Assad Guided by Russian Lessons from Chechnya

When asked how long the war would take, the soon-to-be assassinated independence leader of the Chechen people, Dzhokhar Dudayev famously responded, “it will be a war of 50 years”.

This week’s focus on Chechnya reminds me how Assad’s strategy to suppress the revolution is influenced and informed by his Russian allies. Some would go as far as suggesting that the similarities point to the Russians actually managing the operation – from SCUD launches to international “diplomacy”.

One can find many similarities with how Russia crushed the independence aspirations of Chechnya over past twenty years and Assad’s action today. Of course, it is not an identical situation by any means, but is insightful to dissect to further understand how Assad’s main advisors are guiding him to survive.

In 1994, in response to the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria secession a few years earlier, Russia, under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin launched a brutal war to recapture the breakaway republic. However, the Russian Federation was unprepared, relying on conscripts and machines to fight a popular Chechen resistance. The result was a bloody two-year war, marked by massive war crimes committed by the poorly organized & undisciplined Russian forces against the population of Chechnya (both Chechen and Russian civilians alike). Indiscriminate shelling, targeted assassinations, mass executions, massacres and rape.

Literally, the population was decimated.

A ceasefire was signed in 1996 followed by a treaty a year later. The unpopular war was a “loss” for the Russian Federation and resulted in the deaths of 100,000 dead civilians in Chechnya, over 300,000 displaced – out of prewar population of ~1.2 million. The Chechen capital, Grozny was practically razed to the ground, invoking memories of the World War 2 allied bombing campaign of Dresden…the cruelty was maddening.

Chechnya's Destroyed Presidential Palace in Grozny.
Is this Grozny 1995 or Aleppo 2013? (Chechnya’s Presidential Palace, a symbol of independence destroyed by the Russians)

But the Chechens won something close to independence, albeit temporarily.

Russian designs for the republic were temporarily halted and left behind a devastated Chechnya along with a shocked and impotent international community – actually, an interesting question to ponder is whether the “West”, with a loud bark and consistent lack of tangible action, is treating Syria as an internal Russian affair, just as they did with Chechnya.

The subsequent dialogue and treaty, allowed for Russia to regroup while the Chechen Republic fragmented under the burden of its devastation. A ravaged economy, displaced and homeless populace, international isolation and the pain and trauma of the war resulted in radicalization, fragmentation and the weakening of Chechnya’s government.

Russia reentered Chechnya again in 1999 with the goal of destroying the de facto independence and establishing a pro-Moscow government. This second war was as devastating as the first. The Russians revised their tactics, led with a “victory by bombardment” strategy, followed by overwhelming ground support. Within a year, they succeeded in establishing direct rule over Chechnya and drove all resistance to the mountains to launch a low-level guerilla campaign that has outlived Yeltsin, who bequeathed power (appointed) to the KGB man, Vladimir Putin, in 2000.

Chechen Refugee 1994
Is she from Chechnya 1994, or Homs 2012? Both victims of Russian strategy.

Two Russian wars on Chechnya cannot be adequately detailed in a few paragraphs. However, an approach to suppress uprising starts to emerge and illustrate how Russian lessons in Chechnya inform Assad response to revolution over the past 15 months and his anticipated action in the near future.

Specifically, similar to his Russian sponsors, Assad has responded through the use of overwhelming and sustained violence – led by aerial bombardment and shelling, resulting in the destruction of society and civilian infrastructure. This has had a four-fold effect of 1) destroying the “enemy”, 2) spreading collective fear across all liberated areas, and 3) annihilating key leaders of the revolution 4) limiting the ability of rebels to effectively rule (i.e. provide security, safety, health & economic opportunity). The Russian experience in Chechnya has also taught Assad how to best utilize time and dialogue to attempt to reassert control over the situation.

Over the past year, as we’ve seen Assad’s control over territory shrink the Russian advisor influence has become very apparent. Syria’s infrastructure has been effectively destroyed and the revolution continues to be starved, both politically and militarily. Collective punishment via the air and shelling has been the regime’s strategy, followed by “boots on the ground” of the regime’s army and sectarian militias (“shabeeha”/ National Defense Forces) to control and retake territory.

Assad also hides behind the “dialogue” card, part of the bigger game played by powerful allies and the so-called friends of the revolution. Even this past weekend, we heard of a “Geneva approach” consensus by “Friends of Syria” which calls for transition. It, however, excludes any mention of removing Assad. Immediately following this call for dialogue, Assad’s forces massacred over 550 Syrians, most of them slaughtered in Jdaidet Artouz, a Damascus suburb, as a stark message to all involved, both within and outside Syria.

With all this said, we can see how Assad’s survival strategy is influenced, maybe even directed by his Russian allies – the blueprint for his survival may just have been written with the blood of Chechens. All those supporting Syria’s revolution must take note, and strap in for the long haul.

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