On March 11, two weeks after the creation of Ukraine’s International Legion, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he would approve the deployment of up to 16,000 Middle Eastern fighters to support Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine. Ensuing this, Russian government-owned Zvezda TV broadcasted footage of Syrian men in military uniform, waving the Syrian flag next to Russia’s, and pledging their allegiance to fight alongside Russian forces.
Within the coverage of the Ukraine conflict, there has been a disproportionate amount of attention given to foreign fighters in Kyiv. Much less awareness has been granted to the non-state actors fighting for Russia which include mercenaries, members of terrorist groups [the Russian Imperial Movement was designated by the U.S. as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity in 2020], and other violent extremists ideologically driven.
While Moscow is currently re-arming and re-supplying, greater light needs to be shone on the [limited] capabilities these actors bring to Russia, what motivates them to join a war that is not theirs, and the far-reaching implications their deployment will have beyond Ukrainian borders.
Syria: a mercenaries’ breeding ground
With the recent retreat of Russian forces from Kyiv and Chernihiv areas, U.S. intelligence officials revealed that Moscow at first deployed 75 percent of its land combat troops and that over 150,000 of them are now worn down.
After suffering significant casualties and loss of armaments, the Kremlin has turned to pulling Russian soldiers and mercenaries as well as weapons from Georgia, Syria, and Libya to be used in Ukraine. It is imperative to note that to this day, there is no evidence confirming the presence of any Syrian fighters in Kyiv.
Nonetheless, the first reliable report of them having arrived in Russia to receive military training came on March 31. The initial group is said to have included at least 300 soldiers drawn from the 25th Special Mission Forces Division of the Syrian Arab Army (formerly known as Tiger Forces), which operated close to Moscow’s troops having travelled to Damascus in 2015 in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
Over time, with the ongoing civil war, Syria has increasingly become a hub of choice for countries wishing to export Syrian mercenaries, as men of military age have acquired combat experience while also living in devastating socio-economic conditions.
As such, a network of recruiters have succeeded in drawing in candidates on the premise of a low salary and ‘work,’ deployed to fight wars in Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic, Libya, and potentially Ukraine.
Debunking Recruitment & Deployment
While no Syrians have yet made it to Kyiv, the Ukrainian conflict has unarguably resulted in sparking the interest of recruiting groups.
Many reports have emerged describing the requirements for applicants, with one named the ISIS Hunters- closely linked to the Wagner Group- stating that hopefuls must be between 23-43 years old, weight 110-200 pounds, and military experience will be prioritized. These individuals will need to be vetted by Syrian security authorities and be notified if successful when to depart. In an interview, an undisclosed Syrian recruiter said that he charges an application fee of 7$ for mercenaries who will then earn 25$ if deployed. Other accounts have claimed that Russians have offered them up to 1,200$ monthly to go fight in Ukraine, with an additional 3000$ upon their return to Syria.
However, in considering the claims made thus far about Syrian recruitment it is crucial to highlight some misleading factors to bring some important nuances to the topic. Back in March, the Ukrainian government stated that Moscow was operating 14 new recruitment centers in Syria with National Defence Forces (NDF) and Tiger Forces having already signed contracts.
In his research, Syrian expert, Gregory Waters, says that in reality these facilities have been around for several years and it has become common for them to enlist Syrians to join Russian-backed groups within the country or in Libya.
It must also be pointed out, that there is a key difference between expressing interest in going to fight in Ukraine (pledges) versus concretely going which requires overcoming several logistical challenges. Prior to be deployed, mercenaries have to sign contracts and even then, these cannot be considered a guarantee that the fighters will be sent to combat.
On this, Waters explains, “the most intense pro-deployment rhetoric has come from the commanders of Christian Syrian NDF militias, that are still nominally under the command of the NDF’s central office, which maintains a strict policy against foreign deployment.”
He adds that for them to send Syrian mercenaries to fight in Ukraine would entail to break away from the NDF, which although is not unfeasible, still implies a significant structure change within the units.
The Kremlin has long come to rely heavily on military proxies (the Wagner Group) and foreign mercenaries to fight alongside its armed forces or as a complement.
In the context of the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian war, out of the 17,000 foreign fighters which mobilized, around 88 percent came from Moscow to support the Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas.
Furthermore, it was found that overall Russia and Turkey have deployed nearly 10,000 Syrian soldiers in the Libyan conflict.
Key elements to understand Russia’s reliance on Syrian fighters are the motivations that lead these individuals to sign such contracts, essentially enlisting themselves to die. The primary motivators seem to be the money that recruits and their families would receive as a reward for their deployment (90 percent of the Syrian population now lives below the poverty line) and the loyalty some fighters and militias feel towards Russia.
Following the Russian military intervention in Syria, during which Putin provided significant support to the Assad regime, the Kremlin maintained an important presence and influence in the country. A number of Syrian fighters from groups such as the Hama NDF, 5th Corps, Tiger Forces, and Desert Hawks all to an extent received training, funding, and commands from Russian forces. At one point, the Russian military was even inserted as ‘advisors’ to the latter. As such, not only did some of these militias gain combat experience but they also came to somewhat feel indebted to Moscow.
Other contributing factors have been said to include the hopes of Syrian fighters to move up in rank or to seize the Ukraine war as their opportunity to move to Europe.
There is also something to be said about Russia’s use of misinformation as a tool to manipulate the narratives presented to the Syrian public [i.e. that Moscow is winning the war] that in turn it exploits to further draw-in fighters.
Overestimating the danger?
In considering the role that Syrian mercenaries could play in the war, there is a need for greater realism.
If the fighters are sent to Ukraine, they are unlikely to be a force multiplier as their numbers would be relatively low nor would they significantly boost Russian capabilities as the majority of their combat skills are inherently limited.
On the contrary to what may be assumed, involving them in the war could pose greater challenges for Moscow itself, as it will be extremely difficult logistically to integrate them into regular troops and make them a powerful combat force.
If anything, the dangers to deploy them to Ukraine could also have greater implications for Syria. As of mid-March, some estimates showed that almost 90 percent of the Wagner Group’s resources and men had been moved from abroad into Ukraine. Many of the capable militias the Kremlin could draw from are critical to maintaining its soft power within Syria, and as such removing them could not only wreck its interests but also create new power vacuums for other groups to exploit.