BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hundreds of Syrian fighters are heading to Ukraine to join Russian troops, in effect in Moscow’s favor as they help President Bashar al-Assad in the long run, according to two people monitoring the flow of mercenaries. The rebels were crushed during the 11-year civil war.
The first soldiers have arrived in Russia for military training before heading to Ukraine, according to a Western diplomat and Syrian government ally in Damascus. They included at least 300 soldiers from the Syrian Army Division, which worked closely with Russian officers who traveled to Syria to support Assad during the war.
More could be on the way: Recruiters across Syria have been drafting lists of thousands of interested candidates, vetted by Syrian security services, and then passed on to the Russians.
Syria has grown into an exporter of mercenaries in recent years, a dire consequence of years of war that has given many combat experience but has damaged the country’s economy so badly that it is now difficult for people to find jobs. As a result, they are deployed as guns for hire in Libya, Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic — and now Ukraine — as well.
“In general, money is the driving force,” said Bassam Alahmad, the head of the company. Syrians fight for truth and justice, an advocacy group that studies the Syrian mercenary trade. He said some Syrians were loyal to Russia because of their support for Assad, while others signed up to fight because they just needed money and believed recruiters promised them they would take non-combat jobs, such as guarding bases or oil facility.
“Some people don’t mind fighting, but there are groups that are definitely taking advantage of people’s needs,” Mr Allamard said. “The result is the same: People are paying the price. People are fighting wars that are not theirs.”
On Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said about 1,000 mercenaries from the U.S. Wagner GroupRussian military contractors are already in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where Russia has set up two separatist enclaves that include Syrians.
Syria’s protracted war has attracted foreign powers such as Iran, Turkey, Russia and the United States, all of which cooperate with local Syrian military groups to advance their interests.
Some of these partnerships now facilitate mercenary traffic.
Mr Allahmad said Russia and Turkey had sent a total of around 10,000 Syrian fighters to support their preferred camp in the Libyan conflict, while Turkey sent around 2,000 Syrians to Azerbaijan in last year’s conflict. War breaks out over disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory.
Russia has sent a small number of Syrians to Venezuela, and Moscow has an interest in the oil industry.
The use of mercenaries is not considered a war crime under the Geneva Conventions, but a separate UN treaty criminalizes it. Ukraine is a signatory to the treaty, but Russia is not.
“What we’re seeing is predatory recruitment,” said Sorcha MacLeod, chair of the UN working group on the use of mercenaries. “They’re taking advantage of the poor socioeconomic situation these people are in.”
Given the scope of the fighting, the war in Ukraine is likely to attract large numbers of Syrians, Massive Russian casualties And Russia’s close ties with the Syrian military. But much remains unclear about the deployment and activities of Syrian mercenaries due to the covert nature of their work.
Western officials, experts tracking the problem, recruiters and returning fighters describe a chaotic system in which men with few options compete for limited opportunities, risking their lives for salaries unmatched at home.
The war in Ukraine has sparked a surge of interest, and recruiters have launched sign-up campaigns across Syria to collect the names of men who want to go, according to Allahmad and a recruiter in southern Syria who is looking for men. Like others in this article, the recruiter spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of influence from the Syrian government.
Recruiters often charge registration fees, and scams are rife.
The recruiter in southern Syria said he started work after a crook who promised him work in Libya took his money and abandoned him near the city of Latakia in northwestern Syria, unable to return home.
He said he had signed up with a number of groups to travel to Libya, and had recently been informed that the Russians wanted as many as 16,000 Syrians to fight in Ukraine. Applicants must be between the ages of 20 and 45 and weigh between 110 and 200 pounds, he said, adding that military experience is preferred and all recruits must be vetted by Syrian security services.
He said he and his partners charge applicants an application fee of about $7, and each accepted gets $25.This Lack of other jobs and currency collapse This has made basic items like bread and gas in Syria incredibly expensive, which has sparked interest in Ukraine and the prospect of earning between $1,000 and $2,000 a month.
While some other recruiters have exaggerated the benefits and minimized the dangers, he said he made the dangers clear.
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“Some people sold it to them as if they were going to heaven,” he said. “You’re not going to heaven.”
Some 300 soldiers already in Russia from the Syrian Army’s 25th Division, known as the Tigers, are seen as elite and work closely with Russian officers. Allies of the Syrian government say the Russians offered them a monthly bonus of $1,200 for six months and a $3,000 bonus when they returned to Syria.
If their loved ones were killed in combat, their families would receive $2,800, plus $600 a month for a year, he said, adding that in Syria, the soldiers earned about $100 a month, while from less Soldiers in elite units earn less than $50 each. moon.
The commander of a Russian-backed militia of fighters from Syria and neighboring countries that was backed by Russia during the Syrian war said his group had sent another 85-strong contingent to Russia. They include Lebanese, Iraqi and Syrians, he said, adding that more were on their way.
“The Russians helped us when we needed it, and it’s time to give back what they gave us,” the commander said.
A Syrian man who recently returned from fighting in Libya said he went only for the money but would never do it again.
Once he guarded oil and other facilities in Libya, his three-month contract was extended to six months, and his salary was reduced from $1,000 a month to $800, he said. His food, water and lodging 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 said he was happy to go home and use his earnings to pay off debts and open a cigarette shop. But his activities left a social stain that could hurt his marital prospects, he said.
He told anyone who would listen not to go to Ukraine.
“People who go there will die,” he said.
Raja Abdulrahim contributed reporting from Jerusalem.