Vicken Cheterian

For Putin’s Strategy in Syria, have a look at Grozny

Russian direct military intervention in Syria since September came as a surprise. For some commentators it could be a “game changer.”[2] For others it is the result of Putin’s failed policy in Ukraine.[3] Yet, in order to understand what the master of The Kremlin is doing in Syria one should look at Putin’s political record, and specifically his experience in Chechnya.

To start with, Putin thinks that much of the current global political problems are the result of American expansionism, and its meddling in the internal affairs of sovereign states. Russia see the greatest threat to its own stability a “Colour Revolution” just like the Rose Revolution in Georgia, or the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Moscow also accuses the West of being responsible for the chaos in Libya following its military intervention there in 2011, which exceeded its UN mandate from protecting civilians to overthrowing the Qaddhafi regime. 

Putin sees the situation in Syria from the same lens. Where the West has failed for four years now, he thinks he has a solution to offer, and he draws his strategy from the Second Chechnya War.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechnya emerged in 1991 as a major challenge to Russian territorial unity. Chechnya had a warrior culture with long history of conflict with Russian imperial order and Soviet modernization. Russia under Boris Yeltsin initially tried to address the conflict through negotiations. But in mid-1994 the Kremlin abandoned diplomacy and opted to a military solution, ending in the December 1994 invasion of Chechnya. A three-year long violent conflict followed during which Russia failed to control this mountainous republic. In August 1996 Russian troops withdrew, followed by three years of de facto Chechen independence, characterized by chaos, hostage-taking industry flourishing, and Chechnya becoming a hotbed of jihadi militants under the notorious field commander Khattab. From among the 19 pirates that attacked the US on September 2001, eleven were Saudi citizens who had left home saying they were going to jihad in Chechnya.

Then enters Putin: the young KGB officer nominated Prime Minister by Yeltsin made Chechnya the showcase of his strategy to make Russia strong again. To conquer the Caucasian republic Putin followed a complex strategy: when Russian troops re-invaded Chechnya in 1999 they used overwhelming force – over 100’000 troops compared to 35’000 in 1994. The carnage and devastation were tremendous. There are no precise figures on Russian military casualties, or of Chechen fighters, or of civilians, but Russian losses in Chechnya are higher than Soviet losses during the invasion of Afghanistan. Chechen civilian losses could be as high as in hundreds of thousands. The destruction of Grozny and other cities could provide setting for WWII movies.

Next, Russia opted to assassinate Chechen leadership: Khattab, the much feared Saudi jihadi was poisoned in 2002; Aslan Maskhadov, a former Soviet artillery officer turned to nationalist president was killed in a raid in 2005; Shamil Basayev the nationalist field commander turned into jihadism was killed in 2006. 

The most important element of Putin’s strategy was to co-opt Chechens to fight insurgents. Back in the 1990’s Yeltsin administration had also tried to impose Chechen administration, but their choice fell on the Soviet era party boss Dokhu Zavgaev. It did not work. Instead, Putin recruited in 2003 the former Mufti of Chechnya Ahmed Kadyrov to become the president of Chechnya. Kadyrov was active participant in anti-Russian resistance in first Chechnya war, but was increasingly antagonised by the salafi-jihadi ideology imported by Khattab, which contradicted the sufi tradition of North Caucasian Islam. When Ahmed Kadyrov was assassinated in a bomb attack in 2005, his son Ramazan took his place establishing a stable, although ruthless police state.

Putin Goes to Syria

Putin seems to be following a similar strategy in Syria: First, to concentrate enough firepower to support the Syrian Arab Army, which was losing ground on several battlefields. Next to sending its most modern military jets like Sukhoi 30’s and 34’s, and Smerch rocket-launchers, there is growing evidence that Russian troops are also fighting on the ground. Next, the strategy would follow the assassination of rebel leaders. Recently, a wave of assassinations targeted Syrian rebel leaders, which could have mostly targeted what is loosely labelled as Free Syrian Army.[4]

More important is Russian political efforts to find elements of the Syrian opposition to join the regime and fight radical insurgents. The Russian Foreign Ministry has invested enormous diplomatic efforts to co-opt parts of the opposition, by hosting at least two meetings in Moscow between Syrian regime representatives, and opposition figures. Yet these efforts remain without success. Those in the opposition ready to talk to the regime look more like Zavgayev than like the Kadyrovs: No major opposition fighting force is ready to join Asad and fight the radical jihadis of ISIS or Al-Nusra. 

Russian strategy in Syria has already created friction with that of Iran. Russia would like to replace the 2012 Iranian strategy of relying on sectarian (Shiite) militias to save the regime, possibly dismantle the inefficient “national defence units” and create a broader base for the regime fighting force. Yet, the Russian strategy might have some frictions with the Iranian one, as Russia does not have fighting troops in Syria, while the presence of Iran troops and its allies continue to increase. 

A major flow of Putin’s strategy in comparison with the Caucasus is that Russia in Syria is only one power among a multitude of other outside interventions. In Chechnya, and especially after 9/11, Putin had tacit green light from the West to destroy Chechen armed resistance, whatever the human cost. Today a number of states as well as non-state actors intervene in Syria. The meeting in Moscow with Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman on October 11[5] aimed at finding common ground with other actors, although it will be hard to achieve. 

The major obstacle to overcome in building a larger power base for the regime is Bashar al-Asad himself. The Kremlin is conscious that al-Asad is a polarizing figure that tried and failed to end the crisis that erupted in 2011 through repression. In order to create a broad base to support the regime, Asad must be replaced by a figure that can build consensus within larger segments of Syrian public, and attract some of the former opposition fighting forces. Yet, in a Stalinist regime built around personality cult, what will survive from the regime without Asad remains a mystery.