Damascus: In 2014, a Daesh video went viral on the internet. It showed a group of foreign fighters gathered around a bonfire. One by one they showed their passports to the camera before throwing them to the flames, clearly with a vengeance, making a pledge to their new country, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Some of the passports were easily recognisable; green Saudi, burgundy British, navy blue Jordanian and maroon Chechen. The fighters’ former lives were gone, and so were their passports: there was no turning back on their terrorist programme. There was only one state for them now and it was that of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.
Before 2010, tourists complained that locals spoke very little English on the streets of Syria. Now, although the tourists are gone, a colourful assortment of foreign languages can be heard on the streets of Syrian cities under rebel control: English, French, German, Chechen, Tajik, Urdu, Chinese and more recently, Persian and Russian as well in regime-held territory.
Even colourful North African dialects can now be found in Syria. Haraket Sham Al Islam, for example, is a non-Syrian militia created by three Moroccans in July 2014, all one-time Guantanamo inmates. It now boasts of five hundred fighters from Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria.
Many rebels are worried about what the future has in store, amidst reports of a Russian military build-up on the Syrian coast, starting this September. There is no specific number as to how many Russians are presently in Syria, with some reports citing hundreds and others saying that “up to one thousand” will arrive by next Christmas.
Media reports are saying that Chinese military personnel are on their way to Syria as well. The Russians say they have been asked to join the war in Syria to aid in the fight against Daesh.
While doing so, however, they probably will strike at other rebels in the countryside of Aleppo, Latakia, and Damascus. This is huge. Never since the Second World War has the Russian Army engaged in combat outside its Soviet sphere, including Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968.
Moscow did deploy troops in both Cuba and Egypt but not to engage in direct combat. Even Afghanistan in 1979 was still within Soviet geography, via borders with present-day former Soviet satellites. Syria therefore is the first real “overseas” operation for the Russian Army since 1945.
Russian military support will, in the words of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al Mua’alem, “turn the tables” in the Syrian battlefield. Russian troops won’t carry guns and actually enter into street battles like Hezbollah did since 2012. That would be military suicide for Vladimir Putin. They will fly the skies, however, and they have already started providing satellite images to their Syrian allies, increasing precision of air strikes, and will provide Mi-24 attack helicopters, drones, fighter jets, air defence systems, and other high-tech equipment.
According to American intelligence firm Stratfor, Russian tanks are now in Syria, likely T-90s, along with several BTR-80 armoured personnel carriers. Nearly 30 different airplanes have also been identified, spread out along the main runway of the Latakia airport. Some reports have cited 200 Russian officers in Syria, ranging from jet pilots to military personnel.
President Putin was hoping to score a swift and small victory against Daesh in Syria before he addressed the United Nations General Assembly on September 28. The plan was for Syrian troops to defeat Daesh at some positions before the end of the month; either the Kuwaires Airport near Aleppo or at the ancient city of Palmyra, which fell into Daesh hands last May.
Had Putin succeeded in restoring Palmyra before showing up in the United States for his first visit in 15 years, then it would have resonated extremely well in the international community, giving a legitimacy blanket to his Syrian engagement and projecting him as the man who defeated Daesh (if only partially).
Putin arrived at the UN with an “Al Assad deposit” in his pocket, according to the London daily Al Hayat. A political strategy is now on the table, drawn up by his allies in Damascus.
The strategy calls for a “cabinet of national unity” with Moscow-sanctioned opposition figures; namely those who attended Moscow I-II, sharing power with the Baath.
They would supervise early parliamentary elections in Damascus (currently set for May 2016) and then unite efforts politically in the war on Daesh. Speaking to CBS, Putin added: “There is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism.”
“Terrorism” is a flexible word, however, and Putin can stretch it to include whatever he sees fit on the Syrian battlefield. His main targets will be Daesh and Jabhat Al Nusra, and he has already established contact with Kurdish parties to help him in his war against Daesh, within places like Qamishli. He won’t fire at military groups that have received funding from the United States like the Hazm Movement, Jaish Al Mujahideen and Asala wa Al Tanmiya in the Aleppo countryside, but might strike at those who have given the Syrians a headache — Ahrar Al Sham in the Idlib province and Jaish Al Islam in Al Ghouta around Damascus.
His main target, however, will no doubt be Jaish Al Muhajireen wa Al Ansar, created in 2012 by Abu Omar Al Shishani, an Islamist fighter who had fought the Russians in the second Chechen War.
Putin wants him dead or alive. The Chechen Garrison in the Syrian War has no more than 1,000 troops, making it among the smallest, but its men are renowned for their ferocity, tenacity and military prowess.
After pledging allegiance to Al Baghdadi, Al Shishani was appointed commander of Daesh’s Northern Front.
Syrian rebels value him because of his military skills and Al Baghdadi trusts him because Al Shishani’s power base is thin and he would never challenge him within Daesh. His support has alienated the other Chechen warlord and former ally, Salah Al Deen Al Shishani who defected to join Jabhat Al Nusra in late 2013. Last week Jaish Al Muhajireen pledged allegiance to Al Nusra.
For now, the only rebel response has been a tweet from Abu Abdullah Taftanaz of Liwa Al Haqq in Northern Syria, addressing “infidel Russians.” He threatened to “slaughter you like pigs.” Global terrorist websites claim that Chechen fighters are flocking to Latakia and Tartous to single out the Russian newcomers and start the fight with them, before President Putin orders it.
— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of ‘Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad’ (IB Tauris, 2015).