BEIRUT, Lebanon – Hundreds of Syrian fighters are on their way to join Russian forces in Ukraine, effectively returning favor to Moscow for helping President Bashar al-Assad crush rebels in an 11-year civil war, according to two people who monitor the flow of mercenaries .
An initial contingent of soldiers has already arrived in Russia for military training before heading to Ukraine, according to a Western diplomat and a Damascus-based ally of the Syrian government. It includes at least 300 soldiers from a Syrian army division that has worked closely with Russian officers who went to Syria during the war to support Mr al-Assad.
And many more could follow: recruiters across Syria have drawn up lists of thousands of interested candidates to be vetted by Syrian security forces and then passed on to the Russians.
Syria has become a mercenary exporter in recent years, a grim aftermath of years of war that has given many men combat experience but damaged the country’s economy so much that people are now struggling to find work. So they have used them as rental weapons for wars in Libya, Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic – and now Ukraine.
“In general, money is the motivation,” said Bassam Alahmad, head of Syrians for Truth and Justice, an advocacy group that has investigated the trade in Syrian mercenaries. Some Syrians feel loyalty to Russia for its support of al-Assad, he said, while others are signing up to fight because they simply need the money and believe in the recruiters’ promises that they will have non-combat jobs, such as monitoring bases or oil facilities.
“Some people don’t mind fighting, but there are groups that definitely take advantage of people’s needs,” said Mr. Alahmad. “The result is the same: people pay this price. People participate in wars that are not theirs.”
On Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said about 1,000 mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a Russian military contractor, were already in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where Russia has installed two separatist enclaves, and that they include Syrians.
The long-running war in Syria attracted foreign powers such as Iran, Turkey, Russia and the United States, all of whom collaborated with Syrian military groups on the ground to advance their interests.
Some of those partnerships now facilitate the movement of mercenaries.
Russia and Turkey together have sent about 10,000 Syrian fighters to bolster their favored sides in the conflict in Libya, Alahmad said, and Turkey sent about 2,000 Syrians to Azerbaijan last year during the war in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area.
Russia has sent small numbers of Syrians to Venezuela, where Moscow has interests in the oil industry.
The use of mercenaries is not considered a war crime under the Geneva Conventions, but there is a separate United Nations treaty that criminalises it. Ukraine has signed that treaty, but Russia has not.
“What we’re seeing is predatory recruitment,” said Sorcha MacLeod, chair of the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries. “They are taking advantage of the bad socio-economic situation these people are in.”
The war in Ukraine could attract large numbers of Syrians, given the scale of the fighting, the high number of Russian dead and wounded and Russia’s close ties to the Syrian army. But much about the deployment and activities of Syrian mercenaries remains obscure due to the covert nature of their work.
Western officials, experts following the issue, recruiters and returnees described a messy system in which men with few options compete for limited opportunities to risk their lives for salaries they could not match at home.
The war in Ukraine has sparked interest and recruiters across Syria have begun to register the names of men who want to go, according to Mr Alahmad and a recruiter in southern Syria who is enrolling men. The recruiter spoke on condition of anonymity, like others in this article, for fear of repercussions from the Syrian government.
Recruiters often collect payment for registration and scams are rife.
The recruiter in southern Syria said he started his job after a scammer who had promised him a job in Libya took his money and left him near the city of Latakia in northwestern Syria without any opportunity to return home.
He said he had signed up several groups to go to Libya, and was recently told that the Russians want as many as 16,000 Syrians to fight in Ukraine. Candidates must be between 20 and 45 years old and weigh between 110 and 200 pounds, he said, adding that those with military experience will be given priority and all recruits should be vetted by Syrian security forces.
He and his partner charge applicants about $7 to apply and earn $25 for everyone accepted, he said. The lack of other work and a collapse in the currency that has made basic commodities such as bread and cooking gas exorbitantly expensive in Syria have fueled interest in Ukraine, promising to earn $1,000-$2,000 a month.
While some other recruiters play out the benefits and minimize the dangers, he said he makes the danger clear.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
“Some people sell it to them like they’re going to heaven,” he said. “You’re not going to heaven.”
The 300 or so soldiers already in Russia are from the 25th Division of the Syrian Army, known as the Tiger Forces, which are considered elite and work closely with Russian officers. The Russians have offered them $1,200 a month for six months with a $3,000 bonus if they return to Syria, the Syrian government ally said.
Their families are promised $2,800, plus $600 a month for a year, if their loved ones are killed in combat, he said, adding that those soldiers in Syria earn about $100 a month, while soldiers from less elite units make less. than $50 per month. month.
A commander of a militia made up of fighters from Syria and neighboring countries that received Russian support during the Syrian war said his group had sent another 85-man contingent to Russia. Among them were Lebanese, Iraqis and Syrians, he said, adding that more were on the way.
“The Russians have helped us where necessary, and now it is time to return some of what they have offered us,” the commander said.
A Syrian man who recently returned from fighting in Libya said he had only gone for the money but would never do it again.
Once in Libya, where he guarded oil and other facilities, his three-month contract was extended to six months and his salary was cut from $1,000 to $800 a month, he said. His food, water and shelter should have been covered, but he said he slept with other men in a tent, ate mainly rice and bread and had to buy drinking water.
He was happy to come home and used his earnings to pay off his debts and open a cigarette shop, he said. But his activities had left a social blemish that could hurt his marital prospects, he said.
He tells anyone who will listen not to go to Ukraine.
“People who go there will die,” he said.
Raja Abdulrahim contributed from Jerusalem.