Art by Yousef Amairi

Art by Yousef Amairi
the struggle continues

April 01, 2014

Syrians Suffer As Al-Qaeda, Chechen Fighters Pursue Their Own Agendas – Analysis, By Waleed Abu al-Khair 03 31, 2014


In the past year, a plethora of press reports and video clips have surfaced on Chechens, among other Caucasus fighters, now fighting alongside Islamist groups in Syria.

These Chechens have fought alongside the al-Qaeda-linked “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, while experiencing fractures and tensions with these groups, as each seeks to establish its own caliphate in the region, analysts told Al-Shorfa.

“The presence of Chechen fighters in Syria is linked to al-Qaeda and its branches in Syria,” said strategy analyst Maj. Gen. Yahya Mohammed Ali, who is retired from the Egyptian army. “Since they began arriving, they joined ISIL, JAN and other battalions and factions” that subscribe to the ideology of al-Qaeda.

However, the on-going dispute between ISIL and JAN and other concerns drove a number of Chechen mujahideen to break away and form independent fighting factions and battalions of their own while retaining full co-ordination with al-Qaeda groups in military engagements against the Syrian regime, he added.

Czech magazine Tyden reported that many of the Chechen fighters in Syria belong to the Caucasus Emirate, an umbrella group that seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate in the Caucasus.

Maj. Gen. Wael Abdul Muttalib, researcher at the Cairo-based Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, said the leaders of Chechen militias in the Caucasus “view fighting in Syria as a great opportunity to train their fighters and use the combat experience”.

“The Chechen presence in Syria has gone beyond participation in the fighting and turned it into an opportunity to train young [Chechens] for a limited period of time, after which they return to the Caucasus area,” he said.

In March 2013, a foreign fighter going by the name Abu Omar al-Chechen announced the creation of “Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar” under his command, according to the Chechen news agency Kavkaz Centre.

Late in the year, al-Chechen swore allegiance to ISIL, and was replaced by another Chechen commander, Salaheddine, “as most Chechens in Syria refuse to pay allegiance” to ISIL, the BBC reported.

Around the same time, the second in command to Abu Omar al-Chechen, Saifullah, and a group of his fighters pledged allegiance to JAN, Kavkaz Centre said.

Salaheddine al-Chechen and his deputy Abdul Karim Krymsky have spoken out against the fighting between ISIL and other opposition factions, and Krymsky also has been vocal in his condemnation of ISIL’s tactics and attitude towards the local population, saying that the group has brutalised and murdered civilians, according to EA WorldView, a news and analysis source based at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

“Tens and hundreds of corpses, mass graves, became a kind of calling card for ISIL wherever it went,” Krymsky told Kavkaz Centre in early March.

“Most worryingly, these events came to be part of everyday life, whereby ISIL was not ashamed of its crimes,” he added.
Chechens have also committed atrocities amounting to ‘war crimes’

Strategy analyst Ali said that Chechen fighters have also committed atrocities, most linked to the actions of al-Qaeda as a whole.

Several videos recorded by Chechen fighters after battles show bodies of people who have been executed, he said.

“Chechen fighters are known for their fierceness in battle, which has reached a level of criminality and commitment of what could be classified as war crimes,” he added. “Among their most notable military engagements was their role in the Aleppo airport battle and their subsequent elimination of surrendered fighters by beheading.”

Czech magazine Tyden reported on its website in August that after the takeover of Aleppo airport, Chechens slit the throats of and beheaded captured members of the military.

“This is the first time Chechens have been confirmed to be fighting outside their territory after doubts about their involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Ali said.

Chechen and Caucasus fighters in Syria fall under four main groups, each headed by its own commander, namely: Jund al-Sham, led by Muslim Abu al-Waleed al-Chechen, Omar al-Chechen group, Saifullah al-Chechen group and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar formerly led by Salaheddine al-Chechen, who was recently reported to have died, media and relief activist Faisal al-Ahmed, who is from Aleppo, told Al-Shorfa.

Chechens in Syria have fought in battles including the fight for Kafr al-Hamra village, the storming of the French hospital, the attack on Handarat air defence battalion and the battle of Aleppo Central Prison, in addition to battles in Deraa and rural Latakia, he said.

In Latakia, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar was linked to the August massacre of 190 Syrian civilians.

It was among five armed opposition groups “responsible for specific incidents that amount to war crimes” including shootings, stabbings and in some cases executions of entire families, Human Rights Watch said.

In Kafr al-Hamra, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar was responsible for an August car bomb blast that killed more than 50 people, according to Echo Kavkaz Media Centre.
‘Biggest loser is the Syrian people’

“Although the Chechen groups are independent, or claim to be independent, from other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, they take part in military operations with both ISIL and JAN according to the geographical area they are in,” relief activist al-Ahmed said.

In the recent battles on the coast, these groups took part in military operations in co-ordination with JAN, and are now in full co-operation with ISIL in Aleppo, he said.

These fighters, therefore, are involved in the same war crimes attributed to ISIL and JAN, and have imposed the same pressures on civilians in terms of sharia law and punishment, he said.

“The Syrian people were thrust into the internal wars between these armed groups, and were forced to live in an atmosphere alien to their own lifestyle which is known for its religious and moral tolerance,” he added.

“All armed Islamist groups in Syria, especially those affiliated to al-Qaeda, such as ISIL and JAN, and Chechen groups, have their own goals represented in establishing their own Islamic emirate,” he added.

“The biggest loser is the Syrian people whose material and psychological capabilities have been exhausted in their three-year revolution,” al-Ahmed said.

Meanwhile in al-Raqa, where ISIL and JAN have committed grave atrocities, Chechens who sometimes belong to these groups have been seen living expensively and ostentatiously, Al-Hayat reported in March.

Main Syrian opposition forces have rejected calls for foreign jihadists to join the fight in Syria.

“Our official position as the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) […] is that we thank them but reject any calls for jihad in Syria,” Luay al-Meqdad, media and political co-ordinator for the FSA, told AFP last April.

“We reject any presence of foreign fighters, regardless of where they are from,” he said.

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