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It has been more than a month since Shoigu announced the recruitment of 16,000 volunteers from the Middle East for the war in Ukraine, but so far no Syrian regiments have been seen on the battlefields. Yet it is true that the Kremlin has been recruiting Syrians and using the misery of the people from a ruined country to create a fragile illusion of international support.

  • Who are the Syrian mercenaries?

  • Similarity between the war in Ukraine and the Syrian war

  • The hiring of Syrian mercenaries points to Russian Armed Forces problems

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In early February, information appeared on social networks that the PMC Wagner was recruiting Syrian mercenaries to participate in the war in Ukraine. Long before that, ads kept appearing in various Syrian groups on Facebook, such as groups dedicated to renting and buying homes, that searched for people prepared to work with «Russian friends.» The destinations were unusual: Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya, Mali, CAR, and even Venezuela.

Contracts to work for Wagner and see the world were offered for a few months for salaries ranging from $300 to $1,000 a month. A huge pay for a country where more than 90% of people live below the poverty line, without electricity, clean water, or gas.

The Syrian media published the news about the recruitment in early March, but it was a publication by the U.S. Department of Defense that drew the international community's attention. On March 11, at the Russian Security Council meeting, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported about 16,000 applications from Middle East volunteers. On the same day, Zelensky, in a video message on his official Telegram channel, commented on the plans to send to Ukraine «thugs from Syria, a country that was destroyed just as the invaders are now destroying ours.»

On April 19, The Guardian, citing an anonymous source, stated that approximately 20,000 mercenaries had already been shipped to Ukraine. Reliable evidence of this has never emerged - although the transportation of this number of people would hardly have gone unnoticed. This would have required about a hundred flights, which could have been tracked based on information from open sources. That's what the investigators tried to do, discovering a thousand mercenaries airlifted to Russia from Libya via Syria in mid-March.

Based on stereotypes about the Middle East region, it is easy to imagine bloodthirsty fundamentalist thugs whose favorite cause is war. But one of the consequences of Syria's destruction, in which Russia has played a key role, is the deep despair of Syrians, of which the Russian authorities have taken advantage. In reality, most of them are people in a hopeless situation turned into merchandise to be shipped to conflict zones around the world.

Who are the Syrian mercenaries?

Russian officials claim Syrians are willing to die for Russia in this war for ideological reasons, but claiming such a thing is wrong. The vast majority of the mercenaries are young men without education or prospects who are willing to risk their lives for a few hundred or a few thousand dollars a month. Even the minimum promised remuneration is more than ten times the average Syrian salary. In addition, many mercenaries hope to enter European countries through Ukraine.

Most Syrian mercenaries are people in a hopeless situation turned into merchandise to be shipped to conflict zones around the world.

Syria is a very diverse country, and this has been a factor in the long-drawn-out war. In the past, representatives of all ethnic and religious communities in Syria: Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians, Palestinians, Armenians and Druze, could be found among Wagner mercenaries. Russia also uses mercenaries from different ends of the fragmented Syrian political spectrum.

The initial reports on the search for so-called volunteers for Ukraine referred to a fairly high level of experience and loyalty required of the candidates. Like, for example, people with experience in the Syrian Arab Army or those who had already participated in military operations under the command of officers of the Russian Armed Forces - in particular, the elite 25th Special Forces Division, working closely with Russian troops in Syria.

The search for mercenaries was organized with the assistance of the Syrian regime. Interviews were conducted by military and civilian intelligence personnel. The officers of the Syrian intelligence services actually became intermediaries between the Russian government and the army, as well as the Wagner units.

According to potential mercenaries interviewed by the human rights organization «Syrians for Truth and Justice,» they were told about the symbolic nature of Syrian participation in the conflict and had their role compared with those of the Russians, Belarusians and Chechens already involved in the war. The possible «volunteers» were also told that inexperienced soldiers were not allowed to be sent to the front in Russia, and that the Syrians are suitable for those roles because of their good experience in urban warfare. The would-be mercenaries would have to be vetted by Syrian and Russian special services, and then trained under the command of officers of the Russian Armed Forces.

The officers of the Syrian secret services actually became intermediaries between the Russian government and the army, as well as the Wagner units

While at the beginning of March Russia had been seeking experienced people from elite formations, by the end of the month reports began to appear that anyone who had wanted to be on the list was already on the list. In addition to monetary rewards, the Syrian regime began to offer other methods of motivating the so-called volunteers, such as letting close relatives out of jail or writing off administrative fines.

The recruitment of volunteers clearly did not go as well as the Kremlin and the Assad regime would have liked as evidenced by simultaneous reports to the effect that a thousand mercenaries from Syria, who had been in Libya, were already sent to Russia for further transfer to Ukraine. Many of them initially did not want to go to war, knowing the complexity of the situation and the severity of the fighting, sources in «Syrians for Truth and Justice» say. Also, the mercenaries are concerned they will not get paid: in Libya they received a salary from General Haftar, but neither the Russian officers nor their commanders have informed them about the conditions of payment in Ukraine. Some of the mercenaries in Libya were not paid but they were promised they would be paid if they went to Ukraine.

Similarity between the war in Ukraine and the Syrian war

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, many journalists, investigators, as well as Ukrainians and Syrians have found similarities and parallels between Russian military actions in Syria and Ukraine. These conflicts are certainly unique, but the seven-year history of the Russian intervention in Syria helps us understand much about Russian military aggression and its colonial nature.

The war in Syria has created a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions. In 11 years, about half a million people have died and more than 12 million have been displaced from their homes. Five international forces intervened in the conflict: Israel, Iran, Russia, the United States and Turkey. The country has been divided: Turkey de facto controls northern Syria, Islamic State militants are still present in the east, and fighting between the opposition and the Syrian army periodically erupts in the southern provinces.

Russia entered the Syrian war on the side of the Syrian army in 2015 at the request of President Assad. The official goals were the fight against jihadists and the preservation of the Syrian regime. The predecessor of the PMC Wagner, the Slavic Corps, performed combat missions in Syria back in 2013. The Insider previously investigated Prigozhin's role in Wagner and the company's ties with the GRU.

The initial evidence of the PMC Wagner activities was obtained by the Ukrainian security services in Donbass in May 2014, and in Syria since the second half of 2015. Russia, along with the Syrian authorities, was repeatedly accused of using scorched earth tactics, as well as deliberate shelling of hospitals and homes with civilians. Unsuccessful attempts were made to prosecute Russian Wagner fighters for the torture and brutal murder of Mohammed Elismail in Syria in 2017.

Russia's intervention significantly shifted the balance of power in Assad's favor, thereby preserving one of Putin's allies in the region and helping him retake Aleppo and other important cities. The connection between the military intervention, Russian mercenaries, and the economic interests of people close to Putin is also important.

In 2017, Prigozhin's company Evro Polis signed an agreement with the Syrian state concern. According to it, the company will protect and produce energy resources in the local fields, receiving 25% of the volume extracted by the rigs recaptured from the Islamic State militants.

In 2018, Timchenko's Stroytransgaz subsidiary signed a 50-year contract to mine phosphates and export them abroad. To do so, it was given a state-owned phosphate fertilizer plant in Homs, which is guarded by armed Russian mercenaries.

Russia also controls the naval and commercial port of Tartus and the Khmeimim airbase.

The hiring of Syrian mercenaries points to Russian Armed Forces problems

Over the 7 years of military intervention in Syria, Russia has entrenched itself into the Syrian regime. Now it demonstrates its loyalty to Putin not only by organizing the recruitment of so-called volunteers, but also voluntary-compulsory rallies with displays of Russian symbols, portraits of Putin and the letter Z - as an imitation of international support for Russia in the war with Ukraine.

The presence of Russian forces in Syria is a long-term investment, and Putin is just beginning to enjoy its fruits, which include cheap Russian-trained soldiers. This development is comparable to the attempts to send troops from South Ossetia and residents of the DPR and LPR to the Ukrainian war. The main purpose of recruiting foreign fighters is an attempt to minimize the political damage from Russian losses. It can also be seen as an element of information warfare - to intimidate the international community with the image of dark-skinned, bearded fighters.

Urban warfare in which potential mercenaries previously participated is indeed comparable to the tactics and tasks of Russian troops in Ukrainian cities. But given the war crimes, destruction and brutality already committed by the Russian army, the potential participation of several thousand Syrian «volunteers» recedes into the background.

Mercenaries may have more experience in combat operations than Russian conscripts, but they still lack comparable experience in such combat tasks and conditions as exist in Ukraine, just like regular Russian troops, says Chatham House expert Dr. Haida. Including them in the regular army will also be very difficult. The mercenaries are not elite fighters, they lack military discipline and the ability to fight together as a fighting unit, because they are hired individually. They are unfamiliar with the Ukrainian landscape and geography, and coordination with Russian soldiers will be difficult: they do not speak Russian, and they usually communicate with Russian-speaking commanders through an interpreter whose native language is Arabic.

The main purpose of recruiting foreign fighters is an attempt to minimize the political damage from Russian losses

The information that Wagner had begun its international operation by shipping about a thousand mercenaries from Libya came three weeks after the confirmed news of the hiring of Syrians to be sent to Ukraine. This indicates that two months and the promise of a fabulous salary was not enough to find personnel in Syria who met the specified requirements. In addition, this may indicate the existence of unknown obstacles in the transportation of mercenaries into the war zone.

In Libya, Syrian mercenaries mostly perform the duties of armed guards at oil fields and factories. And during the fighting for Tripoli in 2019-2020, Wagner's Syrians more often performed support functions for Russian mercenaries than went on combat missions.

The participation of Syrian mercenaries in the war in Ukraine also depends on logistics, equipment and supplies, the areas in which the Russian army has serious difficulties. Perhaps logistical problems are the reason why no tangible evidence of the presence of Syrian mercenaries in Ukraine has yet emerged.

Most sources disagree on specific figures, but the promised 16,000 people are out of the question. However, it is too early to completely rule out the possibility that several hundred mercenaries from Syria will appear in Ukraine - especially if the war continues with the same huge losses for Russia.

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