BEIRUT, Lebanon – Hundreds of Syrian fighters are on their way to join Russian forces in Ukraine, effectively returning the favor to Moscow for helping President Bashar al-Assad crush rebels in an 11-year civil war, two people say monitoring the flow of mercenaries.
A first contingent of soldiers has already arrived in Russia for military training before heading to Ukraine, according to a Western diplomat and Syrian government ally based in Damascus. It includes at least 300 troops from a Syrian army division that worked closely with Russian officers who traveled to Syria to support Mr. al-Assad during the war.
And many more could be on the way: Recruiters across Syria have drawn up lists of thousands of interested candidates who will be vetted by Syrian security services and then passed on to the Russians.
Syria has in recent years become an exporter of mercenaries, a dark aftermath of years of war that gave many men combat experience but damaged the country’s economy so badly that people now find it hard to find work. So they deployed as firearms in wars in Libya, Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic – and now in Ukraine.
“Usually money is the motivation,” said Bassam Alahmad, the head of Syrians for Truth and Justice, an advocacy group that has researched the Syrian mercenary trade. Some Syrians are loyal to Russia because of its support for Mr. al-Assad, he said, while others pledge to fight because they simply need the money and believe in the promises from recruiters that they will have non-combat jobs, such as guarding bases or oil. facilities.
“Some people don’t mind fighting, but there are groups that definitely take advantage of people’s needs,” Mr Alahmad said. “The result is the same: people pay this price. People are involved in wars that are not theirs.
On Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said around 1,000 mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a Russian military contractor, were already in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, where Russia has set up two enclaves separatists, and that they included Syrians.
The long war in Syria has attracted foreign powers such as Iran, Turkey, Russia and the United States, all of which have worked with Syrian military groups on the ground to advance their interests.
Some of these partnerships now facilitate the trafficking of mercenaries.
Russia and Turkey together sent around 10,000 Syrian fighters to bolster their favored sides in the conflict in Libya, Alahmad said, and Turkey sent around 2,000 Syrians to Azerbaijan during last year’s war in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia has sent a small number 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 criminalizing it. Ukraine is a signatory to this treaty, but not Russia.
“What we’re seeing is predatory recruitment,” said Sorcha MacLeod, chair of the UN Task Force on the Use of Mercenaries. “They take advantage of the poor socio-economic situation that these people find themselves in.”
The war in Ukraine could attract large numbers of Syrians, given the scale of the battle, the high number of Russian dead and wounded, and Russia’s close ties to the Syrian military. But much of the deployments and activities of Syrian mercenaries remain obscure due to the covert nature of their work.
Western officials, experts who track the issue, recruiters and returning fighters have described a messy system in which men with few options jostle for limited opportunities to risk their lives for wages they could not. not match them.
The war in Ukraine has sparked renewed interest and recruiters have launched registration drives across Syria to collect the names of men who want to go there, according to Mr Alahmad and a recruiter from southern Syria who recruits men. The recruiter spoke on condition of anonymity, like others in this article, for fear of reprisals from the Syrian government.
Recruiters often collect payment for registration and scams are commonplace.
The southern Syrian recruiter said he started his job after a scammer who promised him a job in Libya took his money and dumped it near the northwestern Syrian city of Latakia , with no way to get home.
He said he had hired several groups to go to Libya and had recently learned that the Russians wanted up to 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 are given priority and that all recruits must be vetted by Syrian security services.
He and his partner charge applicants about $7 to apply and earn $25 for each who is accepted, he said. The lack of other work and a currency crash that has made basic items like bread and cooking gas exorbitant in Syria has sparked interest in Ukraine, with the promise of earning 1,000-2,000 dollars per month.
While some other recruiters play on the perks and downplay the dangers, he said he was clarifying the danger.
“Some people sell it to them like they’re going to heaven,” he said. “You will not go to heaven.”
The roughly 300 soldiers already in Russia belong to the Syrian army’s 25th division, known as the Tiger Forces, which are considered elite and work closely with Russian officers. The Russians offered them $1,200 a month for six months with a bonus of $3,000 when they returned 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 action, he said, adding that in Syria these soldiers earn about $100 a month, while soldiers in less elite units earn less than $50 a 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 sent another contingent of 85 men to Russia. They included Lebanese, Iraqis and Syrians, he said, adding that more were on the way.
“The Russians helped us when needed, and now it’s time to give back some of what they gave us,” the commander said.
A Syrian who recently returned from fighting in Libya said he only left for the money, but would never do so again.
Once in Libya, where he was guarding oil and other facilities, his three-month contract was extended to six and his salary was reduced by $1,000 to $800 a month, he said. His food, water and accommodation were supposed to be covered, but he said he slept in a tent with other men, ate mainly rice and bread and had to buy drinking water.
He was happy to return home and used his winnings to settle his debts and open a cigarette store, he said. But his activities have left a social stain that could hurt his marriage prospects, he said.
He tells anyone who will listen not to go to Ukraine.
“People who go there are going to die,” he said.
Raja Abdulrahim contributed reporting from Jerusalem.