Syrian fighters who fought the Islamic State and insurgents are signing up to join the war in Ukraine as Putin seeks reinforcements for his forces. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the total number of reported sign-ups from Syria is around 40,000 fighters suiting up for the Russian military and the Wagner Group.

The governments of Russia and Syria have been in close cooperation since Moscow intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2015. The two have maintained good relations ever since Putin visited Syria in 2017. During his visit, Putin was quoted telling his Syrian counterpart that their cooperation “will lead to great successes in the future.”

Previously, SOFREP reported on Russia’s attempt to recruit Syrian fighters for $200 to $300 to operate as “guards” for a six-month period. Furthermore, SOFREP’s own Guy McCardle reported on a Facebook advertisement posted on a private group for soldiers of Syria’s Fourth Armored Division. The ad stated that soldiers were to be deployed to Ukraine for about $3,000.

Members of Syrian Brigadier-General Suheil Salman al-Hassan’s division (also known as the Tiger Force) are reportedly registering to join the Russian force in Ukraine. The division is one of the hundreds of Syrian combatants trained by Russia during its intervention. Other fighters were also reportedly former soldiers, rebels, and veterans who fought against ISIS in the Syrian desert for years.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus (Mil.ru, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bashar_al-Assad_and_Sergey_Shoigu_(2022-02-15)_04.jpg
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus (Mil.ruCC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons).

A report from AP News says that Moscow is expecting around 40,000 fighters from Syria to replenish the depleted Russian army mired in a grueling war of attrition in Ukraine. These Russian forces have resupplied and are embarking on an eastern offensive into Donbas while trying to take the city of Mariupol in the process.

Head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, said that of the 40,000 recruits, 22,000 registered with the Russian military. The remaining 18,000 signed up with the Wagner Group, a Private Military Contracting company that is basically a Russian mercenary group that acts on orders from Putin and the Kremlin.

Currently, only a small number of Syrian combatants have been confirmed to arrive in Russia for training. Earlier in the war, Moscow claimed to have received over 16,000 applications from Middle Eastern fighters, but Western officials and observers contested the claim.

However, as the Kremlin pivots its war goals to the easter regions of Ukraine, the probability of recruiting Syrian fighters is becoming more likely as Russia pushes into the Donbas region. Observers believe that Syrians could be seen fighting on the front lines in the upcoming weeks, especially after General Alexander Dvornikov, former commander of the Russian forces in Syria, has been named the top chief for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. We suspect Russia will not be paying Syria mercenaries $3,000 just to guard a truck park or peel potatoes, it has plenty of conscripts to do that.  What Russia needs are soldiers with combat experience who have no familial or cultural ties to Ukraine and will therefore fight harder.

“Russia is preparing for a greater battle,” said Syrian army defector and now Turkey-based military analyst Ahmad Hamada. He also echoed that Syrian recruits will probably participate in the war.

Syria’s Tiger Force

According to a report, about 700 fighters from al-Hassan’s 25th Special Missions Forces Division have departed Syria to join the Russian army. Known back in Syria as the Tiger Force, it is an elite unit from the Syrian Army primarily used for offensive operations during the civil war.

The division is credited for some of the major victories of the Syrian government during the 11-year war. The division was also deployed in the Russian-supported campaign to defeat the last rebel hideout in Idlib. The operation took several months to complete, ending in March 2020 after the Syrian forces took control of a crucial north-south highway, though the rebels maintained hold of their hideout.

Soldiers from the 25th Special Missions Division in Maarat al-Numan (EDAM). Source: https://edam.org.tr/en/counting-down-to-broader-armed-conflict-in-idlib/
Soldiers from the 25th Special Missions Division in Maarat al-Numan (EDAM)

Pro-government supporters posted several videos showing members of the Tiger Force conducting military exercises, including parachute drills from helicopters. In one of the videos, Russian officers appeared to be inside one of the helicopters, advising paratroopers before the jump. It is not yet known when the videos were shot.

Abdurrahman added that there were also recruits from Bashar al-Assad’s forces, namely, the Baath Brigades, the Russian-trained 5th Division, and the Palestinian Quds Brigade. All forces, in some form, have fought during the Syrian Civil War with the Russians.

“The Russians are looking for experienced fighters. They don’t want anyone who was not trained by the Russians,” Abdurrahman said.

Is There Confirmation of Syrian Fighter Recruitments?

On April 4, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said the United States had seen signs that point to the Wagner Group recruiting additional fighters to send to Donbas. Kirby added that these recruits were mostly being sourced from the Middle East, including Syria.

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“We have also seen indications that the Russian Ministry of Defense is looking for other ways to reinforce their manpower, bringing troops in from other places outside of Ukraine and, in fact, from outside Russia,” Kirby said.

However, the Pentagon spokesperson cautioned that these indications remain limited and do not point to a significant inflow of reinforcement.

“We just aren’t there yet to see anything real demonstrable when it comes to reinforcement… What we have seen is more strikes in the Donbas. More offensive maneuvers by the Russians in the Donbas… we’ll just have to see as this unveils,” he added.

Retired General of the Lebanese Army Naji Malaeb, who has been following the Syrian war, said there are currently no signs leading to the presence of Syrian fighters in or going to Russia. He noted, however, that this could change as Moscow and Kyiv are locked in a stalemate.

“This all depends on what the Russians plan to do in the near future,” Malaeb said.

Syrian officials have been modest about the reports of their fighters going to Ukrainian. This is likely because Syria is concerned that the news of fighters leaving the country might be exploited by the country’s opponents. Moreover, Russia has significantly decreased its military presence in Syria since the start of the invasion of Ukraine.

“Any change in the posture of Russian forces or pro-regime militias creates security gaps that anti-regime actors including Turkey, ISIS, al-Qaida, and Syrian opposition groups can exploit,” US-based think tank Institute for the Study of War said.

SOFREP believes that the Russians may be recruiting Syrians to fight their war in Ukraine not only because they are losing so many soldiers but also because there is a close relationship between Ukrainians and Russians.

In a previous report, we said that many Ukrainians and Russians have relatives in both countries as their populations are historically and culturally linked. While both countries have differences in culture and societal aspects, the reality that both Russians and Ukrainians have relatives in both countries may play a part in the Russian forces’ hesitance in killing Ukrainians.

“We could imagine a similar reluctance by American troops to fight Canadians as well for similar reasons. By bringing in Syrian and Chechen Muslims, Putin may be hoping that these troops will be more aggressive in taking the fight forward for him.” – SOFREP