The head of the southern Russian region of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has denied media reports that he deployed troops to Syria to fight on the side of President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, the Kremlin and the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russia's parliament, have been forced to explain footage of Russian forces fighting in Syria recently aired during a prime-time TV show.
The Kremlin has repeatedly claimed that Russia’s involvement in Syria is limited to air support for the Syrian government forces, and that Russian troops have not been, and will not be, involved in ground operations.
But on Sunday, a weekly show on state television hosted by Dmitry Kiselev, the head of Russia’s Sputnik international broadcasting corporation, featured footage of Russian commandos in combat operations in Syria.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on the footage, redirecting inquiries to the Defense Ministry.
The head of the Federation Council's defense and security committee, Viktor Ozerov, did comment on the footage. He claimed the ground operations by Russian special forces in Syria are “aimed at destroying terrorists” and therefore do not require parliamentary approval.
On December 7, the independent Dozhd (Rain) TV channel, citing an unnamed source in the Chechen government, announced that Chechen special forces were being deployed to Syria. Dozhd posted amateur video footage featuring a group of Chechen soldiers identified as “military police” listening to the parting words of Chechnya’s Mufti (highest Muslim authority), Salakh Mejiyev, prior to their departure for Syria.
Speaking in Chechen, Mufti Mejiev says, as translated by Dozhd: “Kadyrov asked Putin to send him there. He said he wishes to go there to save Muslims. I swear by Allah, many wish to go there and our ruler is the first among them. People envy those who are going there, as you are.”
Russia’s Izvestia newspaper reported that two Chechen battalions specially trained to fight terrorists have been deployed to Syria. According to Izvestia’s sources, the Chechen battalions will be providing security for Russia’s military base located in Latakia province.
In a post on his personal Instagram feed, Kadyrov denied he has dispatched troops to Syria. “It is very well known that Russian forces do not participate in ground operations in Syria.”
Despite Kadyrov’s denial, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty posted a video on YouTube last week showing members of Chechnya's special forces in their signature uniforms and red berets, gathered at the Khankala military base outside the Chechen capital of Grozny. In the video, labeled, in Russian, “Kadyrov's (i.e. Chechen) special forces deployed to Syria,” the troops chat in their native Chechen (with Russian subtitles).
Experts say this is not the first deployment of Chechens to Syria.
“There are already about 600 Chechen government troops practically since last year,” Milrad Fatullayev, chief editor of the RIA Derbent state news agency told VOA. While there are numerous reliable sources confirming the deployment of Chechen special forces to Syria, there is very little information about the use of Chechen troops in actual combat.
“It is possible they are being used in mopping-up operations and in rough terrain, just like... in Georgia,” Fatullayev said, referring to Russia's military intervention in Georgia in 2008.
Ironically, it was Ramzan Kadyrov who first announced and then denied the involvement of Chechen government troops in combat operations in Syria.
In an interview with Rossiya-24 state television last February, Kadyrov said that Chechen special forces are fighting the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq “from within.” He also spoke for the first time of losses those troops are suffering in the Middle East.
The Kremlin categorically denied Kadyrov's claim that Chechen forces are fighting in Syria. After that, Kadyrov’s representative Alvi Karimov declared: “Ramzan Kadyrov never said that Chechen forces are fighting in Syria.”
According to Chechnya’s official television channel, Grozny TV, Chechen special forces have been intensively training under the supervision of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. In February 2015, the Chechen government started building a training facility for special troops in Chechnya's Gudermes district.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, believes the Kremlin benefits by the deployment of Chechen troops, given that a "majority of Russians do not really consider Chechnya or the Chechens as truly Russian, so potential Chechen casualties in Syria will not cause unwanted alarm or tension among the general population.”
Meanwhile, the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website reported Tuesday that 12 soldiers stationed at the Khankala base in Chechnya have been dismissed from military service for refusing to deploy to Syria. The website cited unnamed "Chechen sources."