Volgograd bombings shed light on Russia’s “Chechen” approach to Syria

ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH Investigators work at the site of a blast on a trolleybus in Volgograd December 30, 2013. A bomb blast ripped a trolleybus apart in Volgograd on Monday, killing 14 people in the second deadly attack in the southern city in two days and raising fears of further violence as Russia prepares to host the Winter Olympics. REUTERS/Stringer (RUSSIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CRIME LAW DISASTER TRANSPORT) TEMPLATE OUT


Investigators work at the site of a blast on a trolleybus in Volgograd December 30, 2013. A bomb blast ripped a trolleybus apart in Volgograd on Monday, killing 14 people in the second deadly attack in the southern city in two days and raising fears of further violence as Russia prepares to host the Winter Olympics. REUTERS/Stringer

An article I originally wrote for WOZ Die Wochenzeitung, which was not published in the end. A shorter version was published in Italian for Europa Quotidiano on 19 January 2014. The subheading of the Italian version emphasizes the role of the Gulf monarchies in backing al-Qaeda factions in Syria, which is a bit of a simplification, in my opinion (the reality is more nuanced, some Gulf rulers are not particularly supportive of Islamist factions, in some cases it’s more about private Gulf citizens, religious preachers, etc.). The English version I wrote for WOZ went deeper in analysing the similarities between Chechnya and Syria. I am copying both texts below. 

(January 8, 2014) Between the 29th and the 30th of December 2013, two twin blasts hit the Russian city of Volgograd, resulting in the death of 33 people and 85 injuries. Most analysts link the bombings to a backlash of the Russian stance on Syria: in particular, the speculations hint at the involvement of the Saudis, on the basis of the meetings held between Putin and the Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan in August 2013. According to the content of the talks leaked to the Russian press and the Lebanese daily As-Safir, Bandar was turned off despite the set of economic, political and military deals offered to the Kremlin, including the containment of a Chechen insurgent network financed by Riyadh, in exchange for the end of the Russian support for Bashar al-Asad.

After the Americans – the historical ally of the Gulf kingdom – failed to fulfill their promise to intervene militarily against the use of chemical weapons in Syria in August 2013 and they reached a nuclear agreement in November with Iran – regional nemesis of Saudi Arabia – the Volgograd bombings look like the tail strike of an isolated Riyadh.

However, the interests served by the Volgograd bombings stretch to include even the opponents of Riyadh, the Syrian regime and Moscow. Russia might have preferred to fight the Chechen mujahidin in Syria rather than back home, but it would be naive to assume the Kremlin didn’t expect a blowback “bred” in the Syrian training camps.

In an op-ed published on January 2 on the website Ra’i al-Yawm (Today’s Opinion), the veteran editor in chief of the pan Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi, Abdul-Bari ‘Atwan, points out how the Syrian opposition has actually been weakened by the Volgograd attacks, which are likely to set the so-called “War on Terror” rather than the replacement of Bashra al-Asad as the priority of the upcoming Geneva II peace talks (scheduled on January 22). The negotiations are in fact due to happen in a tense regional situation dominated by the escalation of al-Qa’ida-linked attacks in Lebanon, the al-qa’idist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ad-Dawla al-Islamiyya fil-‘Iraq wa Bilad as-Sham, known in English as ISIS) persistent sway over Northern Syria and its recent conquest of the city of Fallujah in Western Iraq. This means that the vision of Damascus and Moscow on the Syrian uprising, which equates it to a foreign-backed destabilization of the regional security, is likely to prevail.

‘Atwan suggests that “those who planned the bombings might have taken [the blow to the Syrian opposition] in consideration.” In relation to this, it ought to be reminded that the strongest battalion of Caucasian mujahidin – the Army of Migrants and Supporters (Jaiysh Muhajirin wa al-Ansar) led by the emir Abu Omar as-Shishani, who is a Chechen from Georgia – has recently merged into ISIS. This latter faction has been accused of having been infiltrated by the regime from all sides: Syrian activists, the Western-friendly armed rebels of the Free Syrian Army, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and even the Salafi Islamic Front (al-Jabhat al-Islamiyya), which is currently fighting a newly erupted war against ISIS. During my stay in Syria in 2013, I gathered witness accounts on Ahmad Muhammad “Abu Rami”, the former Syrian military intelligence chief in Rmaylan (North-Eastern Syria), who allegedly joined the rows of the al-qa’idist Jabhat an-Nusra in November 2012. Numerous Jabhat an-Nusra’s fighters subsequently joined ISIS after its rise to prominence in 2013. The ties between the Syrian regime and the al-qa’idist networks in Iraq at the time of the US occupation are also a matter of fact, and some of the commanders of the major Islamist factions active in Syria today have been “surprisingly” granted amnesty in May 2011, a few months after the outbreak of the uprising. All these factors bring grist to the mill of a Syrian-Russian coordination to stage a false flag attack in Volgograd.

As usual, the truth is exclusively known behind the curtains of intelligence circles, but the Volgograd bombings should convince more observers of the large extent to which the Chechen wars (1994-2009)- and the Caucasian separatism in general- shaped the Russian policies on Syria. As already observed by the Brooking Institution Senior Fellow Fiona Hill in a piece appeared in Foreign Affairs in March 2013, Putin crushed the Chechen insurgencies to prevent what he envisaged as a Balkanization of Russia. And Syria doesn’t look that different to him: it needs the Russian support to maintain national integrity and crush an Islamist-led rebellion, since the Americans would probably behave like in Afghanistan and Lybia, supporting a regime change at the cost of seeing “terrorists” in power.

In February 2012, I met in Istanbul ‘Ammar al-Qurabi, one of the most televised figures of the Syrian opposition, and he confessed me how Georgia was crucial to any shift in the Russian position on Syria already in 2011. Qurabi met with a delegation of Duma representatives in November 2011 and he was told that the US was required to stop interfering in the Russian interests in Georgia.

There are also some striking similarities between the Caucasus and Syria in the religious radicalization of the rebels, as Wahhabism was not popular in Chechnya until the Gulf sponsors started to channel ideology and funds into the Caucasian battlefields. Syria and Chechnya were home to a wide range of moderate Sufi schools, until the Gulf monarchies exported their brand of orthodox Islamism in a bid to support armed resistance. The most well-known Chechen emir fighting in Syria nowadays, ISIS Abu Omar al-Shishani, is believed to be sponsored by the Kuwaiti Salafi preacher Hajaj bin Fahad al-‘Ajmi.
Even the security solution (al-hall al-amniyy) adopted in Syria to crush the uprising has clearly resembled the atrocities committed by Moscow in dealing with the Caucasian insurgents: Chechen families were prevented from burying their dear ones killed by the Russian army and the snipers were regularly deployed to “enforce” this ban. In June 2012, the Syrian director Haytham al-Haqqi wrote for the Pan Arab daily Al-Hayat that it would be enough to replace “Syrian” with “Chechen” in the official statements of the Russian FM Sergej Lavrov to realize that it’s the same old discourse: “the army is legitimately intervening to rescue civilians from terrorists.”

 

Le Olimpiadi di Sochi e la “Syria connection” degli attentati in Russia

L’ombra delle monarchie del Golfo – finanziatrici di al Qaeda in Siria – dietro la nuova ondata di attentati nel sud della Russia

Il 17 gennaio un nuovo attentato ha causato il ferimento di 14 persone a Makhachkala, in Russia, nella repubblica meridionale del Dagestan, una delle roccaforti degli insorti islamici caucasici insieme all’Inguscezia e alla Cecenia. L’attacco fa seguito alla doppia esplosione di Volgograd (29-30 dicembre), che ha causato la morte di 33 persone e 85 feriti. Il tutto a ridosso dei giochi olimpici invernali in programma a Sochi dal 7 febbraio.

La maggioranza degli analisti riconducono gli attentati alla posizione della Russia sul conflitto in corso in Siria: in particolare, i sospetti puntano in direzione di un coinvolgimento saudita, sulla base degli incontri avvenuti tra agosto e dicembre tra Vladimir Putin e il capo dell’intelligence saudita Bandar Bin Sultan. Secondo quanto è stato rivelato al quotidiano libanese As-Safir il 21 agosto scorso, i tentativi del principe Bandar di porre fine al sostegno russo del regime di Bashar al Assad sarebbero infatti falliti, nonostante le offerte economiche, militari e politiche comprendessero la neutralizzazione di una rete di ribelli ceceni finanziata dalla petromonarchia.
Gli attentati di Volgograd sembrerebbero pertanto il colpo di coda di un’Arabia Saudita isolata, tradita dall’alleato storico statunitense, venuto meno alle sue promesse d’intervento militare in Siria a seguito dell’uso di armamenti chimici in agosto e riconciliatosi con l’arcinemico di Riyad, l’Iran, tramite l’accordo sul nucleare siglato a novembre.

Tuttavia, gli attentati di Volgograd e del Dagestan giocano paradossalmente a vantaggio di Mosca e Damasco. Sebbene alla Russia non fosse dispiaciuto “delocalizzare” il conflitto caucasico in Siria, divenuta catalizzatore di centinaia di mujahidin russi unitisi alle file dei ribelli, il Cremlino aveva di certo tenuto in conto il ritorno in patria dei combattenti.

In un editoriale del caporedattore del quotidiano panarabo Al-Quds al-Arabi, Abdul-Bari al ‘Atwan, pubblicato il 2 gennaio sul sito Ra’i al-Yawm (L’Opinione del Giorno), si sottolinea come l’opposizione siriana esca indebolita dagli attentati di Volgograd: la priorità degli imminenti negoziati di Ginevra II (22 gennaio) è infatti diventata la guerra al “terrorismo” piuttosto che la deposizione di Bashar al Assad, in un contesto regionale dominato dagli attentati di matrice qaedista in Libano, dalla persistente influenza dei qaedisti dello Stato islamico dell’Iraq e del Levante (Isis l’acronimo inglese) nel nord della Siria e dalla loro recente conquista della città di Fallujah, nell’Iraq occidentale.

Ciò significa che la visione di Mosca e Damasco sulla rivoluzione siriana, ridotta a destabilizzazione della sicurezza regionale finanziata da varie potenze internazionali, potrebbe avere la meglio al tavolo dei negoziati. Come suggerito da ‘Atwan, lasciando supporre un coinvolgimento di forze alleate al regime siriano, «chi ha pianificato la realizzazione degli attentati potrebbe aver tenuto questo [danno inflitto all’opposizione siriana] in considerazione».

Al di là dell’identità dei perpetratori, nota esclusivamente alle sfere dell’intelligence internazionale, gli attacchi verificatisi in Russia ricordano la stretta connessione tra il separatismo caucasico e la posizione del Cremlino sulla Siria. Come già osservato dalla studiosa Fiona Hill della Brookings Institution, in un articolo pubblicato da Foreign Affairs a marzo del 2013, Putin guidò la repressione della seconda insurrezione cecena (1999-2009) spinto dalla convinzione di lottare contro la balcanizzazione della Russia. Ai suoi occhi, la Siria non è poi così diversa: necessita il sostegno di Mosca per preservare l’integrità territoriale e reprimere una rivolta guidata da “terroristi” islamici.

Il 29 febbraio 2012, a Istanbul, Europa aveva appreso da ‘Ammar al Qurabi, uno dei volti televisivi più noti dell’opposizione siriana, come la Georgia – e quindi il Caucaso in generale – fossero cruciali ai fini di un cambiamento della posizione russa sulla Siria già dal 2011: nel corso di un incontro con Qurabi del novembre 2011, la delegazione della Duma aveva infatti posto tra le condizioni la fine delle interferenze statunitensi in Georgia.

Tra Cecenia e Siria, non sfuggono poi le somiglianze nella radicalizzazione religiosa dei ribelli. L’ortodossia wahhabita – corrente ultraconservatrice dell’islam nata in Arabia saudita – non era affatto diffusa nella repubblica caucasica finché le monarchie del Golfo non hanno iniziato a sostenere la causa dei mujahidin: la Siria e la Cecenia erano al contrario terreni fertili di numerose correnti moderate di sufismo.

Attualmente, stando a quanto riportato da uno dei massimi esperti di Siria, il professor Joshua Landis, il principale comandante ceceno attivo in Siria, l’emiro dell’Isis Abu ‘Omar al Shishani, viene finanziato dal predicatore salafita kuwaitiano Hajaj bin Fahad al ‘Ajmi. Il regime siriano sembra poi aver trovato una fonte d’ispirazione anche nelle tecniche repressive adoperate da Mosca: alle famiglie cecene veniva infatti impedito di seppellire i familiari uccisi dall’esercito russo, pena la morte incombente dai cecchini appollaiati sui tetti.

Il 16 giugno 2012, il regista siriano Haytham al Haqqi ha scritto in un articolo pubblicato dal quotidiano panarabo Al-Hayat che basterebbe sostituire il termine “siriano” con “ceceno” nelle dichiarazioni sulla Siria del ministro degli esteri russo Sergej Lavrov per accorgersi di come si tratti dello stesso vecchio discorso: «L’esercito è legittimato a intervenire per salvare i civili dai terroristi».

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