Why haven't Syrian fighters joined Russia's war efforts yet?
Russia’s assault on Ukraine has been viciously raging for approximately two months, leaving little gains to show in the grand scheme of things.
With Russian forces mired in a costly, long-drawn-out conflict with the Ukrainian military, we have seen nothing yet of Putin’s claim at the start of the invasion that “16,000 volunteers from the Middle East were ready to fight for Russia.”
In fact, despite considerable losses in manpower and equipment for Moscow, we have seen no evidence at all of any Syrian or Middle Eastern fighters in Ukraine whatsoever, either as volunteers or mercenaries.
Although there has been a wide-ranging and, at times, speculative information rush following the potential participation of pro-Russian mercenary groups in Syria, sources closer to the ground show that not much has happened in terms of Syrians taking up arms.
"Although there has been a wide-ranging and, at times, speculative information rush following the potential participation of pro-Russian mercenary groups in Syria, sources closer to the ground show that not much has happened in terms of Syrians taking up arms"
While outlets like The Guardian claimed that “Russia deployed up to 20,000 mercenaries in the battle for Ukraine’s Donbas region”, citing European officials, such numbers are unfounded, what little information can be gathered fails to match up with assertions.
Oleksiy Danilov, Zelensky’s top security adviser, told Sky News, “There are a lot of them [Syrians] there, and they continue to gather from all over the world; we already have pictures of killed Syrians who, as we understand it, came to help [Vladimir] Putin’s regime to fight Ukraine."
Such a plethora of fighters would be impossible to hide, either in Syria or Ukraine. Inevitably they would leave a marked trail behind them of identification cards, records, contracts or even family members willing to speak up; at the very least, some of these Syrians would have access to mobile phones and exposure.
Syrians who fought with Russia in Libya frequently revealed where they were, and were relatively easy to identify; many of the same soldiers are from auxiliary units registered to sign up and fight in Ukraine since the inception of the invasion.
"For Russia, this move makes sense as the Syrian mercenaries of the Assad regime have experience in urban warfare and will reduce Russian casualties." @OmerOzkizilcik examines Russia's recruitment of Syrian regime forces to fight in Ukraine 👇 https://t.co/k0YdzQ1rkn— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) March 17, 2022
One soldier who had previously fought in Libya with Russia from the southern city of Sweida said to The New Arab, “We were asked to register our details and told we might have the chance to fight; after sending the information, nothing has happened yet, the Russians don’t seem too keen at the moment.”
He continued, “It doesn’t mean some of us won’t go, just that it may take a longer time; it depends on how they see the situation there because we are still ready here.”
Thus far, Syrian militia groups with a strong relationship with Russia and the Wagner mercenary group have issued adverts for “potential recruitment.”
Essentially, a round-up of all military-age males to document who could be suitable to send. Thousands have registered an interest in fighting, with salaries hypothetically offered up to $500 a month.
One such advert for the auxiliary units of the fourth armoured division called for a brief “CV” from those applying to assess combat specialities for potential “frontline work in consolidation and advancing.”
Another Syrian group essentially created by Wagner called the “ISIS Hunters”, who even share an almost identical logo, a group that Moscow had formed to fight the Islamic State in the desert areas, were on the hunt for recruits “between 23 and 49” for an unspecified mission, according to their advert, which was posted onto Telegram.
Interestingly, an image of Russia Spetsnaz forces in Kherson showed an "ISIS Hunters" patch on the uniform of a Russian soldier, an indication of the presence of Wagner forces.
Russia has called for volunteers from its affiliated groups but has not continued its request for several reasons.
"In the earlier, less desperate days of the invasion the Kremlin knew that invoking the idea of tens of thousands of Syrians fighting in Europe would scare both the EU and Ukraine; it was for propaganda effect"
In the earlier, less desperate days of the invasion the Kremlin knew that invoking the idea of tens of thousands of Syrians fighting in Europe would scare both the EU and Ukraine; it was for propaganda effect.
Secondly, Syrians do not speak either the language or have any familiarity with the weaponry and geography, and Ukraine would be a foreign country almost alien to them. Getting them combat-ready and up to speed with Russian logistics and operations would require a big effort.
Russian forces in Syria mainly played advisory roles and support to the Syrians; in Ukraine, it would be the opposite, so tens of thousands of Syrians would need months, if not longer, to become accustomed to fighting in those conditions.
Officially the Syrian military has refrained from commenting on the process. Any official army members would need at least a special dispensation to fight in a foreign war through a presidential decree or some written military declaration, leaving the recruitment pool firmly among the paramilitary and auxiliary units.
One thing the war in Syria did was create a large pool of mercenaries for the Russians, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights earlier issued a report that suggested up to 40,000 Syrians had registered to volunteer and fight in Ukraine; although exaggerated, there could be tens of thousands of Syrians ready for Moscow’s call.
There is still time for Syrians to be formally introduced to the battle. Although it won’t change much strategically given the current battlefield trajectory, they could serve some temporary military purpose for the Russians and take vital troops out of the firing line.
The official Syrian reaction to joining the fight has been muted apart from one interview with Assad’s special adviser Luna Al-Shibl who told BBC Arabic that "There are many Syrians who expressed their desire to volunteer to fight alongside Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.”
She continued: “The desire of the Syrians to volunteer to fight came in response to the gratitude of this country [Russia] that stood with the Syrian people.”
Ultimately this is a sign that, at some point, things could change, and a dependence on Syrians to “repay the favour” may be demanded.
Danny Makki is an analyst covering the internal dynamics of the conflict in Syria, he specializes in Syria’s relations with Russia and Iran.
Follow him on Twitter: @danny_makki
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.