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Hundreds of Russian Islamists Fighting Assad in Syria

Ivan Nechepurenko
The Moscow Times

At least 200 Russian-speaking Salafi Muslims are fighting against Bashar  Assad’s regime in Syria, according to an expert at a state-run  think tank. Rais Suleimanov, head of the Kazan-based Volga Center for Regional  and Ethno-Religious Studies, said he got this number from Russian  militants themselves, who he said have “no interest in exaggerating  it.”

He said the militants come from CIS countries including Ukraine  and from different regions of Russia, among them Tatarstan  and the volatile North Caucasus, where Russian law enforcement is battling  an intractable insurgency of separatist Islamist militants.

Other experts cast doubt on the reliability of the figure cited  by Suleimanov, saying it was virtually impossible to verify. But they  said that given Russia’s staunch support of the Assad regime, it would be  natural for militants opposed to the Russian government to help  fight a kind of proxy war in Syria.

Factions within the Syrian rebel forces are believed to favor  the creation of a Sunni Islamist state, and the vast majority  of North Caucasus Muslims are also Sunni. Assad’s government is largely  supported by Shiite Muslims.

The presence of Russian-speaking militants in Syria could be  a serious cause for concern for the Russian government,  the experts said, given the likelihood that they could return  to Russia battle-toughened.

The fact that some of the militants allegedly in Syria may be  from outside the North Caucasus could also be a source  of worry for the government, as it shows the spread  of extremist Islamist ideology in Russian Muslim communities.

In July, Tatarstan’s top Muslim leader, Ildus Faizov, miraculously  survived three bomb blasts that destroyed his car in Kazan in the  first major attack against religious leaders outside the North Caucasus.  Minutes before, a former aide to Faizov was shot dead by gunmen  in the Volga city.

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