What will Syrian regime fighters mean for Russia's war in Ukraine?

What will Syrian fighters mean for Russia's war in Ukraine?
6 min read
15 March, 2022
Analysis: As Russia recruits thousands of Syrian regime forces to fight in Ukraine, it's unclear whether Western powers have a strategy to confront Russian aggression that accounts for Syrian fighters.

As the war in Ukraine rages on, last week Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the green light for up to 16,000 volunteers from the Middle East to be deployed alongside Russian-backed rebels to fight in Ukraine. Following this announcement, the Russian Ministry of Defence released a video showing forces of the Assad regime ready to fight on behalf of their Russian allies.

These announcements by Russia confirmed reports by the Pentagon and local Syrian sources that Moscow had begun recruiting Syrians to fight in Ukraine. For Russia, this move makes sense as the Syrian mercenaries of the Assad regime have experience in urban warfare and will reduce Russian casualties.

An important consideration in this context becomes: does the Western alliance have a strategy to confront Russian aggression that accounts for Syrian fighters?

In reality, the first information about the recruitment of Syrians by Moscow appeared in Syrian local sources. According to these sources, Russia first began to recruit in the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. Russia reportedly promised a salary of $1,500 - $2,000 per month for those willing to fight. In the case of death, the families of the recruit are rumoured to get a payment of $5,000.

"For Russia, this move makes sense as the Syrian mercenaries of the Assad regime have experience in urban warfare and will reduce Russian casualties"

The recruits were also promised that their names will be removed from any list of wanted persons and that they will be exempted from the compulsory military service of the Assad regime. Syrian sources claim that the first batch of 2,500 fighters recruited from the “Tiger Forces” and the “Republican Guards” of the Assad regime have already been deployed to the battlefield.

According to an official in the Syrian Interim Government asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, there are now 12 registration offices recruiting fighters to join the ranks of Russian forces against Ukraine across Syria. 

Nabeel Al-Abdullah, a leader of the National Defence Militia close to Russia, opened a recruitment office in the city of Suqaylabiyah in the countryside of Hama. Ahmed Al-Darwish, a member of the Assad regime’s parliament who is also close to Russia, and Khaled Al-Daher, the leader of one of the militias supporting the regime’s militias, opened an office in Abu Dhuhur in the eastern countryside of Idlib. Manhal Al-Salah, a former rebel who, under Russian sponsorship, reconciled with the Assad regime 3 years ago has opened a recruitment office in Homs.

A Russian military police standing guard between the portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Damascus. Syria is one of the few countries to support Russia's invasion of Ukraine. [Getty]
A Russian military police standing guard between the portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Damascus. Syria is one of the few countries to support Russia's invasion of Ukraine. [Getty]

Other offices for recruitment are said to be located in Daraa, in the city of Aleppo, in the countryside of Raqqa, in the countryside of Latakia, and one other office in Hama. Turkish media claimed, based on intelligence sources, that the Syrian mercenaries have already been deployed to Russia via Armenia.

While this development may come as a surprise for some, in reality, this phenomenon has taken place before. Just two years ago, Russian military contractor Wagner Group, along with Russian army officials, recruited hundreds of regime forces from all across Syria to be deployed to Libya. The maritime route from the Black Sea to Syria and from Syria to Libya was not only used to transport arms to the Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, but also Syrian mercenaries.

However, in Libya, the regime forces are said to be promised a salary of $1,000 but in reality, they received about $700. In all of these recruitment and deployment activities, Wagner, the infamous private contractor, played a crucial role. Reports suggest Russia has now withdrawn the Syrian mercenaries in Libya, likely to be deployed to fight in Ukraine.

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From a military point of view, Moscow’s move makes sense. The Ukrainian army employs a mobile defence strategy that creates huge costs for Russia. The obvious Russian problems in supply and maintenance are greatly exploited by Ukraine.

Furthermore, the Ukrainian army is trying to combat the Russian military within cities. The urban territory provides the Ukrainian side with a clear military advantage; it minimises the power discrepancy to Russia and allows the Ukrainian soldiers to use their anti-tank guided missiles to the full extent.

Faruk Abu Bakr, a commander in the Syrian National Army that fought the Assad regime and Russia for years, said: “I think that Putin wants to bring in fighters who have experience in urban warfare. The soldiers of the Russian army don’t have this experience, whilst the militias of Bashar al-Assad have a ten-year experience.”

Even though the regime forces have experience, it cannot be said that their track record is one of success. Despite starvation and indiscriminate bombardment, the battles for some urban areas in Syria lasted for years; others could only be captured after a political evacuation deal. Furthermore, the regime forces have still never faced a conventional army with air defences and serious anti-armour capabilities.

"From a geopolitical and strategic point of view, this decision by Russia to recruit and deploy Syrian regime forces to Ukraine shows that the response of the international community to the invasion should not be limited to Ukraine's borders"

The armed Syrian opposition possessed only the TOW ATGM missiles and some older Russian systems. According to Abu Bakr, the regime forces will be less effective against the Ukrainian army equipped with modern Javelin and NLAW systems. The Syrian mercenaries don’t know the Ukrainian terrain and their experience will be of limited effect as the Ukrainian cities, streets, buildings differ significantly in terms of military strategy.

Despite all of these limitations, the deployment of Syrian mercenaries is of huge value for Moscow. Instead of the possible death of hundreds of Russian soldiers in urban warfare, Putin can avoid the domestic repercussions by employing Syrians as cannon fodder with experience.

From a geopolitical and strategic point of view, this decision by Russia to recruit and deploy Syrian regime forces to Ukraine shows that the response of the international community to the invasion should not be limited to Ukraine's borders. An appropriate response to the Russian aggression has to take into account the complex geopolitical dynamics at play. A strategy that fails to address Syria will fail.

Ahmad Bakkora, a member of the Syrian National Coalition, said: “Bashar al-Assad has proven to be a problem that threatens global collective security. He exports drugs and mercenaries. The strategy to support Ukraine needs to include Syria before Syria fully turns into a branch of the Russian Wagner PMC.”

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With the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the Syrian National Coalition and the Syrian Interim Government requested advanced equipment and anti-aircraft weapons, similar to the ones being provided to Ukraine to be supplied to the Syrian National Army. They argued that such support will help to limit Russia’s military options in Syria and prevent it from threatening NATO members by using the Russian bases in Syria.

In short, Putin views the world map as full and knows how to use all of its resources, including the use of battle-proven Chechen and Syrian soldiers.

The silence of the international community against Russian autocracies in Syria encouraged Putin to attack Ukraine. Ukraine’s suffering is a consequence of the failure to hold Putin accountable, and without factoring Syria into a global response, Ukraine risks meeting the same fate.

Ömer Özkizilcik is a foreign policy and security analyst based in Ankara.

Follow him on Twitter: @OmerOzkizilcik