And their work in Syria may be a practice run, because Chechens also are fighting the same battle in the North Caucasus in Russia. There Islamist militants in the country’s southernmost provinces are predominantly Muslim and are battle for Shariah.
In these southern provinces, the Islamist militants want to establish a Caucasus Emirates and separate from Russia itself. And many ethnic Russians are of a similar mind.
However, Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected that idea out of concern that other ethnic minorities – and there are many – similarly will want independence from Moscow, potentially threatening the very existence of a unified Russia.
Putin believes this could cause the breakup of Russia, especially at a time when he is attempting to set up a Eurasian Union with the goal of uniting all the former republics in a duty-free zone and, in effect, recreate the Soviet Union.
Chechens from outside their southern Russian province find it easier to fight in Syria than to return to Chechnya to fight. The reason for that is the strict border controls imposed by the Russian security service and the government there headed by Moscow ally Ramzan Kadyrov.
In addition, there would be repercussions for the families and friends of the Chechens who did return to fight.
The Chechens are finding it much easier to reach Syria, since Turkish officials, who also are Sunni, are allowing the Chechens to enter Syria from their soil.
For these Chechens, the downside is that they don’t have the fighting experience of Chechens in the Russian province. Due to this fighting inexperience, they have become some of the first casualties in the fighting in Syria. Most of the casualties among the Chechens have occurred in the fighting around Aleppo where Syrian government forces remain strong.
For the families of those Chechens killed in the fighting in Syria, it also is problematic, since Russia is a major backer of the government of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Chechens who come from the North Caucasus Mountains in southern Russia are Islamist militants closely aligned with al-Qaida. The Chechens who are fighting in Syria are joined by al-Nusra, another militant Islamist group out of Iraq similarly affiliated with al-Qaida. All are fighting on behalf of the Syrian opposition, backed by the United States and the Europeans in close coordination with Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
According to sources, there are three primary Chechen groups in Syria. The three have merged into the Army of Muhajirs and Ansars, also known as the Jeish Muhajirin va Ansar, and operate around Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, where fighting continues. Sources say the leaders of the Chechens are from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge.
While the leadership of the groups appears to be Chechens, the units are comprised of other North Caucasus ethnic Islamist militants from Ingushetia, Dagestan and North Ossetia. Many of the Ossetians are former students who went to Egypt for Islamic studies before heading for Syria. These sources add that some 200 Tartars also comprise some of the foreigners fighting for the Syrian opposition. This development has raised additional concerns for Russian officials who see the Tartars returning to fight to gain their own independence.
Ironically, the head of the Caucasus Emirates in Chechnya, Doku Umarov, has disapproved of Chechens fighting in Syria, since he believes that Chechens should be fighting in the North Caucasus against Russian security services, to gain their independence.
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