Russia's Actions in Syria Echo Its Harsh Learnings From Chechen Wars

Moscow believes that any military success in Syria needs determined and remorseless assault on the enemy without concern for civilians caught in the crossfire, and that the likelihood for political compromise is waning the longer the fighting continues.

Russia believes that any Credit: Reuters

Russia believes that military success in Syria requires determined and remorseless assault on the enemy without concern for civilians caught in the crossfire. Credit: Reuters

Moscow: Communication has broken down between Moscow and Washington, perhaps irreparably, as the Russians and their Syrian allies press forward with a devastating assault on rebel-held neighbourhoods of eastern Aleppo. Press reports indicate that the fierce Russian-led aerial and artillery barrage includes the use of bunker-busting bombs and cluster munitions, and that it spares neither hospitals, nor schools, nor civil defence units.

Although the Russians angrily deny the charges of “barbarism” being levelled at them, the responses out of Moscow don’t dwell much on the ferocity of their attack but rather tend to stress the ineffectual nature of the American way of war. The Russians say the Americans go into these fights with neither military resolve nor a viable political end game; hence they have ended up – in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya – with neither victory nor order. Rather, US efforts have stimulated the growth of Islamist extremism, which has metastasized around the region.

It’s not an easy point of view for Westerners to digest, especially amid the avalanche of brutal images pouring out of Aleppo. But the Russians claim they have learned the hard way, through years of bitter war and horrifying terror events in their home cities, that there is only one way to deal with jihadist insurrection – and that’s what they are doing in Syria. And though they are often accused of aiding and abetting the harsh regime of Bashar al-Assad, they insist that any talk of a democratic alternative amid all this mayhem is pure illusion.

“We are backing a legitimate government against terrorists, who are being supported by the US and Persian Gulf States,” says Viktor Litovkin, military editor for the official ITAR-Tass news agency. “They need to be stopped, then we can talk about democracy.”

Since the collapse of the USSR, Russia has fought two large wars in its turbulent north Caucasus region, primarily against Muslim Chechen rebels who morphed from separatists into militant Islamists during the course of the conflicts. The two primary lessons the Kremlin took away from those long and bloody wars were, first, that military success requires determined and remorseless assault on the enemy without concern for civilians caught in the crossfire. Second, the Russians learned that possibilities for political compromise wane the longer the fighting continues, as losses fuel the rise of extremists into the enemy leadership, hence the endgame virtually requires the imposition of a tough regime.

In its year-old Syria intervention, the Kremlin has applied both of those lessons without compunction. The concentrated military attack on rebel-held sections of Aleppo, which the world is witnessing this week, follows the playbook under which Grozny and other Chechen cities were systematically razed by massive aerial and artillery barrages at first, then by concerted ground assault, from the outset of the second Chechen war in 1999. The Russian insistence that there are no “moderate” rebels in Syria after five years of savage conflict – and the almost contemptuous “show me” dismissal of US claims to the contrary by Russian spokespeople – derives from their own experience, in which they wiped out most reasonable Chechen nationalist leaders in the first Chechen war (1994-96).

“It is an absolute certainty in the minds of Russian leaders that if you have a military goal, you need to use all available means to achieve it,” says Alexander Golts, an independent security expert. “If civilian targets are in the way, you smash through them.”

Russia was effectively defeated in the first Chechen war and was forced to sign a humiliating truce, with the promise of future independence with Chechen leaders in 1996. But Chechnya subsequently descended into chaos, Islamist extremists backed by Al Qaeda came to the fore, and in 1999 they invaded the neighbouring Russian republic of Dagestan. A series of terrorist apartment bombings, blamed on Chechens, killed hundreds of Russians in Moscow and other cities. By coincidence, that turbulent autumn of 1999 also saw Vladimir Putin rise to leadership in Russia.

“The first Chechen war was a terrible humiliation, and the failure of Russian forces was blamed on [the pro-Western government of Boris] Yeltsin for not using all possible means to defeat the insurgency,” says Golts. “When the second war was launched, they corrected that mistake.”

Brutal it may be, he says, but no one has ever found a gentle way to defeat fanatical jihadists. “All the experience of Western countries over the past 50 years shows that you cannot defeat guerrillas any other way,” than by crushing them, he adds.

In the second conflict, all-out Russian military assault destroyed rebel resistance and drove insurgent remnants into the Caucasus Mountains, where tiny bands of them still hide out to this day. Mass terror attacks by rebels on Russian cities, which were frequent early in that conflict, have since almost completely stopped.

The Russians also introduced an effective political end game in Chechnya in the form of an iron-fisted local strongman, former rebel Ramzan Kadyrov, who imposed total control over the tiny republic in Moscow’s name, co-opting former insurgents who would join him, killing the others.

“Of course in Chechnya, Russia had a free hand to do whatever it wanted,” says Alexander Gabuev, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. “It used force as it felt necessary, then rammed through its own version of a reconciliation process under Kadyrov. Syria is a far more complicated situation, there are many forces beyond Moscow’s control, and it has to move more cautiously. But tactics are similar. And as for the insurgents, Moscow never saw any consolidated moderate opposition in Syria capable of being an alternative to the Assad regime. All subsequent events have only confirmed the Russian view that there is no one to talk to in the Syrian opposition.”

A tracking poll carried out by the independent Levada Center in Moscow suggests that Russian public opinion has grown progressively more appreciative of the Kremlin’s heavy-handed settlement of the Chechnya uprising. The number of Russians agreeing that the second war accomplished “all its goals” rose from 8% in 2007 to 20% on the 15th anniversary of the war in 2014. In 2014 another 35% thought it “partially accomplished” its objectives but has not removed the threat of future rebellions; while just 21 percent thought the war was “useless”.

The Russian public also appears to have accepted the Kremlin view that intervention in Syria is necessary to keep terrorism away from Russia’s borders. A poll conducted by the state-funded VTsIOM public opinion agency found that support for the decision to go into Syria rose from 66% a year ago to 70% last March. Among Russian men, support was 80%.

“The Russian leadership may have had various geopolitical reasons for starting that operation in Syria, but the principal one is to fight and destroy Islamist terrorism away from our borders,” says Alexander Khramchikhin, deputy director of the independent Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow. “From the pure military viewpoint, the operation is an obvious success. If we hadn’t decided to fight them in Syria, we would have to face a much harder threat in our own neighbourhood down the road.”

Fred Weir is a senior Moscow-based journalist.

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