On Friday, Time published some remarks by Andrei Klimov, a leading Russian legislator (and not to be confused with the undefeated lightweight boxer of that name), which indicated why Russia is going ahead with supplying anti-aircraft and anti-naval (“ship-killer”) missiles to the Assad regime, despite requests from the US and Israel to halt the shipments. In sum, Klimov presented the move as an attempt to ensure that outside force is not used to end the Assad regime in Syria without a political solution freely chosen by Assad and his allies (Russia and Iran most notably among them). Klimov signaled distrust of the US particularly and regret over the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya which turned a “no-fly zone” into direct attacks on Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi‘s forces.
President Obama’s recent decision to rule out unilateral US involvement in Syria probably speaks to Moscow’s concerns. But commentators have criticized Obama for this move, and have criticized Secretary of State Kerry and others for their failure to budge Moscow’s policy of arming the Assad regime (as if it were in their power to do so).
One additional aspect of the ongoing civil war in Syria which may worry Moscow, which was not mentioned by Klimov, could either prompt additional military support for the regime or hesitancy about pouring more weapons into Syria. That is the Chechen element in the jihadi Syrian rebel groups. The commander of the Muhajireen Brigade is Abu Omar al-Shishani, a Chechen Islamist who has previously fought against Russia in his native Chechnya, and other Islamist groups are employing Chechen fighters. It was even rumored that the two abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo were abducted by Chechens. A month ago Mark Galeotti documented other instances of Chechen involvement in Syria, and the potential Russian government concern over the subject, in a post which deserves to be more widely known.
The effects of the Chechen concern may turn on how confident Russia is that the Assad regime can ensure that the Russian weapons do not fall into the hands of rebels. Rebel forces have captured weapons and ammunition, even tanks, from the regime in the past, and used them against Assad’s own forces. Especially with Israel openly threatening Assad with additional air strikes, the possibility of Assad’s forces spreading themselves thinner in order to respond to further Israeli attacks raises the possibility for further rebel gains against the regime forces, and thus for capturing Russian missiles.
While any captured anti-aircraft weapons would mostly likely stay in Syria to be used against the regime (and the Russian navy need not fear any “ship-killer” missiles launched from mountainous Chechnya), after the end of the war (whether jihadis take over Syria or are forced to withdraw) any captured weapons might make their way out to be used in Chechnya against Russian government forces there. Just as the US has been wary of supplying weapons to the Free Syrian Army which might make their way into al-Qa’ida‘s hands, thence to be used by al-Qa’ida in attacks against the US, so the Russian-supplied arms to Assad might be captured in battle by jihadi militants with Chechen connections.
Russia might respond to this possibility in various ways. It might decide to intervene more directly in Syria to prop up the Assad regime against the Chechen jihadi rebels, for example. Or it may decide that future weapons shipments to the Syrian regime should not contain more powerful weapons that, if removed to acontext, could threaten its own forces. Mark Galeotti suggested that the existence of Chechen jihadi fighters moving from one hotspot to another may mean that Russia will consider the prolongation of the conflict in its own domestic best interest. But the Chechen connection certainly complicates both Russian involvement in the Syrian Civil War and Western attempts to sway Russian support away from the Assad regime.