Ukraine war: 'Thousands' of Syrian mercenaries recruited by Russia
Russian officials said on Friday that thousands of "volunteers" from the Middle East were requesting to fight in Ukraine, seemingly confirming earlier reports in international media that Russia was recruiting Syrian mercenaries.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said during a meeting of the Russian Security Council on Friday that 16,000 "volunteers" from the Middle East were ready to fight.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also told reporters on the same day that "most of the people who want and asked [to fight] are citizens of countries in the Middle East and Syria".
Russian officials did not provide any evidence to back these figures, which are likely inflated.
The statement follows claims made last week by US officials, and reported by the US daily Wall Street Journal, that Russia was recruiting Syrian mercenaries with experience in urban guerrilla warfare to fight in Ukraine.
On Thursday, the Ukraine ministry of defence said dog tags displaying Syrian telephone numbers had been found on the bodies of killed Russian mercenaries.
Social media pages linked to the Syrian regime have shared information about "volunteering" to fight in Ukraine and about financial rewards, Alaraby Al Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication, also reported.
Russia was a key backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when war broke out.
It entered the conflict in 2015 and turned the tide of the fighting in the regime's favour through heavy bombing campaigns that notably targeted schools, hospitals and the media.
Over the past years, Russia and Turkey have leveraged their respective influence in Syria to recruit hundreds of Syrians to fight for their respective allies abroad, notably in Libya and in Naborno-Karabakh.
Many Syrians were drawn into this dangerous job - often advertised as limited guarding and security tasks - by desperation and rising poverty.
Sources in the regime-controlled city of Hama told the daily that the Russian army was offering monthly salaries ranging between 300 and 600 dollars to Syrians interested in fighting in Ukraine.
Earlier this month, Ukraine also announced the creation of foreign volunteer contingents that would fight Russian forces alongside its armed forces.