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Why Chechen Militants In Syria Are Showing Off Weapons Meant For Moderate Rebels

  • Joanna Paraszczuk

The Twitter account of a Chechen-led militant group posted a photo appearing to show a fighter firing a large-caliber sniper rifle.

The Twitter account of a Chechen-led militant group posted a photo appearing to show a fighter firing a large-caliber sniper rifle.

On August 11, a Chechen-led militant group in Syria posted a photograph of one of its fighters with a Chinese-made large-caliber sniper rifle.

The Zijiang M99 rifle held by the militant -- from the Aleppo-based Chechen-led Caucasus Emirate (CE) In Syria group -- originally appeared in Syria in 2013, and was supplied to the moderate, Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other rebel groups for use against Syrian government forces.

It is not clear who supplied the weapons, though it is most likely they were acquired from Sudan via Qatar. The weapons have been widely seen in Syria including in videos bearing the logo of the Qatari-backed Liwa al-Tawhid group.

The Zijiang M99 rifles are not the only weapons originally intended for Western- and Arab-backed Syrian groups that CE In Syria militants have acquired and shown off in recent weeks.

On July 28, a CE In Syria Twitter account posted a photograph that purported to show one of its fighters firing a BGM-71 TOW antitank guided missile at a Syrian Army base in Aleppo, though -- notably -- the exact location was not specified.

TOW antitank missiles have reportedly been supplied to Syrian rebel groups vetted by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Reports also suggest that the weapons provided by the United States and other allies are subject to a strict process of accountability to ensure they do not end up in extremist hands.

This is hardly the first time that Islamist groups have taken possession of heavy weapons intended for moderate, Western-backed rebels in Syria.

Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra claimed to have acquired TOW missiles in December 2014.

IS has obtained a large quantity of U.S. weapons, most of which it captured from the Iraqi army. In December 2014, IS released photos of its militants in Syria with a TOW antitank guided missile system, which was likely captured from U.S.-vetted Syrian rebel groups.

But until now, Chechen militants affiliated to the Caucasus Emirate have not claimed to have obtained these weapons.

Showcasing Weapons

The main reason that CE In Syria is claiming to possess weapons like the M99 anti-materiel sniper rifle and the TOW is to demonstrate to its supporters and detractors that it is a serious fighting group.

The group consists of a core faction of militants have sworn allegiance to the Caucasus Emirate in the North Caucasus and who previously fought alongside the Aleppo-based group Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA).

They left JMA in July when their leader, Salakhuddin Shishani, an ethnic Chechen from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge and a veteran militant, was ousted from that group. Following those events, the group -- which JMA's Shari'a council barred from its previous bases in Haritan, northern Aleppo -- reemerged calling itself the Caucasus Emirate In Syria.

In the wake of Salakhuddin's ouster, both JMA and the Caucasus Emirate In Syria have made efforts to reassert themselves as fighting forces.

JMA is an established Islamist foreign fighter group in Aleppo, and has gained a reputation for battlefield effectiveness, fighting alongside major Syrian factions like Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. But its reputation was developed under Salakhuddin's command, and with the ethnic Chechen gone, JMA has to work hard to maintain its reputation.

Likewise, the Caucasus Emirate In Syria is a much smaller group than it was as part of JMA. Ousted from its bases in Haritan, it has had to reestablish itself in southern Aleppo -- and convince potential new recruits that it is worth their while to join it, rather than JMA or the Islamic State group.

By showcasing advanced weaponry like the M99 -- and particularly the TOW -- the Caucasus Emirate In Syria is signaling to its supporters and its IS rivals in the North Caucasus as well as in Syria that it is a serious "jamaat" or fighting group.

Weapons Market?

There is no way to independently confirm whether the CE In Syria really does have an M99 or a TOW.

It would be relatively easy, it seems, for the Chechen-led group to purchase an M99, which have been in rebel hands in Syria for some time and so will be available to be bought and sold.

North Caucasian militants in IS have also been photographed holding M99 rifles in recent months.

It would be far harder for the CE in Syria to acquire a TOW. Not only would the group have to source and pay for one, but it would also have to be trained how to use such a weapon.

However, some CE in Syria militants including the group's leader Salakhuddin have fought in offensives alongside a U.S.-backed Syrian group that was given and used TOWs. Salakhuddin's group fought alongside the U.S.-backed Harakat Hazm -- the first Syrian rebel group to be given U.S. weapons -- in October 2014 in northern Aleppo Province.

A few months earlier in August 2014, Harakat Hazm agreed to work with Jabhat al-Nusra.

Harakat Hazm collapsed in March after losing control of its Aleppo headquarters to Jabhat al-Nusra after months of clashes. Following its rout of Harakat Hazm, Nusra militants boasted on Twitter that they had seized control of TOW antitank missiles and other American aid.

If it does have TOW missiles, Salakhuddin's group, which has cooperated and fought alongside Nusra for many months, is most likely to have obtained them from the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate. Whether it can operate them is another question, however.

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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