11 September 2017

The Chechens of Syria

By Vera Mironova and Ekaterina Sergatskova

Before the Syrian conflict, there was little talk outside of the former Soviet Union about the fighting prowess of Chechens. But with the advent of the Islamic State (ISIS), Chechens, or shishani in Arabic, have developed an international reputation as some of the toughest fighters in the world. The rise of one, Abu Omar al-Shishani, to ISIS’ highest military position reinforced this public image, and according to recent interviews in Mosul, Chechens in ISIS were among the foreign fighters most feared by civilians. But those who fight with ISIS are just one group of Chechen forces currently operating in Syria.

Politically and militarily active Chechens are divided into three groups—all of which have sent foot soldiers to Syria. The first group is made up of supporters of the current head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. They are known as the Kadyrovtsy. As the official armed forces in Chechnya, they have the best military training and the most experienced fighters. Their main opponents are the Ichkeriysy, from the Independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, and the Emiratovsy, of the Islamist Emirate Caucasus.

The Ichkeriysy are mainly nationalist followers of Sufi Islam. They fought during the first and second Chechen wars for an independent state of Ichkeria, which existed from 1991 until 2000 and was recognized only by the Taliban government of Afghanistan. Although these fighters have extensive military experience, there are few left. Many of them have emigrated to Western Europe.

The Emiratovsy are Salafists and support implementing Islamic rule in the North Caucasus. They were a dominant opposition force within Chechnya. Although the group fought in the second Chechen war, its current members have the least amount of military experience. Even before the war in Syria, many were forced to leave Russia and resettle in Turkey.

Although these three forces no longer collide in Russia (open conflict between them has been mostly waged online), the Syrian war has proved ample ground for them to clash again.

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