Gifts from Grozny: The Export of the Russian COIN Model to Syria
As early February 2018 was marked by the return of the nearly four hundred man-strong Chechen military police battalion back to Russia after a year and a half deployment in the Syrian city of Aleppo, it also presents a good opportunity to reevaluate the role and specifics the Chechen element deployment plays into the Russian counterinsurgency model in Syria. As their field mission in Syria tends to be multitasked and most likely goes beyond simple critical military personnel and infrastructure security provision, their deployment can arguably provide an informative insight into the logic of the Russian counterinsurgency method applied, one that has distinctively authoritarian features. A method, that despite its lack of attractiveness that draws harsh criticism and has distinct disadvantages for the regimes that practice it, seems to work for Bahsar al- Assad’s regime and those who advise and support them from abroad, as the Russian supplied know-how might not be that random and opportunistic at all.
Indeed, the method seems to be peculiar, especially if analyzed through mainstream Western academic consensus lenses, as it basically relies on fortification of local Syrian enclaves, territorial compartmentalization and various social and clan network-based compromises as opposed to the Western approach, which hopes to rebuild a monolithic and unitary nation-state. What Russians learned well in their own Chechen campaigns at home was to exploit the weaknesses of the warring clans and fractions and ultimately to saw heavy discord among the insurgents. Picking the winning fraction of Kadirov and his loyalists to export their peculiar authoritarian counterinsurgency model to Syria also does not appear to be random at all either. Kadirov is the actual epitome of the success of the Russian-type counterinsurgency that was employed in the Second Chechen Campaign.
The infamous current Head of the Chechen Republic, himself a devout Muslim and a modern, eccentric self-styled man of action with once allegedly massive presence on social media is the Russian “soft power” outreach vector to the Muslims In the Middle East and in Syria, in particular. He is the embodiment of the Russian strategic messaging to select targeted Syrian and other Islamic audiences alike. Messaging that concentrates on the “virtues” of the authoritarian approach namely, Moscow - backed and guaranteed security and order, instead of Western-inspired anarchy and havoc in search of democracy. Security and order offered by specifically selected fellow Muslim messenger and his loyal men on the ground. That of course, is only provided to the select few and loyal enclaves that support the embattled Assad regime.
Grozny Model or What is in the Offer?
The alterative model for Syrian reconstruction the Russians tabled came as a sharp ironic response to the British and American reaction in 2016 to the fact that Russia is turning Aleppo into Syrian version of Grozny, the capital of city of the Chechen Republic, meaning the city’s devastation by the Russian offensive. The Russian diplomatic response resembled a particular jiu-jitsu maneuver where the example of Grozny used by Boris Johnson and John Kerry, as an accusation, was turned into a peculiar PR move to promote the economic and infrastructural post-conflict development of the Chechen capital under the “iron rule” of Ramzan Kadirov’. Apart from the nature of the colorful exchange between the opposing sides, the Russian response is illuminative in regards of their ideas about post-conflict reconstruction of parts of Syria, ones that are heavily drawn on the lessons of their own Chechen experience. In essence, what the Russians are tabling, as an offer, is security provision and channeling serious flows of resources and aid to select cities and territorial enclaves under joint Assad and Russian control, while relentlessly accusing the US of constant undermining of the Syrian territorial integrity. The “stick and carrot” policy is exemplified by the rotation of Chechen military police battalions that augment the Russian regular armed forces, while the “compassionate” Kadirov is offering humanitarian aid and highly symbolic reconstruction initiatives aimed to gain the sympathy and support of the local loyal Muslim population.
In sum, the “Grozny model” promises security and prosperity to the loyal Syrian enclaves, if they accept the distinct features of “Chechenization” of their own local politics and economic development under Assad control, bearing all related negative costs attached, such as oppressive corruption, nepotism and blatant disregard for human rights. The active involvement and use of the “Chechen element” in the Syrian conflict, arguably serves multiple purposes beyond the purely tactical engagement on the ground tightly connected with the overall Russian strategic messaging and psychological warfare efforts abroad that target global auditoria. These include the exemplification of the Chechen deployment, supplemented by the “soft power” outreach of Kadirov in Syria, as a proof that the specific Russian “Chechen-tested” counterinsurgency method is a working success that could be “exported” abroad. In addition to the former, it also augments the overall efforts of official Kremlin to demonstrate that there is a “brighter side” of the authoritarian counterinsurgency method that illustrates to the global audiences not only its efficiency, but the Russian resolve and fortitude of own stance in what they see as a heated “judo-like” wrestle in the latest bout against the liberal democracies of the West in terms of foreign policy and strategic security solutions superiority.