The Russian intervention in Syria has been, by most accounts, a success. And Russian President Vladimir Putin is going to do everything he can to keep it that way.
Beginning with an air campaign on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September 2015, Russian forces have not only stopped regime losses but also helped Damascus retake Aleppo city in December 2016. Now with the opposition stronghold under government control and Assads hold on power no longer in question, Moscow has said it plans to reduce its presence in the country. But while some Russian forces did initially depart in early January, Moscow is actually expanding its role in Syria. Russian officials announced major expansions to Russian military bases in the country while the number of private contractors fighting on the Kremlins behalf also swelled.
Most interestingly, however, Putin deployed an unprecedented Russian weapon to Syria: several units of Chechen and Ingush commandos hailing from Russias restive North Caucasus region.
But the ongoing deployment of the Chechen and Ingush brigades marks a strategic shift for the Kremlin: Russia now has its own elite ground personnel, drawn from its Sunni Muslim population, placed across Syria. This growing presence allows the Kremlin to have a greater role in shaping events on the ground as it digs in for the long term. Such forces could prove vital in curtailing any action taken by the Assad regime that would undermine Moscows wider interests in the Middle East while offering a highly effective method for the Kremlin to project power at a reduced political cost.
Despite their designation as military police, the units are reportedly drawn from elite Spetnaz formations within the Chechen armed forces and are being employed in a role far beyond the simple rear-area guard duty thats typical of such units
At least some of the Chechen troops deployed in Syria have combat experience in eastern Ukraine, with the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reporting that one of the Chechen commanders is Apti Bolotkhanov, who spent substantial time fighting alongside pro-Russian forces in the Donbass.
Using nonethnic Russian special personnel might protect the Kremlin from a public backlash sparked by rising battlefield casualties. Losses incurred by the new, North Caucasian contingent are unlikely to trigger such a response. Russian society carries a deep-seated resentment toward natives of the region, in particular Chechens, after two wars in the 1990s and multiple terrorist attacks since.
North Caucasian units have been documented using handbooks that include helpful suggestions for dealing with locals, such as the liberal use of the word mukhabarat (Syrian secret police) implying detention and other nasty repercussions should a request be met with resistance. On a more cordial level, Chechen military police have been told to use shared Islamic words to build friendlier relations with the public, relying on various religious epithets to greet locals when on a patrol. The conversion of an ethnic Russian soldier to Sunni Islam, conducted by Chechnyas grand mufti in front of Syrian onlookers in Aleppo, was another public relations maneuver utilizing the shared faith between Syrians and the servicemen.
Given these religious and cultural links, Moscow is banking on its new Muslim-majority brigades to prove more amenable to the Syrian populace than its ethnic Russian soldiers.
The growing role of the brigades demonstrates a desire on Russias part to wield greater influence over areas of Syria it deems crucial, particularly in the face of occasional tension with its Syrian and Iranian allies. Although outward appearances suggest solidarity, Moscow has occasionally clashed with both Damascus and Tehran. Perhaps the most publicized example of this uneasy alliance came during the late stages of the Aleppo campaign. Iranian officials were reportedly incensed with the terms of a cease-fire brokered for the city by Russia and Turkey in December 2016 that were imposed without their input. Iran later intentionally scuttled the deal, using its Iraqi and Syrian proxy forces to resume fighting in Aleppo. Not coincidentally, Moscows first Chechen soldiers arrived in Syria within weeks of that event.
So far, the deployment of Chechen and Ingush forces has been very surgical, appearing only in areas and events Moscow considers critical to its aims in Syria. And while their role is unlikely to expand greatly anytime soon, the North Caucasian battalions will continue to serve as the tip of the spear in Moscows wider strategy to expand its influence in Syria.