Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts A Method to the Madness: The Logic of Russia’s Syrian Counterinsurgency Strategy

A Method to the Madness: The Logic of Russia’s Syrian Counterinsurgency Strategy


“Don’t criticize what you don’t understand, son.”
-Elvis Presley

Asked about Russia’s Syrian intervention, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper acerbically turned on President Vladimir Putin, whom he and others seem to regard as Geopolitical Russia incarnate. “What his long term plan is, I’m not sure he has one. I think he is kind of winging this day to day,” Mr. Clapper said, adding that Mr. Putin is “very impulsive and opportunistic.”[1] Former ambassador Michael McFaul likewise wrote in a jeering New York Times op-ed, “Mr. Putin is adept at short-term tactical responses to setbacks, but less talented at long-term strategy.”[2]

Responding to the caustic appraisal of these two respected figures requires an argument with several parts. One of these parts — delineating the contours of Russian geopolitical objectives in Syria — is best evinced by the facts on the ground.

“The Russian military has established a number of bases in the Alawite heartland, preserved the Black Sea fleet’s access to the Syrian port of Tartus, and now has the ability to project power throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. More broadly, Russia has also succeeding in cementing a military relationship with the leading Shiite powers in the Middle East — namely Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah and the rump Assad regime. The parties established two command centers — one in Baghdad and one in Damascus — and now constitute a potentially formidable Middle Eastern axis. For the first time since Egyptian President Anwar Sadat booted Soviet forces from Egypt in 1973, Russia is firmly ensconced in the Middle East.”[3]

Another rebuts the claim that Russia lacks a coherent counterinsurgency strategy in the battlespace. It is the focus of this essay. One hastens to clarify that this essay is no apologia for Mr. Putin or Russia’s actions in the wider Syrian conflict. It does, however, depart sharply — and crediting Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin’s colorful phrase[4] — from the all too common “monkey with a hand grenade” critique of Mr. Putin’s prosecution of the Syrian counterinsurgency.

The Lessons of Chechnya

The contemporary Russian understanding of counterinsurgency is highly informed by Russia’s experience in the Caucasus after the Soviet Union’s dissolution in the 1990s. Russia’s perspective on the battlespace of the broader Levant — Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon — is decidedly non-Westphalian.[5] It largely discards its contextualizing borders, boundaries, and notions of state-sovereignty for purposes of counterinsurgency as socio-culturally ill-suited to the territory.

Today’s conflict in the Levant against antigovernment insurgent and transnational jihadist groups bears notable similarities to the Chechen conflict of the 1990s. The unrecognized Chechen government partially controlled large swaths of Chechen territory in 1991-1994 and again in 1996-1999, even while Moscow retained its hold on such regions as northern Chechnya. The conflict increasingly was influenced by the Islamization of Chechen demands, and an interconnection with transnational jihadist networks. Russia’s counterinsurgency during and following the 1996-1999 phase of the conflict followed a divide-and-conquer strategy that emphasized seeking allies from among its former enemies.

Russia succeeded in fundamentally “Chechenizing” the eponymous conflict. It exploited fissures within the insurgency between Islamists, who aspired to a wider Caucasian Islamic state, and Chechen nationalists like the Kadyrov and Yamadayev clans, to which Arab Salafists’ rising influence in Chechnya was abhorrent. The much larger (some ten times) Kadyrovtsy (those loyal to Kadyrov) eventually dominated the Chechen nationalists as Russia successfully split the insurgents. This diluted its anti-Russian orientation, and redirected Islamist insurgents against newly emerged power structures connected with the Kadyrovtsy.[6]

Then as now, Mr. Putin drew criticism for responding opportunistically in a way that was said to favor the short-term tactical over the long-term strategic.

“At present the federal center and the Kremlin do not have any power in the region. Kadyrov’s clan has real power, which is being used in its own interests. In a long-term perspective such a system cannot be stable and effective. […] Kadyrov’s system of administration in Chechnya is highly vulnerable and unstable, but from Moscow’s point of view this is not important: today the Kremlin does not control the situation and tomorrow, if something happens to Kadyrov’s clan, the Kremlin will not be able to control the situation either.”[7]

The Kadyrovtsy remain in control, and Belkovskiy’s decade-old fears have not manifested. Alexander Dugin claims Chechenization was instrumental in cementing Mr. Putin’s broader political authority:

“Putin was promoted by the Atlanticists, liberals, and pro-Western oligarchs. His ‘patriotism’ was initially intended to be controlled and merely a front. […] The scriptwriters proposed to use Chechnya, which had previously played an important part in the Atlanticist project of Russian disintegration. This part of the plan worked as planned…The disintegration of the country and the separation of Chechnya were prevented. This is how Putin was legitimized.”[8]

Russian Strategy and Non-Linear Warfare

One is unlikely to grasp Russian counterinsurgency strategy in the Syrian battlespace (or for that matter, the broader Levant) without first understanding the uniquely Russian neologism, non-linear war. That term (perhaps unsurprisingly) was coined by Vladislav Surkov — also credited for designing Mr. Putin’s earlier counterinsurgency strategy in Chechnya — in the 2014 short story, “Without Sky,” which he published under his nom de plume, Natan Dubovitsky.[9] He describes “the first non-linear war” as supplanting “primitive wars” between two nations, or between coalitions of allies fighting “two on two, or three on one”; in non-linear war, it is “all on all.” Nations are rarely engaged, but instead cities and regions dominate the non-linear battlespace. They form opportunistic coalitions, and just as quickly dissolve them to form new ones, sometimes midstream. The battle — non-linear warfare’s “acute phase” — is but one element of warfare, and “not necessarily the most important one.”

Russia’s Syrian strategy derives from its understanding of non-linear warfare. It does not set out to retake Syrian national territory in its entirety. Rather, it pursues the twinned endpoints of a secure Alawi enclave[10] in western Syria — one, like South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transdniestria, it can control through dependence upon Russian patronage — and finding Syrian Kadyrovtsy among the region’s Kurdish clans to secure the area along Syria’s northern border with Turkey.[11]

The footprint of this strategy is clear in the region. In mid-January Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused Russia of targeting ethnic Turkmen in northwest Syria’s Bayırbucak region in Russia’s effort to establish a “boutique” quasi-state in northwest Syrian Latakia province. He claimed in a speech to ambassadors at the Presidential Palace in Ankara:

“Russia is not in the fight against Daesh, it is not giving a struggle against Daesh. On the contrary, Russia is currently preparing a place for itself with efforts to form a boutique Syrian state in Latakia and surrounding region and is continuously striking our Turkmen brothers.”[12]

Mr. Erdoğan accused Russia of supporting Syrian airstrikes intended to clear ethnic Turkmens from the Bayirbucak region, claiming so far that some 40,000 people have been displaced to safe zones around Idlib and Latakia. A Turkish proxy force known variably as the Suriye Türkmen Ordusu (“Syrian Turkmen Army”) or Suriye Türkmen Tugayları (“Syrian Turkmen Brigades”) — the military wing of the political Suriye Türkmen Meclisi, (“Syrian Turkmen Assembly”) — is active in Latakia’s Bayırbucak region.[13] Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova categorically rejected President Erdoğan’s accusation, stating “They are inventing, I can’t think of a different verb here, and disseminating various conspiracy theories about some true reasons of Russia (presence) in Syria.”[14]

Western Kurdistan
Western Kurdistan (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Russia may find its Syrian Kadyrovtsy in the Kurdish Rojavayê Kurdistanê region of northern Syria, also known as “Western Kurdistan” or simply “Rojova.” Three noncontiguous enclaves there — the cantons of Cizre, Kobane, and Afrin — declared autonomy in January 2014. The Kurdish opposition political party Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (“Democratic Union Party”) controls the three cantons. It is affiliated politically with the larger Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (“Kurdistan Workers Party) commonly referred to by its Kurdish acronym, PKK.[15] The PYD’s armed wing, the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (variably the “People’s Protection Units” or “People’s Defense Units”), functions as a defense force for Rojava and is deeply engaged in combat operations against ISIS on five front lines across northern Syria.


The Three Cantons of Western Kurdistan
The Three Cantons of Western Kurdistan (Source: Wikimedia)
Source: Wikimedia


There are many signs of Russian-YPG cooperation within the northern Syrian battlespace. Turkey’s semi-official Anadolu news agency reported that Russian aircraft are providing support for YPG ground forces.[16] At the same time, YPG Commander Huseyin Kocer said that while Russian airstrikes were dealing a “a very serious blow” to ISIS, “the Turkish military has instead been attacking Kurdish areas.”[17] The PYD intends to open a diplomatic mission in Russia according to an October 2015 Kommersant report.[18] Russia declared the PYD “legitimate representatives of the Syrian opposition, with which Russian authorities intend to engage in dialogue in an effort to resolve the situation in this part of Syria.”[19]

How might this play out? For the answer to that question, we return to Russia’s counterinsurgency campaign in Chechnya. There, Russian regular armed forces were supplemented by loyal paramilitary units — the composition of which included many boeviki or former insurgents who fought against the pro-Russian Chechen federal government during the battle phase (August 1999-May 2000) of the Second Chechen War — to engage Islamist insurgents on Chechen territory during the war’s insurgency phase (June 2000-April 2009).[20]

Four pro-Russian paramilitaries were built around Chechen clan structures.[21] The Kadyrovtsy aligned with the Russian Interior Ministry (aka the MVD, the acronym of the Russian transliteration Ministerstvo Vnutrennikh Del). The Yamadaevtsy comprised the Vostok (“East”) special battalion of the Russian Army’s Main Intelligence Directorate (aka the GRU, the acronym of the Russian transliteration Glavnoye razvedyvatel’noye upravleniye). The Kakiyevsky comprised the GRU’s Zapad (“West”) special battalion; it was the only paramilitary formation in which former boeviki did not comprise a majority, as the Kakiyevsky were aligned with the pro-Russian side since the conflict’s outbreak in 1992. The Baysarovtsy transformed over time from a praetorian guard into the Gorets (“Mountaineers”) special battalion of the Russian Federal Security Service (aka the FSB, the acronym of the Russian transliteration Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti). The pro-Russian Chechen paramilitaries never comprised an especially large force — informed estimates suggest its ranks never exceeded 4000, and some suggest a number closer to 3000.[22] Nonetheless the paramilitaries were highly effective (if often, brutally so) during the counterinsurgency phase of Russian operations in Chechnya.[23]

Russia openly admitted in October 2015 that it is coordinating operations in Syria with Kurdish forces, which it claims to be arming through the Iraqi central government.[24] Indigenous forces have, of course, frequently been deployed to assist in fighting insurgencies: there is, as Russia’s experience in Chechnya confirms, nothing new to this. In the Syrian battlespace, however, it also serves to correct the asymmetry that favors insurgents over stronger incumbents, which is the formers ability to leverage violent mobilization[25] — for example, retaliating against an inhospitable local population — and support structures. Russia confronted this asymmetry in the First Chechen War (December 1994-August 1996) when it prevailed in the conflict’s conventional phase but not in the ensuing insurgency phase. Thus when conventional warfare broke out again in 1999, Russia mobilized the Kadyrovtsy, and used the Chechen clan code of retaliation as a basis to mobilize against the insurgents, erasing the asymmetry the insurgents heretofore enjoyed.[26]

One challenge is that the forces in opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’athist/Alawite Syria are (likely unintentionally) emulating Russian strategy during the First Chechen War.[27] Russia learned that conflict’s lessons well: the empowerment of small-unit combat groups; a penchant for a nonlinear view of the battlespace; developing a robust capability to disseminate functional information to combat units; and a high degree of tactical decentralization of authority.[28] The networked nature of Kurdish society, like Chechen society, is well suited for the nonlinear conflict in Syria.

Whether Russia’s counterinsurgency strategy can succeed in the Syrian battlespace remains to be seen, but irrespective it is preposterous to suggest Russia is guided solely by impulsive opportunism. It distracts from the more fundamental question whether a strategy that was orientated toward preserving Chechnya’s geographical integrity (and its attachment to Russia) can succeed in an environment in which Syria seems more likely to fractionate into rump statelets — a Ba’athist/Alawite Syria, a Sunni Syria, and a trans-border Kurdistan — with the very real possibility it might provoke a Sunni-Shi’a partitioning in neighboring Iraq.

Many Western critics of Mr. Putin see fit to animadvert at length about the deficiencies of Russia’s strategy in eastern Ukraine, overlooking the plain fact that Russia has largely succeeded in accomplishing a set of objectives there. It has created conditions under which Ukraine’s hoped-for accession to European Union and NATO membership is unlikely to proceed further; its proxy force established and enforces a geographic buffer into which Russian armed forces can move at will; it can destabilize the post-Maidan regime in Kyev at will; and it moved the Minsk process into what are now effectively bilateral Russian-Ukrainian discussions. That critics have consistently misjudged the importance Russia attaches to these objectives is evident in their continuing bewilderment over the cost, in short-term economic and diplomatic terms, that Mr. Putin has been willing to pay to achieve them, as well as the generalized failure of Western sanctions to influence Russian conduct except at the margin.

Mordant pronouncements about the shortcomings of Russian strategy in Syria (or indeed, whether Mr. Putin’s government even has one) more likely reflect a failure of analysis or understanding than insight. Given what is to some (the author included) the apparent incoherence of the United States’ strategy in the Syrian battlespace, perhaps a more reflective attitude is in order. Russia may indeed find its Syrian Kadyrovtsy. A Ba’athist/Alawite enclave may take form in Latakia, along with a Kurdish Rojova rump state in northern Syria. If so, the least of the United States’ concerns will be whether or not Mr. Putin has a coherent long-term strategy in Syria, because it will be evident that we do not.


The translation of all source material is by the author unless otherwise noted.

[1] “James Clapper: Vladimir Putin in Syria is ‘winging this’.” CNN [published online 30 October 2015].…. Last accessed 13 January 2015.

[2] Michael A. McFaul (2015). “The Myth­ of Putin’s Strategic Genius.” The New York Times [published online 23 October 2015].…. Last accessed 13 January 2016.

[3] Josh Cohen (2015). “Putin Is Achieving His Goals in Syria.” The Moscow Times [published online in English 12 November 2015].…. Last accessed 13 January 2016.

[4] A late August 2013 tweet by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s former envoy to NATO, claimed Western nations were acting in the Islamic world like a “monkey with a hand grenade.” See: “Rogozin sravnil Zapad s obez’yanoy s granatoy.” [published online in Russian 27 August 2013].…. Last accessed 13 January 2016.

[5] Ben Judah described Mr. Putin’s approach to the analogous conflict in Chechnya as “a medieval peace.”

[6] The author credits the elaboration of this argument by Tomáš Šmíd and Miroslav Mareš (2015). See ” ‘Kadyrovtsy’: Russia’s Counterinsurgency Strategy and the Wars of Paramilitary Clans.” Journal of Strategic Studies, 38: 5, 650-677. The authors elaborate [p. 652] the term Kadyrovtsy as “grammatically rooted in Russian, [it] is used in a narrow sense to describe armed men subordinated to the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. In a wider sense and especially with reference to the later period of Kadyrov’s rule, the term is applied to all representatives of Kadyrov’s regime, from the local level to that of the whole republic.” The Kadyrovtsy is a markedly hierarchical organization with strong personalized leadership based on clan and family bonds.

[7] Stanislav Belkovskiy (2006). “Putin and the Caucasus (Chechnya is already de facto Separated from Russia).” Caucasus Times [published online in English 18 April 2006]. Last accessed 14 January 2016.

[8] Alexander Dugin (2014). Putin vs. Putin: Vladimir Putin Viewed from the Right. (London: Arktos), 13-14. This is one of four works by the Russian Eurasianist Alexander Dugin that have been translated into English.  It is based on the 2012 Russian edition, to which two appendices written in early 2014 were added.

[9] Natan Dubovitsky (2014). “Bez nada” (“Without Sky”), Russkiy pioner (“Russian Pioneer“) [published online in Russian 20 May 2014] 46:1. Last accessed 12 January 2016.

[10] There is precedent for this. The French Mandate established the autonomous État des Alaouites or “Alawite State” in July 1922. It was renamed the Government of Latakia in 1930, and reincorporated into Syria in December 1936.

[11] Mr. Putin declared in his September 2015 speech before the United Nations General Assembly, “We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s Armed Forces and Kurd militia are truly fighting the Islamic State.” See:…. Last accessed 15 January 2016.

[12] “Erdoğan: Russia wants to form boutique state in Latakia, Syria.” Daily Sabah [published online in English 12 January 2016].…. Last accessed 16 January 2016.

[13] A second Turkmen group, the Democratic Turkmen Movement of Syria (which split from the STA in March 2012) is active further to the east in the Aleppo region.

[14] “Russia dismisses Erdogan’s Syria ’boutique’ state claims.” PressTV [published online in Russian 14 January 2016].…. Last accessed 16 January 2016.

[15] Turkey designates the PYD and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as terrorist organizations because of their links to the PKK.

[16] “YPG advances near Turkey’s border.” Rudaw [published online 28 November 2015]. Last accessed 16 January 2016.

[17] “‘Russia Smashing Daesh While Turkey Attacks Us’ – Syrian Kurdish Commander,” Sputnik [published online in English 18 December 2015].…. Last accessed 16 January 2016.

[18] “Kurdskaya avtonomiya prosit ofisnogo priznaniya. V Moskve mozhet otkryt’sya predstavitel’stvo Siriyskogo Kurdistana,” Kommersant [published online in Russian 20 October 2016]. Last accessed 16 January 2016.

[19] Ibid.

[20] This is a classic formulation in the use of paramilitary forces. See: Andrew Scobell & Brad Hammitt (1998), “Goons, Gunmen, and Gendarmerie: Toward A Reconceptualization of Paramilitary Formations.” Journal of Political & Military Sociology. 26:2, 213-228.

[21] Chechen clan structures are called taip, the members of which are identified by their descent from a common ancestor twelve generations removed. A taip corresponds with two to three villages of 400-600 people, each under a Council of Elders. Each taip divides into sub-clan formations called ne’ke or gar consisting of 10–50 families. Each taip is grouped into tribes called tukhum, which are spread across Chechnya and divided by location. See: Johanna Nichols (1995). “Who are the Chechens?” Central Asian Survey, 14:4, 573–577. See also: Aleksei Malashenko (1996), “Islam in the Northern Caucasus,” Prism. 2:2 (October 1996).

[22] Šmíd & Mareš (2015), op cit., 658-659, discuss a range of estimates by knowledgeable Russian sources.

[23] Chechen small-unit cohesion during the war benefited greatly from the fact that fighters were almost always serving in combat with their kinsmen. A particular taip, for example, might have a supply of 600 fighters who were subdivided into units of 150, and further into 20-man squads. Each unit would deploy for successive periods of one week, one after the other such that a given clan always had units in action. While it is outside the scope of this essay, fierce rivalries and power struggles among the paramilitaries caused them to clash violently toward the end of the war’s insurgency phase (June 2000-April 2009). The Kadyrovtsy emerged as dominant due in no small part to its skill in managing the inter-clan rivalries in a way that avoided large-scale armed conflict that could have derailed the counterinsurgency effort.

[24] Majeed Gly (2015). “Lavrov: Russia sending arms to KRG via Baghdad.” Rûdaw [published online in English 2 October 2015]. Last accessed 17 January 2016.

[25] This is sometimes called motivational asymmetry, a term coined by Andrew Mack. See: Mack (1975). “Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: The Politics of Asymmetric Conflict.” World Politics 27:1, 175-200.…. Last accessed 16 January 2016.

[26] See: Emil A. Souleimanova & Huseyn Aliye (2014). “Asymmetry of Values, Indigenous Forces, and Incumbent Success in Counterinsurgency: Evidence from Chechnya.” Journal of Strategic Studies 38:5, 678-703.

[27] Russian strategy, such as it was, consisted of counter-leadership strikes targeting the [power structure around Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev, and the capture of Grozny. John Arquilla & Theodore Karasik (1999), “Chechnya: A Glimpse of Future Conflict?” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 22:3, 208.

[28] Ibid., 223-224