MOSCOW (AP) — Belarus plans to deploy up to 200 soldiers to Syria to serve alongside Russian forces in the country, according to a Russian government document released Monday, a move strongly condemned by Belarus’s opposition leader.
A draft agreement between Moscow and Minsk, backed by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, says Belarusian soldiers will work to provide “humanitarian assistance” to populations outside combat zones.
The document, which has yet to be signed by the foreign and defense ministries of the countries, states that the Belarusian soldiers will act under the operational control of the Russian army in Syria when they are deployed to the country.
Russia has waged a military campaign in Syria since 2015, joining Iran in helping Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government regain control of most of the country after a devastating civil war.
The plan to send Belarusian soldiers to Syria reflects the deepening military ties between the two neighbors and former Soviet allies.
In recent weeks, Russia has mobilized troops from Siberia and the Far East to Belarus for extensive joint training. The deployment adds to the Russian military buildup near Ukraine, fueling fears in the West of a possible invasion.
Belarus’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, who is increasingly dependent on the Kremlin for political and financial support due to harsh sanctions implemented by the West over the crackdown on protests against his government, has called for strengthening military ties with Moscow and recently offered to store Russian nuclear weapons.
For his part, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the opposition, emphatically criticized the agreement to send Belarusian troops to Syria.
Tsikhanouskaya described the move as Lukashenko’s response to Moscow’s support, arguing that it violates the constitution and runs counter to national interests.
“Lukashenko pays with the sovereignty of Belarus for the support he received in 2020 that helped him stay in power,” Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press.
The former presidential candidate had to flee the country after Lukashenko was re-elected for a sixth term in August 2020 in elections that the opposition and the West consider fraudulent.
Yuras Karmanau in Kiev contributed to this report.