EXPLANATOR: Will Russia bring Syrian fighters to Ukraine?

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By ZEINA KARAM

BEIRUT (AP) — With Russia’s war on Ukraine now entering its third week, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday approved the arrival of volunteer fighters from the Middle East, particularly Syria.

Syria clearly has a rich pool of fighters to draw from. The Russian military has deep roots in the Middle Eastern country, where its intervention – from 2015 – helped Syrian President Bashar Assad gain the upper hand in the 11-year-old civil war.

But less clear is the significance, scale or effectiveness of a Syrian deployment.

On Friday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu mentioned “more than 16,000 applications” already from the Middle East, without however specifying which country it is. Syrian opposition activists say Russia recently began recruiting efforts in Syria for the war in Ukraine, but has so far estimated the scale of those efforts at much lower numbers.

The announcement came after the Ukrainian government said around 20,000 foreigners from various nations had already joined the so-called International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine, most of them from Western countries.

Who are these potential pro-Russian volunteers?

NO SHORTAGE OF FIGHTERS

Syria’s long and grueling war has spawned a multitude of armed factions, militias and mercenaries on all sides of the conflict.

The ranks of pro-government paramilitary groups in Syria include tens of thousands of so-called National Defense Forces, Christian militia fighters and army defectors skilled in urban warfare and guerrilla warfare. They also include other Russian-backed auxiliary units and militias that fought alongside the Syrian army.

“If needed, Russia could quickly recruit members of these groups to fight in Ukraine,” said Danny Makki, a Syrian analyst.

Joined by Iranian-backed fighters from Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region, these forces not only fought Syrian rebels, but also helped fight the Islamic State group after it invaded large parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

Thousands of mercenaries from the Russian private contractor Wagner Group have also deployed in Syria.

“Given the misery of Syria’s economy, there would be no shortage of battle-hardened military-age men willing to risk their lives for minimal material gain,” Makki wrote in an analysis for the Middle East Institute. , where he is a non-resident scholar.

It would not be the first time that Syrian fighters have been recruited for conflicts abroad. Turkey, another major player in Syria, has recruited Syrian mercenaries to bolster its fighters in other wars. These include the conflicts in Azerbaijan and Libya, where the presence of thousands of foreign fighters, including those from Syria, Sudan and Turkey, remains a major obstacle to peace.

RECRUITMENT EFFORTS UNDERWAY

Evidence of recruitment among Syrian fighters, particularly in government-controlled territories, is only just beginning to emerge.

Omar Abu Layla, a Europe-based activist who heads the Syria war monitoring group DeirEzzor 24, said recruitment led by the Wagner group had been going on for days in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, near the border with Iraq.

Abu Layla said that so far dozens of men have registered in the province. He claimed that Russia offered volunteers from the country between $200 and $300 to operate as security guards in Ukraine for six months at a time.

Some Syrian observers and activists suggest that any ongoing recruitment so far is largely symbolic and in its infancy.

On Friday, an ad for a “combat role” in Ukraine was posted on a closed Facebook group for soldiers from the Fourth Armored Division, one of the largest in the Syrian army. He offered a payment of $3,000 based on the candidate’s expertise and said enrollment was limited.

The TV channel run by the Russian Defense Ministry aired footage purportedly from Syria showing armed men in uniform it described as potential volunteers. The men waved Russian and Syrian flags and held up a sign bearing the letter “Z” – used on Russian armored vehicles in Ukraine and now a symbol of support for Russian troops.

Ahmad al-Ahmad, an opposition activist in northwestern Syria, said that in the government-controlled northern town of Ethraya, the Russians asked senior military officers to Fifth Corps, a Russian-backed Syrian army force, to recruit young men with experience in urban combat who are willing to go to Ukraine.

As many as 3,000 people have registered in southern Syria, he said. It was not possible for the Associated Press to confirm this information immediately.

Syrians for Truth and Justice, an independent civil society organization, said in a report this week that they had interviewed at least two Syrians based in rural Damascus who registered with government security services. Syrian. They confirmed that lists with the names of potential recruits were to be presented to Russian forces in Syria for approval for deployment to Ukraine.

WHAT MIDEAST RECRUITS OFFER?

Seasoned and experienced urban warfare fighters in Syria have, in some cases, little to lose. Yet despite their decade-long war, Syrian fighters, for example, are not known to be particularly skilled fighters.

In 2015, it took the Russian Air Force, Lebanese Hezbollah militants and Iranian forces to bolster Assad’s fledgling army against the opposition. Foreign fighters have generally had the upper hand on the battlefields throughout the conflict, including in the war against IS.

Syrian experts have also questioned the usefulness of Middle Eastern recruits in Ukraine, whose language they do not speak and are unfamiliar with the terrain or harsh weather conditions.

However, if the war drags on and Russian forces become bogged down, foreign fighters will become a more attractive option.

Makki, the analyst, said reports of Syrians fighting with Russia were premature.

“However, given Moscow’s growing losses, the Syrians are attractive and cheap mercenaries in the eyes of Russia,” he said.


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