For the longest time now I’ve been making the point that Bashar al-Assad seems to have adopted Putin’s scorched earth military/political strategy in Chechnya. After reading the introduction to Jonathan Littell’s “Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising”, a new Verso book (good for them), I’ve discovered that there’s more there than just the near-genocidal blitzkrieg aspect. Remember how Bashar al-Assad released the jihadists from prison who would go on to provide the shock troops for ISIS? Well, it turns out that this was a gambit used in Chechnya as well:
Playing the extremists against the moderates — the basic idea being that, having little or no social base, radical forces will be easy to eliminate once they have helped with the far harder job of crushing a main opponent deeply rooted in society — is a strategy that certainly has its lettres de noblesse. Practiced ineptly, as it usually is, it has an unfortunate tendency to turn against its initiators, as in the case of Israel when it quietly fostered the rise of Hamas in the hope of bringing down Arafat’s PLO, or the United States when it armed the more radical jihadists against the Soviets in Afghanistan, sealing the doom of the moderate mujahideen factions and unleashing forces still not contained to this day. But on occasions it can bring a measure of success, at least in the short term. Chechnya is a case in point. After Russia’s humiliating defeat there, in August 1996, at the hands of a few thousand rebels armed only with Kalashnikovs and RPGs, the Russian special services, FSB (the successor organization to the KGB) and GRU (military intelligence), immediately began preparing the grounds for the next conflict. The three years during which a de facto independent Chechnya managed its own affairs rapidly turned into a dis-aster: the systematic kidnappings of foreign journalists and aid workers, culminating in the spectacular decapitation of four British and New Zealander telecom engineers in December 1998 by the well-known Islamist commander Arbi Barayev, ruined any good will abroad for Chechnya and generated an effective media blockade as journalists ceased travelling there; rising political and even military pressure by rogue Islamist rebel groups on the freely elected nationalist president Asian Maskhadov forced him to radicalize his position, eventually declaring a “shari`a law” no one really wanted or even understood; further decapitations of Russian captives and other atrocities, conveniently filmed by their Islamist perpetrators, continued to feed Russian anti-Chechen propaganda, with compilations of these videos being distributed to all foreign embassies at the start of the 1999 reinvasion of Chechnya to help justify the inev-itable excesses of the “anti-terrorist operation.”
What followed is well known: the total destruction of Groznyi, the mass killings and disappearances, the waves of refugees. What is less so, though it has been extensively documented by a handful of courageous Russian journal-ists, is the sinister pas-de-deux played by the special services and the Islamists throughout the years. This is no place to go into details, but a few examples might serve. Documents leaked by frustrated GRU (military intelligence) officials to the Russian media revealed that the FSB (successor to the KGB) paid Barayev 12 million dollars, out-bidding the four telecom engineers’ employers, to have them gruesomely killed in a manner maximizing the propaganda impact; in the spring of 2000, after the Federal Forces had occupied Chechnya, Chechen colleagues of mine saw Barayev — officially one of the most wanted men of Russia — freely driving through Russian checkpoints using an FSB accreditation; and it was only when his chief FSB protector, Rear-Admiral German Ugryumov, mysteriously died in May 2001 that the GRU was finally able to corner him, in an FSB base, and kill him. On a military level, when Groznyi finally fell in late January 2000, the Russian services manipulated or paid the Islamist rebel groups, which had been sent ahead to the mountains to prepare the withdrawal of the remaining forces from the city, to betray their comrades, leading to the nationalist forces being decimated during the retreat. The evidence is also strong for a form of direct complicity, or at least mutual manipulation, between the ser-v ices and the Chechen Islamist commando that occupied a Moscow theater in October 2002, resulting in the death of over a hundred hostages and further discrediting president Maskhadov and his remaining guerilla forces. In spite of a succession of disastrous incidents, the most notorious being the hideous school massacre in Beslan in September 2003, this insidious strategy would bear fruit: after Maskhadov was finally killed, during a Russian operation in 2005, his successor Doku Umarov renounced the drive for national independence in favor of the creation of a pan-Caucasian Islamic Caliphate — a move that drove virtually all the remaining nationalist commanders into the arms of Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s puppet in Chechnya, thus bringing to an effective and squalid end the long-held Chechen dream of independence. Chechen rebel activity has now been reduced to almost nothing, and Doku Umarov was killed in turn toward the end of 2013; the fact that the Islamist uprising continues unabated in neighboring regions, especially Daghestan, seems to be considered by Russia as a “manageable” problem, for now.
It would be tempting, given this history, to see the hand of Bashar al-Assad’s Russian advisors in the shop-worn idea of allowing radicalized Islamist factions totally to discredit the popular revolt, all the more so as the wave of kidnap-pings and murders of foreign observers that accompanied the rise of the Islamists closely resembles the Chechnya model. There are also some potentially direct links. The appearance in the Syrian theater of several Chechen brigades, aligned either with Jabhat al-Nusra or Da`esh, has gained quite a bit of media attention, as has the main “Chechen” commander `Umar al-Shishani, now a military emir of Da`esh, who is in fact a former Georgian special forces officer of mixed Christian-Muslim descent whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili. Less well known, how-ever, is the fact that behind Omar al-Shishani stands a certain Isa Umarov, who left Chechnya to join him in Da`esh territory and has given him his daughter in mar-riage. Umarov, one of the oldest and most influential (albeit highly discrete) Chechen Islamist leaders, whose links to the KGB go all the way back to the 1980s when he was one of the founders of the Islamic Rebirth Party, the first anti-Soviet Islamist organization, is a man who played a key role in the interaction between the Russian services and the Islamists he godfathered all through the two Chechen wars; and his role within Da`esh certainly raises interesting questions. But as a Syrian friend pointed out to me, the mukhabarat too are old hands at these games, and have no need of lessons from their Russian patrons. Their strategic philosophy is explicitly stated in graffiti now very common around Damascus: “Assad or we burn the country.”