Ugly and uglier

Putin’s Hit Teams Head for Syria

Chechen killers seasoned in the North Caucasus wars are on their way to Syria to take on ISIS—or anyone else deemed dangerous to Kremlin policy.

12.26.16 1:30 AM ET

MOSCOW—Dozens of special military units in red berets lined up in the sun, waiting for the transport to move them to what they gently referred to as “Shama,” which in their Chechen mother tongue means the Holy Land in Syria.

Their faces looked weathered from years spent in the mountain wind. Some of them had missing teeth. Some had blank eyes that had seen death too close. One of the soldiers featured in the recently released video, which was aired by “Top Donbas News” in the pro-Russian rebel-controlled part of eastern Ukraine, says that he is going to Syria “to help people in a difficult moment.” 

Chechnya, a North Caucasus republic that fought and lost two separatist wars against Russia in 1994-1996 and 1999-2006, is now sending hundreds of its sons to the Middle East to fight against Islamist groups, including the so-called Islamic State, where many soldiers and some leaders are Chechen, too. Various Russian reports mention from 3,500 to 5,000 Chechens enlisted with extremist groups in Syria and Iraq.

It is one thing to tell the world that Russian President Vladimir Putin brought peace to Aleppo in Syria, and a completely different story to maintain control over pro-Moscow regions on the ground. The Kremlin is strengthening its aviation and land troop bases in Latakia. The Russian military, meanwhile, sees an advantage in Syria, a chance for officers to “get under fire,” to grow more experienced.

Such are the tensions created by the conflict that on Sunday, when a Russian military transport crashed into the Black Sea, killing 92 people, including many members of the Red Army Choir and the country's beloved philanthropist Yelizaveta P. Glinka, known as Doctor Liza, the incident provoked instant speculation about a terrorist connection. That subsequently was discounted by government investigators, and on Monday, all Russia's entertaining event were cancelled to mourn the victims of the Sochi aviation catastrophe. The tragedy appears to have been a terrible accident, not a sinister plot.

What can’t be doubted, however, is that Russia’s war in Syria, already hideous, is about to get a whole lot more painful. Russia is paying a high price there, and people fear that the price for the war will grow even greater.

Chechen commanders have been recruiting soldiers for the “Syrian” special units for several months, Novaya Gazeta, the Russian independent newspaper, reported on Tuesday. 

“This year ends in the best way for Moscow, beyond its wildest dreams,” Sergei Markov, a Russian official and adviser to the government, told The Daily Beast. “President Putin has won his battles on many fields, including Syria’s Aleppo, America and the EU. More and more people agree that he is right, that Russia’s power and rightness is growing,” said Markov. “The agenda for Chechens is secret but most probably they will be participating in combat against ISIS in Raqqa [the ISIS capital] in the north of Syria.”

The Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov spent a lot of effort building special units, widely known as “death squads,” of men fearless, merciless, experienced in warfare in the streets and in the mountains.

“My cousin’s son worked for certain law enforcement structures in Chechnya,” Kheda Saratova, a pro-government activist, told The Daily Beast. “He volunteered to go to Syria. Our entire family gathered to say goodbye to him.”

In a video report by a local Chechen TV channel Kadyrov personally reviewed his soldiers.

Kadyrov told me back in 2014 it was “a matter of honor” to bring Chechens back home from ISIS. He said that he personally traveled to Syria to consult with Bashar Assad’s military and help Chechen relatives find their daughters and sons in Syria.

Carnegie Moscow Center has argued that the issue of Chechens in ISIS is a crucial test for Kadyrov’s power: Islamists have already promised to support a revolution in Chechnya and even offered a $25 million reward for the heads of Kadyrov and his associates.

Life in Chechnya balances between war and peace. Last weekend, police special units and Islamist rebels, who Kadyrov calls “shaitans” (devils) fired at each other near the Chechen capital, Grozny. At least 11 militants were killed.

“Chechen special unit soldiers proved they could fulfill any task and Sunni and Russian commanders might see them as useful in the [Syrian] regions where the population is terrified by Alawites,” says Yekaterina Sokirianskaya, the International Crises Group’s Project Director for Russia and North Caucasus. “It is scary to see these Chechen units on their way to Syria, as some awkward laboratory experiment on breaking people’s spirits. They have no choice, they cannot say ‘no,’ their job is to be loyal to the Kremlin.”

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Not everybody in Chechnya fully understands why Sunni soldiers are being thrown into one more war against Sunni Muslims.

“Many women cry when they see our soldiers leave because we know that the war in Syria is not over,” pro-government activist Saratova told The Daily Beast. “I personally cannot stop crying every time I see Aleppo, my memories of destroyed Grozny immediately come back.”

It seems that at the end of 2016, Putin’s Russia is in a hurry to fight and keep its ground on many fronts.

Inspired by success in Syria, Putin reportedly plans to undermine the UN-backed government in Libya and support a strong military leader, Khalifa Haftar (who once was reputedly in bed with the American CIA). Ukraine continues to blame Russia for attacking its military. And another hacker scandal erupted in the past week: this time the Ukrainian military claimed that its soldiers’ cell phones were hacked by a Moscow group.

Thursday’s report by a U.S. cyber security company added evidence linking Fancy Bear, already famous for the attack on the U.S. Democratic National Committee, with Russian military intelligence. The report found the same computer code used by one of the Russian GRU’s cyber-operation units in Ukraine and the DNC hack.

The Russian government denied the allegations. “All American intelligence agencies grab at any threat to save themselves from going to jail. There is nobody to listen to in Obama’s agencies,” Markov insisted.

It looked like the Kremlin was planning raise glasses in many victorious toasts as the New Year arrived, but whether Russia is actually going to enjoy prosperity and a sense of security next year is not clear.

“We celebrate Trump and the growing number of our allies in the EU, but the anti-Russian sanctions still have not been cancelled,” Markov noted. “Ukraine is still governed by an anti-Russian junta. We need to capitalize on our success. So far, we have not seen any benefits from our victories.”