A few thoughts on “Meet the Syrian Rebel Commander Assad, Russia and the U.S. All Fear; Tarkhan Batirashvili, Ethnic Chechen, Leads Group Deeply at Odds with Western-Backed Rebels in Syria,” Alan Cullison, Wall Street Journal, 11.19.13.
Summary: As usual, great reporting by Alan on Ethnic Chechen from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge Tarkhan Batirashvili who fights Russian troops first as youngster and then as a sergeant in ‘U.S.-funded’ Georgian army only to see his military career derailed by disease, gets religiously radicalized and join insurgency in Syria, where he rises through ranks to become a senior commander in al-Qaeda-connected group, professing hatred for Americans, beheading enemies and enforcing Sharia. I can see some parallels with Tamerlan Tsarnaev, US, Russian and other governments should think in advance how to minimize threats posed by professional international jihadists from (North) Caucasus.
Analysis: Batirashvili’s expressions of hatred for America are mostly likely part of obligatory rethoric for international jihadist rather than sincere, lasting feeling. But if is sincere, then it is a worrying sign that more professional Chechen jihadists may try to follow suit set by the elder of the Tsarnaev brothers and stage attacks, perhaps, against U.S. assets abroad. In fact, I can see some parallels with Tamerlan Tsarnaev (who also saw his career hopes dashed by circumstances beyond control, became disillusioned, radicalized, developed hatred for America, and considered joining insurgency in Syria).
It is more likely, however, that, once the Syrian civil war is resolved one way or another, Batirashvili and most of other ethnic Chechens – who hail from former Soviet Union, but who are now fighting in Syria – will move to Jordan next or (if Jordan doesn’t flare up), then to North Caucasus and fight Russian forces rather than attack U.S.
In any case, skills and stamina showed by professional international jihadists who hail from Russia’s North Caucasus make them a formidable enemy for any government, and, therefore, while U.S. government should not be overly worried about ‘Chechen’ threat to U.S. homeland, it should think what it can do, perhaps together with Russian government and other governments who face the threat pose militant jihadist networks, to minimize the threat to their allies, asserts and interests in other parts of the world.
I would also note that it appears that Batirashvili chose to go Syria himself which discredits Saudi Prince Bandar’s reported claim that 'The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us, and they did not move in the Syrian territory’s direction without coordinating with us.'"
I also wonder whether Batirashvili – during his stint in the Georgian army – served as part of the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq (Georgian MoD denies he did, but this agency might have its own reasons to deny (avoid embarassment). It would be ironic then that he is the now the northern commander in Syria of the Al-Qaeda- connected Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS).
Background: Syria has a population of perhaps 20,000 ethnic Chechens, most of them are Sunnis so they have no love lost for Assad, but mainstream estimates put the number of Chechens fighting Assad government at low hundreds, most of them coming from FSU or from Europe where they have obtained asylum.