Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 6, 2015

Syria, Chechnya, and the jihadist gambit

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 11:58 pm

For the longest time now I’ve been making the point that Bashar al-Assad seems to have adopted Putin’s scorched earth military/political strategy in Chechnya. After reading the introduction to Jonathan Littell’s “Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising”, a new Verso book (good for them), I’ve discovered that there’s more there than just the near-genocidal blitzkrieg aspect. Remember how Bashar al-Assad released the jihadists from prison who would go on to provide the shock troops for ISIS? Well, it turns out that this was a gambit used in Chechnya as well:

Jonathan Littell:

Playing the extremists against the moderates — the basic idea being that, having little or no social base, radical forces will be easy to eliminate once they have helped with the far harder job of crushing a main opponent deeply rooted in society — is a strategy that certainly has its lettres de noblesse. Practiced ineptly, as it usually is, it has an unfortunate tendency to turn against its initiators, as in the case of Israel when it quietly fostered the rise of Hamas in the hope of bringing down Arafat’s PLO, or the United States when it armed the more radical jihadists against the Soviets in Afghanistan, sealing the doom of the moderate mujahideen factions and unleashing forces still not contained to this day. But on occasions it can bring a measure of success, at least in the short term. Chechnya is a case in point. After Russia’s humiliating defeat there, in August 1996, at the hands of a few thousand rebels armed only with Kalashnikovs and RPGs, the Russian special services, FSB (the successor organization to the KGB) and GRU (military intelligence), immediately began preparing the grounds for the next conflict. The three years during which a de facto independent Chechnya managed its own affairs rapidly turned into a dis-aster: the systematic kidnappings of foreign journalists and aid workers, culminating in the spectacular decapitation of four British and New Zealander telecom engineers in December 1998 by the well-known Islamist commander Arbi Barayev, ruined any good will abroad for Chechnya and generated an effective media blockade as journalists ceased travelling there; rising political and even military pressure by rogue Islamist rebel groups on the freely elected nationalist president Asian Maskhadov forced him to radicalize his position, eventually declaring a “shari`a law” no one really wanted or even understood; further decapitations of Russian captives and other atrocities, conveniently filmed by their Islamist perpetrators, continued to feed Russian anti-Chechen propaganda, with compilations of these videos being distributed to all foreign embassies at the start of the 1999 reinvasion of Chechnya to help justify the inev-itable excesses of the “anti-terrorist operation.”

What followed is well known: the total destruction of Groznyi, the mass killings and disappearances, the waves of refugees. What is less so, though it has been extensively documented by a handful of courageous Russian journal-ists, is the sinister pas-de-deux played by the special services and the Islamists throughout the years. This is no place to go into details, but a few examples might serve. Documents leaked by frustrated GRU (military intelligence) officials to the Russian media revealed that the FSB (successor to the KGB)  paid Barayev 12 million dollars, out-bidding the four telecom engineers’ employers, to have them gruesomely killed in a manner maximizing the propaganda impact; in the spring of 2000, after the Federal Forces had occupied Chechnya, Chechen colleagues of mine saw Barayev — officially one of the most wanted men of Russia — freely driving through Russian checkpoints using an FSB accreditation; and it was only when his chief FSB protector, Rear-Admiral German Ugryumov, mysteriously died in May 2001 that the GRU was finally able to corner him, in an FSB base, and kill him. On a military level, when Groznyi finally fell in late January 2000, the Russian services manipulated or paid the Islamist rebel groups, which had been sent ahead to the mountains to prepare the withdrawal of the remaining forces from the city, to betray their comrades, leading to the nationalist forces being decimated during the retreat. The evidence is also strong for a form of direct complicity, or at least mutual manipulation, between the ser-v ices and the Chechen Islamist commando that occupied a Moscow theater in October 2002, resulting in the death of over a hundred hostages and further discrediting president Maskhadov and his remaining guerilla forces. In spite of a succession of disastrous incidents, the most notorious being the hideous school massacre in Beslan in September 2003, this insidious strategy would bear fruit: after Maskhadov was finally killed, during a Russian operation in 2005, his successor Doku Umarov renounced the drive for national independence in favor of the creation of a pan-Caucasian Islamic Caliphate — a move that drove virtually all the remaining nationalist commanders into the arms of Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s puppet in Chechnya, thus bringing to an effective and squalid end the long-held Chechen dream of independence. Chechen rebel activity has now been reduced to almost nothing, and Doku Umarov was killed in turn toward the end of 2013; the fact that the Islamist uprising continues unabated in neighboring regions, especially Daghestan, seems to be considered by Russia as a “manageable” problem, for now.

It would be tempting, given this history, to see the hand of Bashar al-Assad’s Russian advisors in the shop-worn idea of allowing radicalized Islamist factions totally to discredit the popular revolt, all the more so as the wave of kidnap-pings and murders of foreign observers that accompanied the rise of the Islamists closely resembles the Chechnya model. There are also some potentially direct links. The appearance in the Syrian theater of several Chechen brigades, aligned either with Jabhat al-Nusra or Da`esh, has gained quite a bit of media attention, as has the main “Chechen” commander `Umar al-Shishani, now a military emir of Da`esh, who is in fact a former Georgian special forces officer of mixed Christian-Muslim descent whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili. Less well known, how-ever, is the fact that behind Omar al-Shishani stands a certain Isa Umarov, who left Chechnya to join him in Da`esh territory and has given him his daughter in mar-riage. Umarov, one of the oldest and most influential (albeit highly discrete) Chechen Islamist leaders, whose links to the KGB go all the way back to the 1980s when he was one of the founders of the Islamic Rebirth Party, the first anti-Soviet Islamist organization, is a man who played a key role in the interaction between the Russian services and the Islamists he godfathered all through the two Chechen wars; and his role within Da`esh certainly raises interesting questions. But as a Syrian friend pointed out to me, the mukhabarat too are old hands at these games, and have no need of lessons from their Russian patrons. Their strategic philosophy is explicitly stated in graffiti now very common around Damascus: “Assad or we burn the country.”



  1. Although it’s certainly debatable, one of the greatest revolutionary socialist thinkers born into the 20th century Trotskyist movement was the late Sam Marcy. Despite his faults, one of his most undeniably valuable legacies was, near the end of his life, educating all who would care to read or listen, documenting the depth of the utterly racist undeniable holocaust unleashed by the Christian dominated Kremlin in Moscow upon the Muslim dominated Chechen’s in Grozny. Marcy considered these war crimes committed after capitalist restoration in the USSR among the greatest in a century packed with war crimes and he baked it up with historical facts & figures in a context not only of Great Russian Chauvinism but the Imperialist Militarism of finance capital in an age of Triumph.

    Mysteriously, however, it’s impossible today to find these writings by Marcy despite the excellent archives of the WWP, the party which he founded? This is certainly strange since he wrote about the Chechen war crimes from when they started in ’94 until he died in ’98?

    You can, however, glean the spirit of his writings on this subject through one of his faithful stalwarts back in 2004 which is worth reading:



    Behind the disaster in southern Russia

    By Deirdre Griswold

    When President Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Soviet Union in 1991, it was to the cheers of the entire Western capitalist political establishment and media. Their universal prognosis was that the introduction of a capitalist market and private ownership of the means of production in the territories of the former USSR would vastly benefit all the peoples. The release of individual initiative combined with Western democratic forms of rule would bring prosperity and freedom to those “behind the Iron Curtain.”

    The well-being of the people–that was supposed to have been the main U.S. aim in the incredibly costly 45-year “Cold War” against the Soviet Union.

    Those rosy predictions have all turned to ashes. From time to time over the past decade, subdued news reports have appeared in the West with alarming statistics showing that in the vast area of the former Soviet Union, where a planned economy had once provided jobs, free health care and education for nearly 300 million people, life expectancy was dropping and the population declining. This reflected the fact that infant mortality, curable diseases, unemployment, prostitution, drug abuse, organized crime, ethnic antagonisms and civil wars had all surged upward.

    But these statistics were mere abstractions and caused little comment. The human suffering they represented was certainly not brought to the attention of the workers in the major imperialist countries by any of the capitalist media.

    Now come the horrendous events in Breslan, North Ossetia–a small region in southern Russia near Chechnya–where on Sept. 3 more than 350 people were killed, including many children, as Russian forces stormed a school in which over 1,000 students, parents and teachers had been taken hostage by an armed group. Suddenly the media are swarming all over the area, sending back heart-breaking reports on the dead and wounded children and their grieving families.

    But of course they are saying nothing about the role that capitalist counter-revolution has played in these events.

    This terrible tragedy followed the downing of two passenger planes, apparently by suicide bombers, and an attempt to bomb a Moscow subway. The combined death toll of all these recent attacks was over 500. The Russian government says they are the work of Chechen separatists, but the Russian news agency Novosti reports the hostage-takers at the school also included Dagestanis, Tatars, Kazakhs and even Koreans. About half a million Koreans live in this area, having immigrated in the last century.

    A decade of war in Chechnya

    Since 1994, Russia has been conducting a devastating war against Chechnya, whose oil and strategic location for a pipeline from the energy-rich Caspian Sea have drawn the attention of the imperialists. The Russian government’s aim is to keep Chechnya from seceding, which it fears could set off other secessionist movements in the area.

    The estimates of how many people have died in this war vary widely, but run as high as 38,000 combatants and 200,000 civilians. (Time, Nov. 11, 2002) The groups trying to secede appear to have an unlimited supply of volunteers ready to die for their cause. A number of the suicide bombers have been women. The Russian media has dubbed them “Black Widows” because they became fighters after their husbands died in the war.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin does not say anything linking this terrible situation to the emergence of capitalism. He is angry, however, at the U.S. and Britain for raising criticisms of how the Russian assault on the school was conducted–it appears to have triggered the main explosion that killed so many people.

    Western imperialist governments are careful to express sympathy for Russia over the recent bloody incidents, but the U.S. State Department has also called on Putin to negotiate, and this view has been repeated in editorials by leading U.S. newspapers like the Los Angeles Times. Putin refuses to do so, claiming the Chech ens are linked to Muslim fundamentalists like al Qaeda.

    The Associated Press reported on Sept. 7 that a State Department comment “also left open the possibility of U.S. meetings with Chechens who are not linked to terrorists.”

    That Washington would take advantage of Russia’s struggle with Chechnya to intervene there has infuriated Putin. Comparing his situation to that of the U.S. after 9/11, he reportedly told a British newspaper in a tone of bitter sarcasm, “Why don’t you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House and engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace? Why don’t you do that?” (The Guardian, Sept. 7)

    “There are Muslims along the Volga, in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan,” he continued. “Chechnya isn’t Iraq. It’s not far away. It’s a vital part of our territory. This is all about Russia’s territorial integrity.”

    In these chauvinist remarks, Putin widened his attack to include other peoples, besides Chechens, in southern Russia who are Muslims. While that might earn him praise from George W. Bush and Tony Blair, it is bound to further inflame what is already a disastrous situation.

    How did the animosity between the Chechens and Russia become so venom ous that they would feel justified in resorting to tactics like taking over a school and risking the lives of hundreds of children?

    Most bourgeois commentators describe it as a resurfacing of nationalist passions from the past. But why they resurfaced is never addressed.

    Workers’ and peasants’ revolution offered self-determination

    Chechnya is a predominantly Muslim area that was taken over by the czarist Russian Empire in 1859 after 29 years of resistance. When the workers and peasants of Russia took power in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, they dissolved the empire and declared that all nations oppressed by the Great Russians had the right to self-determination, including secession if they so desired. At the same time, the Bolsheviks promoted class solidarity and unity of all the oppressed.

    It was on this basis that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was founded in 1922. Hundreds of nationalities and ethnic groups, including the Chechens, joined the socialist federation, many with local autonomy. It had a very unique bicameral legislative structure. In addition to the Soviet of the Union, with deputies based on proportional representation, the state contained a Soviet of Nationalities. All nations, no matter how small, were guaranteed representation there.

    The first years of the socialist revolution were extraordinarily difficult. It took a decade before it recovered sufficiently from the devastating impact of World War I, civil war and a counter-revolutionary invasion by 14 imperialist countries to be able to start transforming the economy. Finally, in 1929, the first Five-Year Plan was launched. By the mid-1930s, while capitalist economies around the world were imploding in the Great Depression, Soviet industrial output was soaring. For the smaller nationalities, especially in the less developed regions, there was great hope that they would prosper as members of this large socialist union while maintaining their distinct cultures, languages and political structures.

    But the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany in 1941, while it evoked enor mous heroism by Soviet workers and peasants of all nationalities in defense of their gains, also sowed the seeds of later discord.

    According to the NationMaster online encyclopedia, “The Chechnya-Ingushetia region received status of an autonomous republic within the Soviet Union in 1936. During World War II, the Soviet government accused the Chechens of cooperating with the Nazi invaders, which had controlled the western parts of Chechnya-Ingushetia for several months in 1942 1943 winter. On orders from Stalin, the entire population of the republic was exiled to Kazak hstan. Over a quarter died. The Che chens were allowed to return only in 1957, four years after Stalin’s death in 1953.”

    This was just one example of many grievous violations of Leninist doctrine on the national question that Stalin carried out under the pressure of the war.

    The Soviet Union encompassed hundreds of nationalities and ethnic groups. In its 70-odd years of economic development, many people moved from ethnically homogeneous rural areas into the rapidly growing cities. Russians were also encouraged to settle in areas of the south and west, leading to a mix of many different nationalities. The goal was to even out the different stages of development across this vast country by committing resources to the poorer areas.

    But the leadership in Moscow, worn down by unrelenting imperialist pressure and even threats of nuclear war, increasingly accommodated to bourgeois demands and favored the more privileged social groups and geographical areas. President Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s began decentralizing the economy in a series of reforms called “perestroika.”

    This immediately began to unravel the framework for development of the less prosperous areas of the USSR. The Gorba chev period saw rebellions in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, brought on when the Kremlin replaced Indigenous officials with ethnic Russians in key posts. It was an ominous foretaste of what could be expected if the Soviet government continued to violate Leninist principles on the national question.

    In 1991, President Boris Yeltsin dissolved the USSR and turned the country over to the pro-capitalists, completing the counter-revolution that his predecessor had begun.

    With the dismantling of the state-owned economy and the Soviet state itself, a mad scramble began among would-be entrepreneurs to grab control of everything that had been publicly owned. The winners were mostly those who had worked their way up the bureaucratic ladder; the losers were the workers and farmers.

    In the chaos that followed, Chechnya and Ingushetia split apart. Ingushetia became part of the now-separate republic of Georgia while, in Chechnya, a grouping took over that soon declared its independence from Russia. The Russian government refused to recognize any separate government, and in 1994, under Yeltsin, invaded with 30,000 troops.

    Two periods of brutal war followed. Today the capital, Grozny, is a completely bombed-out city. In the spring of 2003, the Danish Refugee Council began a survey of the internally displaced persons who had returned to Chechnya after fleeing the war. It found that, using the officially established subsistence level of $70.80 a month income per family, “well over 99 percent of Chechnya’s population lives below the poverty line.” It also found that “the high levels of physical destruction of the industrial, agricultural, financial, commercial and public infrastructure make prospects for a sustained economic recovery in the foreseeable future unlikely. Inside Chech nya, it is estimated that up to 60 percent of the working age population is unemployed and the same proportion of the population reports being regularly unable to meet regular household expenses.”

    These abysmal conditions are not uni que to Chechnya. Neighboring Ingushetia has the same problems. And throughout the Muslim areas in the south, especially, the counter-revolution turned back the clock of economic development. Increas ingly, these peoples have had to turn to imperialist corporations and financiers, selling off their natural resources to survive.

    Bourgeoisie turns to ‘god and country’

    Even before the USSR was dismantled, its leaders had tried to placate the capitalist world. Under Soviet rule, the Russian Orthodox Church had lost its privileged position as the state religion of the czars. The communist stand had been to promote science and atheism instead of superstition among the people, while not allowing the state to interfere with their freedom of worship. The Western media applauded when President Gorbachev in 1988 abandoned this position and attended the celebration of 1,000 years of the Russian Orthodox Church, thereby giving his support not only to religion but to Christianity–in a country where other religions also had deep roots among the various peoples.

    All these developments have created implacable hatred among many of the non-Russians for the rule of Moscow. Like those who now sit in the Kremlin, the current leaders of the various nationalities are not communists and do not put forward any program for unity or cooperation of the workers and peasants of the region on a class basis. However, at a time when the U.S. and Britain, especially, have embarked on an anti-Muslim campaign under the guise of a “war on terror,” which is really a war for oil, it is important that the progressive and anti-war movements reject any facile stereotyping or attributing everything to a few plotters.

    It is time to be objective about the tortured history of the USSR, to admit its great achievements as well as its weaknesses, in order to understand why its dismantling has led to such disaster.

    Reprinted from the Sept. 16, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper

    This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
    Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011
    Email: ww@workers.org

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 7, 2015 @ 2:04 am

  2. For those who wonder what the above post has to do with “Syria, Chechnya, and the jihadist gambit” please note that the Assad regime in Syria would long ago have perished without the direct material aid of “Putin — the Butcher of Chechnya” as Marcy once described him.

    What a far cry that worldview is from today’s left that view’s Putin as some kind of bastion of anti-imperialism!

    It’s enough to taste puke in your own mouth.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 7, 2015 @ 2:53 am

  3. I reiterate. Where was anybody on the left, especially the Trotskyist left, predicting the anti-Muslim enmity wrapped in Christian cluster bombs & aerial assaults against hapless Muslims in a relentless war of Imperialist turpitude pre-911? Prediction is the hallmark of science after all.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 7, 2015 @ 3:09 am

  4. There were some leftists who condemned Putin for his actions in Chechnya. Tony Wood was one of them. As with Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds in the 1980s, US and European governments were quiescent. Putin’s policy of Islamicizing the Chechnya resistance worked. Some neoconservatives expressed support for the Chechens after it was too late, exploiting the defeated Chechens in order to attack their real target, Putin.

    But there is a sad issue embedded in all this, the lack of a sufficiently strong secular working class resistance capable of overcoming Islamic radicals. The appeal of religious fundamentalism for the working class around much of the world, including the US, is a problem that the left has yet to solve. Leftists that support the Iranian Islamic Republic and Hezbullah on purported pragmatic, anti-imperialist grounds have lost the thread on this subject.

    “But as a Syrian friend pointed out to me, the mukhabarat too are old hands at these games, and have no need of lessons from their Russian patrons. Their strategic philosophy is explicitly stated in graffiti now very common around Damascus: “Assad or we burn the country.””

    The mukhabarat knows that the people detest it which explains its ruthlessness. When the Syrians prevail, many of those within it are going to meet a gruesome fate.

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 7, 2015 @ 3:37 pm

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