A Syrian soldier, who has defected to join the Free Syrian Army, in the Damascus suburb of Saqba January 27, 2012. (Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah)
President Obama’s decision to send military aid to the rebels in Syria can be construed as a direct threat and challenge to Russia. In the United States and in Europe, plenty of those who can’t understand why Russia is supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus say that Russia has no real interest in Syria. But that’s not true.
In today’s New York Times, there’s a snippet that suggests why Russia is so concerned about events in Syria. The amalgam of Islamists that is assembling to fight Assad appears to include a healthy contingent of radical-right Islamists from Chechnya, and they’re reportedly among the toughest fighters in the anti-Assad coalition. Their contingent, according to the Times, led the assault that took control of a Syrian air force base in the country’s northern sector:
The base was first besieged by a Free Syrian Army brigade called North Storm, and joined by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and a group calling itself Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar. Muhajireen means emigrants, and the group, which carried out several suicide attacks at the base, is led by Russian speakers from Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus.
Mr. Farzat said Chechen Islamist fighters near the airport had refused to let the defecting government soldiers flee, so he helped them escape by another route. “I give the Islamic fighters credit for the liberation,” he said. The seizure of the base could have an impact on the stalemated fight for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, by freeing up rebel fighters and antiaircraft weapons to put pressure on Aleppo’s airport, which rebels have been unable to take despite months of trying. It could also dampen the morale of government troops in other remote outposts.
The Boston Marathon bombers, of course, were Chechen Islamists.
This isn’t a new story. It’s been widely reported for quite a while that Chechens are involved in the Syrian civil war. In June, RFE/RL reported extensively on the Chechen angle. Some of the fighters, it reported, are “battle-hardened veterans of the North Caucasus insurgency.” RFE/RL added:
It has been suggested, but not proven, that Qatar and Saudi Arabia financed the recruitment of those experienced former insurgents because “the Chechens are regarded as the best of the jihadist fighters.”
The Guardian reported on the Chechen angle last year, in a lengthy piece describing the makeup of the Syrian rebels. In it, The Guardian described a fighter named Abu Omar al-Chechen who led a “ragtag band of foreign fighters, known as ‘muhajiroun brothers.’” It added: