Russia is building trust with Syrian rebels on the ground

Over the past two months, the Syrian government and its allies have succeeded in fully recapturing the rebel-held areas surrounding Damascus, many of which had been outside government control since 2012. While the result seemed inevitable, the speed of the offensives was aided by a novel Russian policy tool: the use of Russia’s North Caucasian military police to provide safe passage for rebels and civilians from these areas to Idlib province in Syria’s northwest. This strategy has proved highly effective for Moscow.

In mid-February, the Syrian army launched its long-awaited assault on Eastern Ghouta, aiming to finally eliminate the large rebel enclave. With their fate sealed, rebels accepted evacuation from the three remaining pockets, their safe passage guaranteed by Russian military police. Militants in Douma and Harasta specifically requested the presence of Chechen and other North Caucasian servicemen, viewing these Sunni Muslim troops as a safeguard against Iranian attempts to replace the area’s population with Shiites. Chechen military police were filmed working and praying in Douma as the displacement was enforced.

This strategy was then repeated in the remaining rebel-held pockets. Military police arrived in East Qalamoun on Apr. 19 to oversee the evacuation of insurgents there. South Damascus came shortly thereafter, with Russian servicemen entering Babila and Yalda on May 3. Finally, the north Homs enclave was brought under regime and Russian control by May 15.   

Evidence suggests that one of the primary impulses behind Russia’s deployment of its military police was to serve as a tangible check on regime and Iranian-led militias and further increase Moscow’s influence on the ground. When the first Chechen military police were deployed in December 2016, Russia had been facing major issues enforcing a cease-fire and evacuation deal for Syrian rebels trapped in their last enclave in Aleppo city, with Iran’s militias halting the agreed evacuation and demanding better terms. The arrival of 400 Chechen personnel to Aleppo shortly thereafter saw the displacement deal carried out almost immediately. The Sunni Muslim Chechen battalion then remained in the city for over a year and a half, engaging in a highly publicized tour to win civilian support through distributing aid, performing Muslim prayer rites and regularly conversing with citizens.

Russia has since used its North Caucasian military police in an at least partly successful attempt to draw a distinction between its forces and those of Iran and the regime, in the eyes of civilians and the Syrian opposition. Iran has drawn deep condemnation from rebels and activists for its sectarian cleansing projects in Syria, settling Shiite families from Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere in Syria in areas west of Damascus after their Sunni inhabitants had been displaced. The mostly Alawite-dominated regime leadership is sympathetic to Iranian designs to reshape demographics to suit a more pro-regime populace. In this context, Russia’s Sunni Muslim personnel have had ample opportunity to demonstrate their more professional and empathetic disposition. Their efforts in Aleppo and elsewhere seemed to prove effective—civilians in the al-Waer district of Homs described being shocked at watching Russian military police praying in the streets, something forbidden among Syrian regime troops. While they had often been exposed to slogans from rebel leaders that the Russians and Iranians would “kill them all,” their experience of the smoothly run evacuation sharply raised the profile of the former in the eyes of locals, with one civilian expressly stating, “the Russians are far more merciful than the Iranians.”

Such public relations efforts have dovetailed with greater Russian contacts with militant groups. Shortly after its intervention in September 2015, Russia began to establish contacts with various Syrian rebel groups, hoping to play a mediating role for the pro-regime axis, with rebels deeply distrustful of Iran and the Syrian government. In February 2016, Syrian Minister of National Reconciliation Ali Haidar stated this openly, saying that “sometimes it is the militants” themselves who requested Russian mediation, specifically at that point in Aleppo. The deployment of military police made ground contacts much simpler, with Russian forces opening regular negotiations at the checkpoint in the Homs pocket in particular. While Russia has faced substantial difficulties in its diplomatic efforts with the Syrian opposition’s political leadership, dominated by exiles, it has had significantly more contact with rebel groups on the ground.

One area in which Moscow has struggled to build trust with Syria’s rebels, however, is in their main remaining bastion: Idlib. An attempt to establish a checkpoint in the area last September was met with disaster: militants assaulted the position, and the military police manning it had to be relieved and evacuated by Russian special forces. Hard-line and extremist groups are stronger in Idlib than they were in Ghouta, Homs and other areas, making negotiations more difficult. The province is also home to the majority of Syria’s North Caucasian jihadist groups, most of which are comprised of veteran militants to whom talks with Russia are anathema.

In this respect, Russia’s close relationship with Turkey could aid in shaping the outcome of events in Idlib. Turkey has established 12 observation posts ringing the borders of Idlib, as agreed with Russia and Iran at the Astana negotiations. Ankara is also strengthening its control over rebel formations there, reportedly engineering a wide-ranging rebel merger while issuing extremist group Hay’at Tahrir al Sham an ultimatum to dissolve and join other groups or be destroyed. These events will strengthen the clout of more moderate groups inclined to seek an accord with or through Russia.

A stable solution to Idlib faces perhaps a greater threat from Russia’s ostensible partners in Syria: the Syrian government and Iran. Both have indicated that they do not see the current conflict as over and that they consider the reconquest of Idlib as a necessity. Turkish military positions on the frontlines can mitigate this to a degree, as can additional military police on Russia’s side, who have faced tense standoffs with Iranian militias before. While it remains entirely unclear how Idlib’s fate will unfold, the trust built with rebels and the demonstrated effectiveness of Russia’s North Caucasian military police could end up having a significant effect on the outcome.