The implications of Russia’s gamble with Syrian fighters in Ukraine

It will significantly impact Syria’s internal dynamics, and Israel needs to monitor the situation closely.

Syrian fighters who have volunteered to fight in Ukraine, according to official Russian media. Credit: MEMRI.
Syrian fighters who have volunteered to fight in Ukraine, according to official Russian media. Credit: MEMRI.
Marta Furlan
Marta Furlan

As the Russian military continues to struggle in Ukraine, there have been reports about the participation of mercenaries, significantly from Syria.

According to a report by The New York Times, hundreds of Syrians are on their way to join Russian forces in Ukraine. According to a Western diplomat and a Damascus-based ally of the Syrian government, at least 300 soldiers had already arrived in Russia for training before heading to Ukraine.

Ukrainian military intelligence claimed that 150 mercenaries were sent from Russia’s Hmeimim airbase in Syria to Russia in mid-March to take part in military actions against Ukraine. In addition, more than 30 fighters had returned to Hmeimim “after being wounded in fighting with Ukrainian defenders.” United States military officials, for their part, say that Syrian fighters are not being transported to fight on behalf of Russia in Ukraine. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said, “We have not seen an influx into Ukraine of foreign fighters  recruited by Russia, but we are seeing an interest by Russia in doing just that.”

It would not be the first time Syrian fighters have been recruited to fight abroad. Turkey, for instance, recruited Syrian mercenaries to fight in places such as Azerbaijan and Libya. It is not entirely clear what the Syrians’ role in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is. Nonetheless, many Syrians do seem willing to fight in Ukraine.

The Syrian media portrays Russia as winning in Ukraine. Many potential foreign fighters are thus encouraged to believe that contracts to join the Russian armed forces would be a temporary, well-paid job in which victory and ultimate safe return home are assured. They see fighting in Ukraine as necessary to make a decent income when job opportunities in Syria are minimal. Some of the most stable jobs available are in the army or militias, but they do not pay well.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing Syrian military sources, said that a monthly salary of 1,000 euros is standard, along with compensation of 7,000 euros for the wounded and 15,000 euros for the families of killed fighters. Moreover, some units have developed a loyalty to Russia for its support of the Syrian regime, which encourages fighters to deploy to Ukraine to pay Moscow back for its help.

Since March, alleged contracts to fight in Ukraine have been shared in Facebook groups traditionally used to recruit Syrians to regime units. However, it is not yet clear whether such posts are authentic.

The Kremlin is also turning to Chechen fighters and private military contractors from the Russian Wagner Group. Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Russia’s Chechen Republic and an ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said two days after the invasion that Chechen forces were in Ukraine and were ready to carry out Putin’s orders. The Wagner Group is financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an associate of Putin, and has been deployed in various countries, providing the Kremlin with plausible deniability.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke of “more than 16,000 applications” received from the Middle East. Significantly, the announcement came after the Ukrainian government said that around 20,000 foreign fighters from many nations—mostly Western countries—had joined the International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine.

While the Kremlin had planned for a short campaign and a few days of operations, it is bogged down in a war for which its forces were not adequately prepared. For Moscow, Syrian fighters are a low-cost mercenary force that can help it in Ukraine. Moreover, Russia hopes that the experience Syrian fighters gained in their civil war will help its army turn the tide of the battle.

In addition, Russian forces have suffered many casualties, causing worry in the Kremlin about maintaining domestic support for the war. Here, the use of foreign fighters is a convenient option for Russia since it does not influence domestic politics. News images of dead and captured Russian soldiers could take a toll on the popularity of the Russian government.

Furthermore, Russia’s announcement regarding Syrian fighters might also signal that Moscow is preparing to escalate.

However, while allowing Syrian mercenaries to join the war could allow Russia to deal with some of its challenges, it is also an option fraught with risk. The more Syrian fighters are involved in Ukraine, the more it risks the Russian position within Syria.

A redeployment of Syrians to Ukraine could give Syrian rebel groups more impetus and leave the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad exposed. If thousands of Syrians join the war in Ukraine, it will inevitably weaken the army in Syria. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other opposition armed groups could see this as an opportunity to launch an offensive and regain territories it lost during the past seven years of fighting.

The movement of Syrian fighters to Ukraine will significantly impact Syria’s internal dynamics, and Israel needs to monitor the situation closely. For instance, Syria’s involvement in Ukraine could lead to the strengthening of anti-Assad Islamist armed groups and a potential descent of Syria into a renewed civil war.

Israel should maintain neutrality regarding the war as Russia sits on Israel’s northern border and for years has been allowing Israeli attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria that are crucial for Israel’s national security.

The prospect that Iran might find itself in a better, stronger position in Syria if Israel takes an anti-Russian stance is a risk too big to take.

Marta Furlan holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of St. Andrews. Her doctoral dissertation studied governance by Salafi-Jihadist armed groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen from a comparative and multi-dimensional perspective. Her research focuses more broadly on violent non-state actors, rebel governance, civil wars and political Islam.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute of Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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