilians being brutality attacked by Syria's Russian-backed troops.
And third, because it's easy and cheap to travel to Syria through Turkey.
In 2007, after Chechnya was brutally "pacified" and the Chechen insurgency movement spilt over to the neighbouring republics, the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus (IEC) was declared as an umbrella for the North Caucasian armed groups. Unlike the Chechen national movement, these armed groups adopted jihadist concepts, with their enmity limited to Russia.
In October 2012, the leader of the IEC, Doku Umarov, appeared in a video, posted online, expressing sympathy for the Syrian rebels. However, he did not openly call for Chechens to join this fight, arguing that the battle in the North Caucasus should be their priority.
At the same time, Vilayat Dagestan, one of the major groups of the IEC, issued a fatwa stating that the Caucasians' jihad in the Levant was not obligatory, unlike the struggle in the North Caucasus. Therefore, their fight in the region overrides volunteering to fight in Syria.
However, these positions probably did not influence the Chechens fighting in Syria, as not all belonged to the IEC. They are motivated to help the Syrians and it seems that their influence on the ground is increasing.
This was seen in March, when two Syrian armed groups pledged allegiance to Omar, the Chechens' leader in Syria, and merged their groups with the Chechen group under the name of Jaish Al Muhajireen wa Ansar (the Army of Migrants and Supporters).
The presence of Chechens in Syria indicates the complexity of the situation, and their influence on the ground seems to increase as the crisis in Syria goes on.
Murad Batal Al Shishani is a London-based political analyst specialising in Islamic groups, the Middle East and the North Caucasus
Published: May 3, 2013 04:00 AM