Chechen Volunteers in Syria and the Dangers of Intervention

Mark Adomanis, Contributor
Forbes | 7/24/2012

Julia Ioffe has a generally excellent piece in the New Republic which makes a point that I’ve tried to make before: that Putin’s Syria policy is actually pretty popular even among his growing number of domestic political opponents. There is, for better or worse, almost no support in Russian society for a more aggressive anti-Assad stance. While the Kremlin can, of course, be exceedingly brutal and anti-democratic in defending its own turf, I see absolutely no reason why it would suddenly abandon a Syria policy that has broad, if unenthusiastic, popular support and which is actively opposed only by a tiny minority of Russian citizens. The fact that Russians themselves want nothing to do with an armed intervention in Syria might be inconvenient or objectionable, but this is something that advocates of a more activist policy need to at least acknowledge. The assumption often seems to be that Putin’s Syria position is deeply unpopular and that Putin wouldn’t have to risk any political capital to change it.

One of the things that really caught my eye in Ioffe’s article was her citation of a Gazeta.ru story about how Chechen volunteers are now fighting in Syria. This seemed noteworthy because, while it was reasonable to assume that some Chechen Islamists were a part of the radicalized anti-Assad opposition, I had not heard any specific reports about Chechen involvement in the worsening civil war. Let’s take a look at what the article itself had to say. Here are translations of the story’s two relevant paragraphs:

Up to 6 thousand foreign volunteers are fighting on the side of the Syrian opposition, and among them are Chechens according to Saudi intelligence. The opponents of the Assad regime last week took over a stretxch of the Syrian-Turkish border, which allowed an influx of volunteers. In Damasucs, however, the rebels were not able to hold their position – government forces drove them out of two regions of the capital…

Saudi intelligence has information that up to 6 thousand volunteers from abroad are fighting on the side of the Syrian opposition. According to an AFP source in Riyadh, in these brigades, under the flag of Al-Qaeda, are citizens of Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and also Chechyna.

This isn’t exactly ironclad proof of Chechen involvement, and we should certainly be cautious in over-analyzing the importance of this information, but this story does help to explain why most Russians have so little enthusiasm for supporting the Syrian rebels. The Russians, with a great degree of justification, see the Syrian rebels not as a merry band of freedom fighters but as extremely dangerous Islamist radicals, and as ideological fellow-travelers of the people who have bombed civilian targets in Russia with increasing regularity. Ioffe even quotes a deputy editor from Kommersant, hardly a pro-Putin publication, calling the rebels “blood-sucking vampires.” That certainly seems over the top, but I do think that the US media could stand to be rather more skeptical of an opposition that has made such heavy use of suicide bombings and which is evidently being supported by thousands of foreign volunteers loosely affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

Advocates of intervention in Syria need to be able to argue why supporting the anti-Assad forces won’t eventually empower the ruthless and well-organized Islamist forces that apparently have the support of thousands of highly-committed foreign volunteers. Consider the experience in Libya. The anti-Gadhaffi intervention let directly to serious political destabilization in Mali. This destabilization, the direct result of foreign involvement, is now so bad and so dangerous that there are calls to address it with…more foreign intervention! And then when that foreign intervention fails and destabilizes yet another part of Northern Africa, there will be need for yet further invervention. And so on, and so on.

It’s very easy to imagine how an analogous situation could emerge in Syria, how an outside effort to topple Assad could have extremely dangerous and unpredictable consequences for neighboring countries and for areas such as the Northern Caucasus. The situation in Syria is an absolute mess, and there aren’t any good options. But as bad as the situation is now it can always get worse. This is a fact that Russians of all political persuasions seem to understand, and it’s a lesson we ought to keep in mind.

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