Leaders of Ingushetia and Chechnya Provide Details on Police Battalions From Their Republics Sent to Syria

February 15, 2017
Russian troops outside the airport in Aleppo. Photo by Russian Defense Ministry

Live Updates: Both the leaders of Ingushetia and Chechnya have provided details on the military police battalions that have been sent from their republics to serve in Syria.

The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.

Leaders of Ingushetia and Chechnya Provide Details on Police Battalions From Their Republics Sent to Syria

Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the head of Ingushetia, a North Caucasian republic of the Russian Federation, said in an interview with state news agency RIA Novosti that a battalion from Ingushetia has been sent to Syria, RIA and RBC reported.
Said Yevkurov (translation by The Interpreter):

“We had a battalion of military police leave for Syria made up of residents of the republic to work in the population centers, cities where the sides have been separated and peace agreements were signed.”

He said that the military police battalion from Ingushetia, which serves under the Russian Defense Ministry, was sent to Syria on a peace-keeping mission to maintain security for the Russia aviation group and employees of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the Opposing Sides in Syria who work in Syria.
“I am confident that our guys will worthily fulfill the missions assigned by the commander-in-chief of the Defense Ministry,” said Yevkurov.
He said Ingushetia also plans to send humanitarian aid for victims in Syria.
RIA reported that Russian military police had earlier performed assignments in Syria, for example in Aleppo after it was reportedly liberated from ISIS [it was not, ISIS did not control Aleppo]. A battalion of military police from Russia was sent in December 2016 to maintain order in the liberated territories, said RIA.
RBC reported that Yevkurov clarified for them that while the police served under a Defense Ministry division, they were from Ingushetia, which is a predominantly Muslim republic:

“Naturally, our guys from the Republic of Ingushetia serve there as well. The Ministry of Defense determines their assignments. And our job is only to help, to support, when they flew out on Monday [February 13], we provided everything necessary for them. Their assignment is one of peace-keeping, monitoring of the maintenance of order in the regions where they will serve their assignments.”

Yevkurov said among the battalion’s tasks would be to accompany humanitarian aid convoys. He added that Ingushetia was prepared to send 30-40 tons of humanitarian aid for those areas where the Ingush battalion would serve.

The Russian Defense Ministry did not have a comment for RBC.

Video Surfaces of Send-off of Chechen Police to Syria; Kadyrov Denies 

On December 8, 2016, a video purporting to be of a send-off of a Chechen battalion was posted to YouTube. The video appeared to be taken at the airfield of the Russian base in Khankala. Pictures of buildings known to be taken at the Khankala base appeared to match scenes in the video.

Subsequently, there were reports that the soldiers who had uploaded the video from their cell phones to social media were dismissed from the army.

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Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov denied that he had sent troops to Syria. 

The video was removed but TV Rain included it in a broadcast at the time, and a copy was saved. The Daily Beast also confirmed the video and interviewed a pro-government Chechen activist who said his relative was going to serve in Syria.

But ultimately the story was confirmed by both independent media and the Russian Defense Ministry.

Chechen Battalion Sent to Syria 

The Chechen leadership was told to make up two battalions, each with about 600 men, to send to the conflict zone. Novaya Gazeta cited reports that the Chechen authorities were trying to recruit members of Chechen families whose relatives had already left for Syria to fight on the side of ISIS.
On December 23, 2017, the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed that a battalion of military police had been sent to Syria to maintain public order. They would be part of the territorial departments of the Russian Center for Reconciliation.
The battalion was trained at the Russian army base in Gudermes to help doctors and mine sappers in Aleppo, as an NTV broadcast indicated.
Novaya Gazeta reported that the military police made up of Chechen natives was assigned to guard a concert planned by Russia’s famous Alexandrov Ensemble that never took place. A TU-154 plane carrying 64 members of the Alexandrov Ensemble as well as various other army and humanitarian officials, including the prominent Dr. Elizaveta Glinka, crashed December 25, 2017. Russian officials investigated the crash near Sochi for any indication of terrorist activity but ultimately concluded the crash was due to technical malfunctions and pilot error.

The Chechen battalion was also supposed to guard specialists at the Center for Reconciliation and also personnel at mobile hospitals and in humanitarian convoys, as well as assist local authorities in maintaining order.

Kadyrov Admits Chechen Military Police Are in Syria 

He said they were  “maintaining peace and order in Aleppo, protecting the civilian population from terrorists.” In an interview with the pro-Kremlin ANNA news TV, a military police commander said his unit was guarding Russian facilities, and maintaining order in the Syrian Army controlled areas.

Then on February 11, Kadyrov added that before the Chechen battalion was sent to Syria, they underwent special training that was to help them “establish contact” with the Syrian people. “Tatars, Russians, Chechens, they are defending Muslims together,” said Kadyrov of the ethnically mixed Russian presence in Syria.
Kadyrov also emphasized, as Yevkurov before him, that the battalions sent to Syria were not those under his personal command, but were under the Defense Ministry’s divisions.

Russian Muslims from Caucasus Chosen for Police Role with Syrian Population

Russian military expert Viktor Murakhovsky told RBC that a military police battalion typically has 420-450 people in it. The units are assigned to guard and defend areas where troops are deployed, and routes of troop and armor movements. He said that the troops sent to Syria went through a “peace-keeping training”.
“Many of the contract soldiers in these battalions are Muslims, and they know the language of the local population,” Murakhovsky said, in explanation of why Chechens and Ingush were selected for serve in Syria. They also have a lot of experience maintaining order in areas under threat from terrorists, he added.
Belsan Uspanov, editor-in-chief of the site Kavpolit.ru said that Chechens and Ingush were selected because they are the best-trained soldiers who can work effectively under Syrian conditions. He said the sending of these units to Syria was also working in favor of the situation inside the republic, from which people have gone to join ISIS.
Uspanov said that while the danger of individual soldiers crossing over to the enemy’s side exists in any army of the world, he would “not accentuate this.”
Tensions have long existed between the leaders of Ingushetia and Chechnya. Kadyrov has made claims on Ingushetia’s territory and Yevkurov has criticized Kadyrov’s harsh methods of combating terrorism.
Political analyst Aleksei Makarin sees “an element of competition” between the two republics in vying for attention from Moscow center:

“The issue is that Kadyrov has extensive ties in the Arab world, including in Oman, and therefore he believes it possible to take part in the Syrian operation. Yevkurov doesn’t have those ties, however, although the Russian military considers him one of theirs.”

Both of the republics have been beset by terrorist attacks and incidents of violence, including against journalists and human rights activist and have faced challenges to their leadership. Makarin believes that is also a reason why the two North Caucasus leaders want to show they can cope with challenges.

Konstantin Kazenin, an expert at the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy, said relations between the leaders of Chechnya and Ingushetia “were not without problems” but the decision to send the military police battalions was made at a federal level.

“I don’t think that in making this decision, regional factors were taken into consideration,” he added.

Caucasian Knot, a regional news service, estimates that as of early 2017, more than 2,000 natives of the Russian Caucasus are fighting in Syria on the side of ISIS. Of these, most come from Dagestan (1,200) and Chechnya (600). The commanders of the Caucasus Emirate, declared a terrorist organization by Russia and the US, have sworn their allegiance to ISIS.

As we have reported, Russian officials have given various figures for the number of these fighters in Syria at different times. RBC quoted the Interior Ministry and FSB as saying 2,800 Russian citizens are fighting in Syria and Iraq, and that by the end of 2015, 889 of them had returned from Syria but were now under criminal investigation.

RBC also cites a report from the Russian Institute for Strategic Research  (RISI) published in 2015 that in a division of ISIS under the command of Chechen Abu Umar al-Shishani, there were from 700 to 1,000 fighters from Russia. Al-Shishani himself said he commanded “several hundred natives of the Caucasus.” He was killed in July 2016.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick