The involvement of Syrian fighters in other conflicts has sparked numerous speculations regarding their potential role in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Contrarily, there was not much debate about the potential role foreign jihadists fighters in Syria could play in Europe.
This narrow focus is why the recent news about Chechen fighters leaving Syria to fight against Russia in Ukraine was a surprise to many. But in hindsight, such a development should have been expected due to the near absence of fighting in Syria, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s (HTS) hostility towards jihadist factions, and Ukraine’s welcoming attitude.
Like other foreign fighters, Chechens were among the first volunteers to join the fight against the Syrian regime. The first Chechen faction was established in Syria in 2012 by Umar Al-Shishani, an infamous Chechen commander who became the Islamic State’s minister of war the year after.
In addition to joining groups like IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the precursor of HTS, Chechen fighters formed their own groups. Chiefly among them is Junud Al-Sham, led by Muslim Al-Shishani and Ajnad Al-Kavkaz, headed by Abdulhakim Al-Shishani.
Skilled, brave fighters
The exact number of Chechen fighters in Syria is not clear however local sources told me that they now number just a few hundred but that at one point there were several thousand. Even with their humble number, Chechen fighters in Syria quickly gained a reputation as skilled, dedicated and brave fighters.
Despite their crucial role in fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the Chechen fighters no longer seem to be welcome in northwest areas.
The ongoing ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia in March 2020 has turned independent foreign fighters residing in rebel-held areas from an asset into a threat or a liability, especially for HTS, the defector rulers of the majority of northwest Syria.