According to US intelligence reports, the Kremlin is recruiting Syrian volunteers to fight in their invasion of Ukraine. Moscow appears to be seeking Syrians with urban combat experience to help bolster their campaign to take hold of Ukraine. As reported by Ukrainian news sources, the move hints at a probable escalation of fighting in the coming days amid suffering almost 12,000 casualties. The Russians heavily dispute this number, reporting just about 500 casualties last week, while the Pentagon states that 4,000 Russian troops had died.
“The accounts of the Russians seeking Syrian fighters to augment their forces in Ukraine, we do believe there’s truth to that,” said Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby. “It’s interesting that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin would have to rely on foreign fighters.”
Kirby disclosed that there is no confirmation of how many fighters have been recruited, but he said some of them are already in Russia, preparing for deployment to Ukraine. It also remains unclear how long it would take for these men to reach Ukraine and how they would be integrated into the Russian army. It is also unknown what specific roles the Syrians would perform in their deployment.
“We do have indications that corroborate that story that in fact they are trying to enlist and recruit foreign fighters, which we find noteworthy that with more than 150,000 troops, a stalled military advance inside Ukraine, particularly in the north, that Mr. Putin has found it necessary to try to recruit foreign fighters for this war of his,” Kirby said.
In an exclusive report by a Syrian publication known as Deir Ezzor 24, Russia was said to be offering monetary compensation ranging from $200 to $300 and additional privileges to Syrians willing to go to Ukraine and operate as “guards” for a six month period. Prior to employing the help of Syrians, the Russian military has also employed the usage of Chechen forces to fight in Ukraine, specifically to hunt down and assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov swore cooperation with Putin. However, they have already recorded casualties. It was reported that a convoy of 56 Chechen tanks and their general Magomed Tushayev, head of the 141 motorized regiment of the Chechnya National Guard, had been killed by Ukrainian forces.
“The president (Putin) took the right decision, and we will carry out his orders under any circumstances,” said Kadyrov.
As reported by Kirby, Belarus, a Russian ally whose border was used as a staging ground for the Ukrainian invasion, has yet to show signs of its own troops partaking in the invasion. These reports of Russia tapping foreign forces come as the Russian advance towards the Ukrainian capital has continued to stall even with Moscow engaging nearly 100% of its invasion force, according to a Senior Defence Official from the Pentagon.
“We’re not seeing a lot of progress, at least over the course of the last couple of days. They continue to have some progress in the South, as we’ve talked about,” said the official.
Ukraine has also formed its “International Legion” to support the Ukrainian army fight off the Russians. Since President Volodymyr Zelensky called for foreign volunteers, it has attracted more than 20,000 people from 52 countries, according to Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
Charles Lister, an expert on Syria from the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, questioned the effectiveness of combatants from the Middle East to fight in Europe. According to him, there are a handful of Russian-trained Syrians who took part in hunting down members of the Islamic State currently in Ukraine, but the consensus from Moscow does not consider Syrian fighters to be adept at urban warfare.
“Bringing Syrians into Ukraine is like bringing Martians to fight on the moon,” said Lister in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “They don’t speak the language, [and] the environment is totally different.”
The Russian Federation has close ties with Damascus since it answered their request for military support while fighting alleged Islamic State members in 2015. However, the US contested this claim as the locations where Russian airstrikes were conducted appeared to be aimed at rebels supported by Gulf Arab and Western states.
What is Syria’s stance on Russia?
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has praised the Russian invasion of Ukraine, calling the crisis a “correction of history and restoration of balance which was lost in the world after the breakup of the Soviet Union.”
“Syria stands with the Russian Federation based on its conviction that its position is correct and because confronting NATO expansionism is a right for Russia,” he stated.
Syria has also condemned the “hysterical” escalation campaigns from the US and its Western allies toward Russia, claiming that it is an attempt to distort faces, worsen the situation, and was an effort to establish their hold of the world.
“The Syrian Arab Republic affirms that Russia has the full right to defend itself and keep imminent danger away from its people in the face of attempts by the West and the United States to threaten its national security and target its stability,” said the Syrian Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Ministry in a statement.
It can also be remembered that Syria was one of the few countries that voted against the UNGA resolution deploring the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which was overwhelmingly supported by most countries in the entire world, with 141 countries voting in favor of the said resolution.
Contrary to their government, there are those in Syria who sympathize with the people of Ukraine. Leader of the White Helmets Raed Al-Saleh, a Syrian civil rescue group, had flashbacks of his lost colleagues after watching videos of Ukraine.
“The video reminded me of how this happened to many of my colleagues,” said al-Saleh through a translator in a TIME interview. “The entirety of this invasion and the scenes of destruction are so reminiscent of what happened in Syria.”
Founder of the Syrian Archive Hadi Al-Khatib, an online vault of potential war crime evidence, also expressed solidarity with Ukraine. In a statement with TIME, he announced the creation of similar advocacy to gather digital evidence in the conflict in Ukraine.
Ordinary Syrians are sharing their insights online to help Ukrainians survive in war zones. A mural to support Ukraine was painted in the city of Binnish in the Idlib province of Syria to show their support.
“The Syrian regime and its Russian allies turned our houses into ruins for the past 11 years, causing many people to be displaced from their homes and villages,” said Aziz Al-Asmar, the artist who made the mural, referring to reported civilian casualties during the Russian military intervention in Syria.
“What is happening now in Ukraine is the continuation of Russia’s policy, and it won’t stop if the [UN] Security Council and the international community do not unite and put an end to it.”
The attempt by Russia to send first Chechen Muslims and now Syrian Muslims to fight in Ukraine may be about more than just having more bodies to send into the fray. According to our sources in Ukraine, there is indeed a close relationship between Ukrainians and Russians culturally, with intermarriage common between both countries. Ukraine, West of the Dneiper River tends to be more nationalist in its outlook and looking towards Western Europe while East of the river, the attitudes are more Russia-fied. There are a large number of Ukrainians living in Russia as well. The number of Russian soldiers surrendering and the lackluster progress of their offensive may be due in some part to a reluctance to shoot 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. There is a long history of this in warfare. During the American Revolution, King George of England make extensive use of some 30,000 Hessian(Western Germany) mercenaries in the American colonies due to some reluctance by British troops and their officers to deal with the rebels and fellow Britons too harshly. As you might expect, they were widely despised in by the Colonists and their depredations were given a specific mention in the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson.