Syrian mercenaries are deployed to Russia en route to the Ukrainian battlefields

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hundreds of Syrian fighters are on their way to join Russian forces in Ukraine and effectively retaliate against Moscow for helping President Bashar al-Assad crush rebels in an 11-year civil war, according to two people who supported the Monitor flow of mercenaries.

According to a Western diplomat and a Damascus-based Syrian government ally, a first contingent of soldiers has already arrived in Russia for military training before heading to Ukraine. It includes at least 300 soldiers from a Syrian army division that has worked closely with Russian officers who went to Syria to support Mr al-Assad during the war.

And many more could be on the way: recruiters across Syria have compiled lists of thousands of interested candidates to be screened by the Syrian security services and then passed on to the Russians.

Syria has become an exporter of mercenaries in recent years, a grim aftermath of years of war that gave many men combat experience but so damaged the country’s economy that people are now struggling to find jobs. That’s why they’ve hired as hit men in wars in Libya, Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic — and now Ukraine.

“In general, money is the motivation,” said Bassam Alahmad, the head of Syrians for Truth and Justice, an advocacy group that has investigated the Syrian mercenary trade. Some Syrians feel loyal to Russia because of its support for Mr al-Assad, he said, while others sign up to fight simply because they need the money and believe recruiters’ promises that they will have non-combat-related jobs, such as bases or oil to guard facilities.

“Some people don’t mind fighting, but there are groups that are definitely taking advantage of people’s needs,” Mr Alahmad said. “The result is the same: people pay that price. People participate in wars that are not theirs.”

On Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the United States believes about 1,000 mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a Russian military company, are concentrated in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, where Russia has set up two separatist enclaves. Mr Kirby added that Wagner is believed to be recruiting from Arab countries, including Syria and Libya.

Syria’s long-running war attracted foreign powers like Iran, Turkey, Russia and the United States, all of which worked with Syrian military groups on the ground to further their interests.

Some of these partnerships now facilitate mercenary traffic.

Russia and Turkey together sent about 10,000 Syrian fighters to bolster their favored sides in the conflict in Libya, Mr Alahmad said, and Turkey sent about 2,000 Syrians to Azerbaijan during last year’s war in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory.

Russia has sent a small number of Syrians as far away as 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 signed this treaty, but Russia did not.

“What we’re seeing is predatory recruitment,” said Sorcha MacLeod, chair of the United Nations working group on the use of mercenaries. “They are taking advantage of the poor socio-economic situation these people are 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 with the Syrian military. But much about the operations and activities of Syrian mercenaries remains obscure due to the covert nature of their work.

Western officials, experts tracking the issue, recruiters and returned combatants described a chaotic system in which men with few options struggle for limited opportunities to risk their lives for salaries they could not match at home.

The war in Ukraine has spiked interest, and recruiters have launched registration campaigns across Syria to collect names of men who want to leave, according to Mr Alahmad and a recruiter in southern Syria who is recruiting men. The recruiter, like others in this article, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions from the Syrian government.

Recruiters often collect payments for registration, and fraud is common.

The recruiter in southern Syria said he started work after a scammer who had promised him a job in Libya took his money and left him near the city of Latakia in north-west Syria, unable to return home.

He said he signed up several groups to go to Libya and recently learned the Russians want up to 16,000 Syrians fighting in Ukraine. Applicants must be between 20 and 45 years old and weigh between 110 and 200 pounds, he said, adding that priority is given to those with military experience and that all recruits must be screened by the Syrian security services.

He and his partner charge applicants about $7 to apply and earn $25 for each who is accepted, he said. A lack of other work and a currency collapse that has made basic things like bread and cooking gas exorbitantly expensive in Syria have boosted interest in Ukraine with promises of $1,000-$2,000 a month.

While some other recruiters play up the benefits and minimize the dangers, he said he’s making the danger clear.

“Some people sell it to them like they’re going to heaven,” he said. “You’re not going 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 have offered them $1,200 a month for six months with a $3,000 bonus if they return 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 combat, he said, adding that in Syria these soldiers earn about $100 a month, while soldiers from less elite units make less than $50 earn per month month.

A commander of a militia made up of fighters from Syria and neighboring countries who received Russian support during the Syrian war said his group sent another contingent of 85 men to Russia. These included Lebanese, Iraqis and Syrians, he said, adding that more are on the way.

“The Russians helped us when it was necessary, and now it’s time to return part of what they offered us,” the commander said.

A Syrian who recently returned from fighting in Libya said he only went for the money but would never do it again.

When he was in Libya guarding oil and other facilities, his three-month contract was extended to six and his salary cut from $1,000 to $800 a month, he said. His food, water and shelter were to be covered, but he said he slept in a tent with other men, eating mostly rice and bread and buying drinking water.

He’s happy to have made it home and has used his earnings to pay off his debts and open a cigarette shop, he said. But his activities left a social stain that could affect his marriage prospects, he said.

He tells anyone who will listen not to go to Ukraine.

“People who go there will die,” he said.

Raja Abdulrahim contributed reporting from Jerusalem. Syrian mercenaries are deployed to Russia en route to the Ukrainian battlefields

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