A his­tory les­son

What can the Chechen ex­pe­ri­ence tell us about Syria?

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Brian Glyn Williams re­ports

Rus­sian war­planes are back in the skies above the Mid­dle East in num­bers not seen since Syria and Egypt’s Soviet-era MiG-21s sparred with Is­raeli F-4 Phan­toms over the Golan Heights and Si­nai penin­sula dur­ing the 1973 Arab-Is­raeli War. Only this time, the Rus­sians are fol­low­ing tac­tics per­fected in the skies above the forested moun­tains of the Cau­ca­sus.

The bar­rage of me­dia re­ports from Aleppo of bombed hos­pi­tals; ca­su­alty-filled morgues; dec­la­ra­tions of “hu­man­i­tar­ian cor­ri­dors” out of gov­ern­ment be­sieged neigh­bour­hoods; heavy bom­bard­ments of towns by long-range Rus­sian bombers; out­rage by western hu­man rights groups; and straf­ing runs by deadly “Hind” at­tack he­li­copters on com­mu­ni­ties uni­formly de­scribed as “ter­ror­ists” sound fa­mil­iar. That’s be­cause they are strik­ingly sim­i­lar to the me­dia re­ports of Rus­sia’s war against Chech­nya. We have seen this air­borne as­sault – so rem­i­nis­cent of the bomb­ing that in­spired Pablo Pi­casso’s Guer­nica – be­fore, in the cam­paign against the tiny break­away repub­lic of Chech­nya from 1999 to 2000.

The rain of bombs on the an­cient city Aleppo is, in many ways, sim­ply a reprise of the street-by-street tac­ti­cal oblit­er­a­tion of what was once the great­est city in the north­ern Cau­ca­sus. A city that be­came known at the turn of the cen­tury as the “Cau­casian Hiroshima”.

In the au­tumn of 1999, Rus­sia was wracked by a se­ries of un­ex­plained bomb­ings in Moscow and cities to the south that were blamed on the Chechens, a Sovi­etised Sufi Mus­lim na­tion of less than a mil­lion that de­feated the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion in a war for in­de­pen­dence in 1996.

At the time, Rus­sian pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, a rel­a­tively un­known FSB (the new KGB) of­fi­cer who had been cho­sen by an ail­ing pres­i­dent Boris Yeltsin to be his then prime min­is­ter, promised to pun­ish the Chechens for this mys­te­ri­ous bomb­ing spree that killed up to 300 Rus­sians in apart­ment build­ings. This would be­come known as the Sec­ond Chechen War. In­ves­ti­ga­tions into the mys­te­ri­ous bomb­ings would even­tu­ally ex­on­er­ate the Chechens and place the blame on a Saudi ex­trem­ist named Ibn Al Khat­tab and unof­fi­cially on FSB op­er­a­tives in­volved in a false flag op­er­a­tion de­signed to blame Chechens. But be­fore they even be­gan, the Rus­sian Air Force started to bomb Grozny – the cap­i­tal of in­de­pen­dent Chech­nya. The logic for the drop­ping of bombs across a city packed with tens of thou­sands of civil­ians seemed to be that this ac­tion would some­how avenge the dead Rus­sians.

Re­gard­less of the shaky premise, thou­sands of civil­ians be­gan to die in Grozny as their apart­ments were turned into rub­ble. Tens of thou­sands of civil­ians from the “Chechen ter­ror na­tion” would ul­ti­mately die as pay­back for the mys­te­ri­ous au­tumn 1999 bomb­ings in Rus­sia. The tac­ti­cal de­struc­tion of the once beau­ti­ful city of Grozny by no­to­ri­ously im­pre­cise Scud mis­siles; Bu­ratino ther­mo­baric and fuel-air bombs (that ig­nite the air be­ing breathed by peo­ple hid­ing in base­ments); clus­ter mu­ni­tions; T-90 main bat­tle tanks; Mil Mi-24 “Hind” at­tack he­li­copters; and other weapons banned by the Geneva Con­ven­tions in civil­ian-pop­u­lated ar­eas hor­ri­fied world lead­ers.

In a typ­i­cal at­tack, a wave of mas­sive “hy­per­sonic” Scud mis­siles fired from the neigh­bour­ing repub­lic of North Os­se­tia (later home to Rus­sian planes that would bomb Aleppo) de­scended on a Grozny hospi­tal and the city’s main out­door mar­ket as it was packed with shop­pers, killing 137 peo­ple, in Oc­to­ber 1999. The Rus­sian gov­ern­ment de­scribed the tar­gets as “well known ter­ror­ist cen­tres”. An eye­wit­ness ac­count of the slaugh­ter de­scribed it dif­fer­ently, in heart­break­ing terms, as fol­lows: “Af­ter the first hit, I saw a man who was sit­ting in a car. His head had been blown off, but his hands were still hold­ing the wheel. Corpses were ev­ery­where in the mar­ket. They were ly­ing on the stalls.” Hu­man rights ac­tivists and western lead­ers were out­raged by such bald lies, as well as Putin’s sub­se­quent des­ig­na­tion of any­one who re­fused to leave the be­sieged city in so-called

“hu­man­i­tar­ian cor­ri­dors” as “ter­ror­ists”. But in these cor­ri­dors, Chechen fight­ing-age men were ar­rested and, on sev­eral oc­ca­sions, the refugee col­umns were bombed. But even as Grozny burned, so brightly that it was ob­serv­able from space – when Google Earth went live you could watch the city on fire, with plumes of smoke drift­ing across Chech­nya in the images – and as western lead­ers, in­clud­ing United States pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush, con­demned him, Putin’s pop­u­lar­ity soared in Rus­sia. The pre­vi­ously un­known KGBnik rose on the hate-filled cur­rents of anti-Chechenism, which were stoked across Rus­sia, lead­ing to thou­sands of Chechen ar­rests and Putin’s vic­tory in the 2000 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. But the glow sur­round­ing Putin’s in­au­gu­ral cel­e­bra­tions was dimmed by the fact that a small band of sev­eral thou­sand stub­born, bat­tle-hard­ened Chechen sol­diers armed with noth­ing more than rocket pro­pelled grenades, mines and as­sault ri­fles, were able to am­bush and oblit­er­ate tank col­umns that probed into the cen­tre of the “ur­ban forest” of Grozny’s shat­tered ru­ins. And so an un­even war be­gan, be­tween 80,000 Rus­sian troops who be­sieged Grozny sup­ported by an air ar­mada, and just 5,000 Chechen “ur­ban rats” on the ground, from Septem­ber 1999 un­til Jan­uar y 30, 2000.

On that snowy night, the Chechen rebels broke through rings of Rus­sian ar­mour, ar­tillery and land­mine fields to fight their way into the mist-cov­ered moun­tains of the south, where they then scat­tered. Mean­while, in the US, Mohammed Atta’s “Ham­burg Cell” killed up to 3,000 peo­ple on 9/11 and Bush launched the “War on Ter­ror”. Krem­lin spokes­men con­flated their se­ces­sion­ist en­e­mies, a Sovi­etised moun­tain peo­ple who had fought Rus­sia for in­de­pen­dence on-and-off since their con­quest in 1861, with Osama bin Laden’s Afghanistan-based Arab Salafi-Tak­firi-Wah­habi ter­ror­ist group, Al Qaeda. The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion bought into this nar­ra­tive and the Amer­i­cans came to de­fine the Chechen moun­taineers – more so­cial­ist than re­li­gious – as no­to­ri­ous Al Qaeda hench­men.

In the end, Chech­nya’s pres­i­dent, a for­mer Soviet ar­tillery of­fi­cer named As­lan Maskhadov who had long called for peace­ful re­la­tions with Rus­sia and fought to ex­pel re­li­gious ex­trem­ists like Khat­tab, (who for his part

had tried graft­ing re­li­gious war onto the Chechens’ strug­gle for a Balkan Re­publics-style in­de­pen­dence), was hunted down by Rus­sian forces and killed. Most of his boye­viks (Chechen fight­ers) also died.

As for the glo­be­trot­ting Khat­tab, whose Kavkaz Com­plex camp was not even lo­cated in Grozny but far to the south­east in the moun­tains near Dages­tan, he was iron­i­cally killed by a poi­soned let­ter sent from the FSB in March 2002. Fol­low­ing the crush­ing of Chechen in­de­pen­dence in the name of killing Khat­tab’s ter­ror­ists, Putin was lauded as the hero who had saved Ve­likii Rus (Great Rus­sia) from the Chechen ter­ror men­ace.

The rub­ble of Grozny was bull­dozed and a strong­man named Ramzan Kady­rov was put in charge. The es­ti­mated 300,000 peo­ple killed dur­ing both Rus­sian-Chechen wars (ac­cord­ing to the new Chechen ad­min­is­tra­tion’s deputy min­is­ter) were buried, and Grozny (de­scribed by the United Na­tions as the “most de­stroyed city on earth”, was flushed down the mem­ory hole for most non-Chechens.

Putin and Kady­rov then con­structed a sky­scraper-stud­ded, “Potemkin village”. To­day Chech­nya is en­joy­ing a pe­riod of rel­a­tive calm but spo­radic at­tacks by ji­hadists con­tinue and many peo­ple still live in ex­treme poverty.

Flash for­ward to Septem­ber 30, 2015. Putin sur­prises the world by in­ter­ven­ing in the Syr­ian civil war that pits pres­i­dent Bashar Al As­sad against a group of dis­parate rebels. At the time, this ar­ray of rebel groups was de­scribed in by the Krem­lin once again as “ter­ror­ists”. And once again, the Rus­sians be­gan drop­ping bombs on neigh­bour­hoods to de­feat the “ter­ror­ists” said to be hid­ing in them. This time round it was eastern Aleppo.

To­day, Rus­sian news is once again filled with cov­er­age of a war against “ter­ror­ists”, in what has been de­scribed as “Op­er­a­tion Vozmezdie (Ret­ri­bu­tion)” in a bid to main­tain Rus­sia’s in­flu­ence in the Mid­dle East. As­sad and his fa­ther bought bil­lions of dol­lars of equip­ment from the Rus­sians and Sovi­ets, and Rus­sia main­tains a naval base at Tar­tous. An­other is­sue is that many for­mer Chechen rebels are fight­ing in Syria. It’s hard to put a fig­ure on the num­bers but a re­cent Rus­sian gov­ern­ment es­ti­mate put the num­ber of fight­ers in Syria from Chech­nya and the Com­mon­wealth of In­de­pen­dent States at 2,400. Rus­sian ac­counts of the high-al­ti­tude bom­bard­ments of Aleppo by Tu-22M3 Back­fire, Tu-160 Blackjack, and Tu-95MS Bear strate­gic bombers from North Os­se­tia, claim that bombs dropped from 2,000 feet onto civil­ian-packed neigh­bour­hoods be­low can some­how dis­tin­guish be­tween civil­ians and ter­ror­ists.

A typ­i­cal ac­count re­cently ap­peared on the Rus­sian min­istry of de­fence web­site (which was re­peated by an un­ques­tion­ing Rus­sian me­dia), and said: “Dur­ing a mas­sive air strike to­day, 14 im­por­tant ISIL tar­gets were de­stroyed by 34 air-launched cruise mis­siles. The tar­gets de­stroyed in­clude com­mand posts that were used to co­or­di­nate ISIL ac­tiv­i­ties in the prov­inces of Idlib and Aleppo, mu­ni­tion and sup­ply de­pots in the north­west­ern part of Syria.”

Of course ISIL’s strongholds lie far to the south­east of the north­west­ern town of Aleppo in the cen­tral Syr­ian desert. In the mean­time though, the world seems to be re­ject­ing this at­tempt by Rus­sia to con­flate rebels with in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ists, con­trary to his pre­vi­ous suc­cesses with the Chechens. But that may change if Putin’s man­ages to forge a work­ing re­la­tion­ship with new US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

Should Trump turn a blind eye to the stepped-up bomb­ing cam­paign in eastern Aleppo, and should the Sunni rebels be de­feated, then per­haps the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment can pour money into the city to re­build it.

But that is spec­u­la­tion. For now, Aleppo is in ru­ins. A re­cent BBC re­port cap­tured Putin’s re­sponse to what’s hap­pen­ing: “Mr Putin told France’s TF1 TV channel that Rus­sia would pur­sue ‘ter­ror­ists’ even if they hid among civil­ians. ‘We can’t al­low ter­ror­ists to use peo­ple as hu­man shields and black­mail the en­tire world,’ he said, adding that civil­ian deaths were the ‘sad re­al­ity of war’.”

AP Photo

Laski Dif­fu­sion / Getty Zein Al Ri­fai / AFP / AMC;

Far left, Chechen chil­dren by a de­mol­ished house in Grozny, Septem­ber 2007, as re­con­struc­tion con­tin­ues. Images; Above, Syr­i­ans in the pum­meled re­bel­held Al Shaar neigh­bour­hood, east Aleppo, May 2015.

Louai Be­shara / AFP.

Right, a Syr­ian man shows his sup­port at a pro-Rus­sia demon­stra­tion at the Da­m­as­cus em­bassy in Syria.

AP Photo

≤ On the cover Rus­sian sol­diers raise a flag in Grozny, March 2000.

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