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From Ukraine To Syria, Mercenaries With A Cause

Troops fighting around the world are often chasing enemies from somewhere else. A global tour of how the shards of 'broken nations' are fed into the conflicts of others.

A Cossack protest in Kiev in August
A Cossack protest in Kiev in August
Fehim Tastekin

ISTANBUL — I was speaking last week with a local leader of the Circassian community who told me about a Caucasian militant injured in Syria while fighting on the side of the opposition. After he was brought to Turkey, the injured militant was asked: “What is your business in the war in Syria?” He answered “Actually, I am fighting against Russia there.”

Fighting an ally of Moscow (the Assad regime) serves as an act of hostility against Russia. Of course, there is more to it: the Caucasian resistance movement has also undergone an ideological metamorphosis, and joined the global jihad network. Unfortunately, nations which have been torn apart by war and chaos may easily provide soldiers for others' causes. They are brave, loyal and fit for battle, precious human resources for warlords. Add to that an ideological or religious connection, and the deal is done.

The wounded Caucasian man straddles a border of an unfinished war in his homeland. Such a state of usefulness is not limited to Moscow's enemies, but to its allies as well. For example, while the Vostok Battalion composed of Chechens fought alongside the Ossetians against Georgia in 2008 in the war in Southern Ossetia, pro-independence Chechens were on the side of Tbilisi.

Today, a similar situation is happening in Ukraine.

There are widespread reports that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a man of the Kremlin, is sending hundreds of fighters to support the pro-Russian groups in eastern Ukraine fighting Kiev forces in Donetsk and Luhansk. The Kavkaz Center, which is the voice of the Caucasus Emirate, reported on August 21 that up to 150 Chechen fighters have died in Ukraine in recent weeks. Those who volunteer for the war are reportedly being paid $350 per day.

But the volunteers are not only Chechens. Yunus-bek Yevkurov, the leader of the Republic of Ingushetia, confirmed that the Ingushs are participating in the war in Ukraine. Similarly, it was revealed that fighters are going to Ukraine from South Ossetia, where Russia has recognized its independence. Valery Dzutsev from the Eurasia Daily Monitor wrote that an advertisement looking for volunteers to fight in Ukraine was published on the Region15.ru website operated from Northern Ossetia.

Then there are the Russian Cossacks, both with Ukrainian and Russian citizenship, who are reportedly fighting in large numbers alongside the pro-Russian separatists. The Russian Cossacks used to be the strike forces for the Czars who believed a Russian empire without the Caucasus is an incomplete one.

Indeed, the Cossacks retrieved their former status under the rule of Vladimir Putin, who dreams of the Novorossiya (New Russia), echoing the words of Leon Trotsky: “Russia cannot be without Ukraine. Russia cannot exist without Ukraine’s coal, iron, mines, bread, lard oil and the Black Sea.”

And still, there are also Caucasians who support Kiev. Akhmed Zakayev, a sworn enemy of Putin and prime minister of the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, reminded his people of the loyalty they owe to a handful of Ukrainians who fought for Chechenya during the first war of 1994-1996. He publicly advised Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko: “Never negotiate with Putin before freeing your lands.”

Middle East remains

All of this recalls the Palestinians, whom we have seen also exhibit the reflexes of a “broken nation.” Fatah-al Islam appeared as an armed Salafi organization in 2006 and became a part of the sectarian war financed by Saudi Arabia and the U.S.. The Palestinians have fought for opposing sides in conflicts across the region. The Yermuk refugee camp near Damascus, which houses 150,000 Palestinians, quickly transformed into a base for the likes of the more secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Islamist al-Nusra Front.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government did not have trouble finding Palestinians to fight for the regime either. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine offered its militants to prevent FSA and al-Nusra from infiltrating the camp.

Hamas turned their back on Damascus, which had been a critical supporter, and joined the conflict by offering the Syrian resistance their know-how for tunneling works. Some militants from Gaza actually went and joined the Syrian resistance. Of course, Hamas regrets this today and is trying to rebuild relations with Damascus.

Libya, which is in chaos after the NATO intervention, is also on the path of becoming a “broken nation” which would send troops to all fronts.

It is the latest reminder that nations subjected to massacres, left in a political vacuum, are going to be populated by those with a gun still in their hands, bound to be tools in somebody else's wars.

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Photograph of a large mural of a woman painted in blue on a wall in Naples

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Oriel Mizrahi/Unsplash
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