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:

The disparate levels of fighting ability among the men was immediately clear. The Chechens were older, taller, stronger and wore hiking boots and combat trousers. They carried their weapons with confidence and distanced themselves from the rest, moving around in a tight-knit unit-within-a-unit.

Apparently, few of the Chechens fighting in Syria have come directly from Chechnya. Instead, many seem to have assembled from among veterans of the Russia-Chechnya wars of the 1990s who fed to Europe and the Middle East. Says RFE/RL, citing the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov:

Kadyrov categorically denied last summer that any “Russian citizens from the Chechen Republic” were fighting in Syria. But over the past two months he has admitted on several occasions that Chechens from both Chechnya and the émigré community in Europe and Turkey had traveled to Syria to fight.

On May 6, Kadyrov implied that the latter category far outnumber the former: he said “a few” Chechens from Chechnya were fighting in Syria, and that “hundreds” from Europe and Turkey had been killed. Two weeks later, however, Kadyrov said “just a few” Chechens from Europe had been killed in the fighting.

In backing the rebels in Syria, Obama says that he wants to support only “moderates” among the fighters. But nearly all analysts agree that it would be very difficult to control the aid, including weapons, once it gets inside Syria. So, in effect, Obama will be aiding battle-hardened fighters who want to take their struggle to Russia.

Let’s end with a quote from Al Monitor’s report in April on the Chechens in Syria:

The group, which identifies itself as Jaish Muhajirin Wa Anshar or Army of Emigrants and Helpers, is not limited to Chechen fighters, although most of the fighters on the website identify themselves as Chechen and speak a mixture of Russian and Arabic.

In the latest post on April 24, the group claimed to have taken over Minnigh military airport, which has been the site of clashes between the Syrian government forces and foreign fighters for months, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The rights group’s director, Rami Abdel Rahman, confirmed that foreign-sponsored militants entered the airport for the first time in months.

The group documents the use of Russian weapons fired on civilians in the ongoing standoff between the Syrian military and Syrian rebels. “Our goal is to establish Shariah law, God willing,” one fighter says in a recruiting video. “We have 30 years of history in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq; our goals are the same.”

Would does Samantha Power’s confirmation change US policy in Syria?