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The New Arab

North Caucasus troops crucial props in Russia's Syria agenda

Russia has deployed hundreds of Chechen servicemen to Syria [Archive/AFP]

Date of publication: 5 May, 2017

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Hundreds of Muslim Chechen and Ingush servicemen are in Syria. The North Caucasian troops are proving valuable both militarily and in Moscow's PR push at home and on the ground.

Russia's intervention in Syria has helped to turn the tables of the conflict in favour of the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

After pro-regime forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, took control of the rebel bastion of east Aleppo in December 2016 Moscow announced that it would reduce its presence on the ground in Syria.

However, Russia in fact appears to be expanding its influence in the war-torn country.

This is evidenced by the announcement of major expansions of military bases in the country, located in the Assad regime's coastal heartland in Latakia governorate.

Leaning on the north Caucasus

But it can also be seen in another phenomenon: the deployment of several units of Chechen and Ingush commandos from Russia's fractious North Caucasus region.

As Foreign Policy notes Russian military presence on the ground in Syria has been largely limited to a support crew assisting aircraft in the country – with some exceptions.

However, Chechen and Ingush brigades are increasingly playing an active role: overseeing checkpoints in Aleppo city, distributing aid, guarding Kurdish forces from potential Turkish assault in Manbij, playing an active role in the negotiated withdrawal of rebel forces from suburban Damascus, in addition to overseeing security at the Hmeimim airbase in Latakia.

Estimates suggest that between 300-500 Chechens are deployed in Syria, in addition to around 300 Ingush.

Their deployment began in December 2016.

Strategic benefits and playing the PR game

Analysts have suggested that the deployment of such troops illustrates the sapping effects of the Syrian conflict on Moscow.

Beyond their efficacy on the battlefield deploying Chechen and Ingush troops could also help Moscow from a PR perspective back home, where society and political leaders are wary of rising death tolls sustained by the Russian military.

Officially, Moscow says that only 30 Russian servicemen have been killed in Syria.

However, analysts put the actual figure much higher.

Chechen leader Ramzan Karymov says that Chechen forces are promoting "peace and public order" in Syria [AFP]

Deploying non-ethnic Russian personnel could shield Russian President Vladimir Putin from criticism over rising Russian military casualties.

Mostly Sunni Muslims, the North Caucasian troops, also share the same faith as the majority of the Syrian population – potentially a PR boost for Moscow on the ground:

Chechen military police have reportedly been told to use shared Islamic words to build solidarity and cordiality with the public while on patrol.

An increased Russian military presence on the ground also shows Moscow's desire to assert its interests when necessary, for example during disagreements with its allies in Damascus and Tehran.

Russia's use of its Muslim majority regions to shape its Middle East policy is nothing new.

The Kadyrov factor

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has often proved a useful go-between facilitating Moscow’s interaction with Sunni Arab states.

Kadyrov notably took to Instagram in December, stating that the deployment of Chechen Special forces to Syria would help to protect "peace and public order".

However, the nature and scale of the deployment of troops from the north Caucasus on the ground in Syria marks a new phenomenon, unseen in the region since the Russian occupation of vast swathes of Afghanistan in the 1970s.

The 1979 Russian withdrawal from 1979, in the midst of heavy casualties inflicted by US-backed Taliban fighters still weighs heavy on the Russian collective consciousness. 

Increased military presence on the ground has also been matched by diplomatic developments.

These include the visit of a delegation from Damascus to Dagestan in March, ostensibly to discuss counter-radicalisation measures with local authorities.

The deputy head of the Chechen parliament has also travelled to Syria, where he met with figures including Maher al-Assad, the Syrian President's brother.

While Russia has also deployed an increasing number of private contractors for its Syrian mission, the role of fighters from the north Caucasus looks set to continue.

The first tour of Chechen fighters in Syria, notes Foreign Policy, ended on March 27. By April 19, it had already been announced, by Kadyrov, that a new unit was set to be deployed. 

Meanwhile Ingush troops are reported to be playing an increased military role defending regime strongholds around Damascus, with their first tour said to end in May. 

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