Russia recruiting Syrians for urban warfare in Ukraine, US officials say


WASHINGTON — Moscow is recruiting urban combat-skilled Syrians to fight in Ukraine as the Russian invasion is poised to spread deeper into cities, U.S. officials say.

A US assessment says Russia, which has been operating in Syria since 2015, has been recruiting fighters there in recent days, hoping their expertise in urban combat can help take Kiev and deliver a devastating blow to the Ukrainian government, according to four Americans. officials. The move points to a potential escalation in fighting in Ukraine, experts said.

It is not known how many fighters have been identified, but some are already in Russia and preparing to enter the conflict, according to an official.

Officials declined to elaborate on what else is known about the deployment of Syrian fighters to Ukraine, the status or the precise scale of the effort.

According to a publication based in Deir Ezzor, Syria, Russia has offered the country’s volunteers between $200 and $300 “to go to Ukraine and operate as guards” for six months at a time.

Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of the Chechen Republic.


Photo:

Yelena Afonina/Zuma Press

Syrians are not the only foreigners involved in the invasion of Ukraine. Chechen forces have also been deployed in Ukraine, according to a Reuters report citing Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechen Republic and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Fighters are also pouring into the country to fight alongside the Kyiv-based government. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said last week that 16,000 foreigners volunteered to fight for Ukraine, part of what he described as an “international legion”.

With the influx of volunteers from other countries into Ukraine, the conflict could become a new center of gravity for foreign fighters, said Jennifer Cafarella, national security officer at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, DC. .

“Russia’s deployment of foreign fighters from Syria to Ukraine internationalizes the war in Ukraine and therefore could link the war in Ukraine to broader interregional dynamics, particularly in the Middle East,” she said.

Russia recruiting Syrians for urban warfare in Ukraine, US officials say

A Russian soldier on guard in front of the Kremlin.


Photo:

Kirill Kudryavtsev/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Tens of thousands of Russian troops are inside Ukraine, and mortar, missile and other attacks occur daily in the northern, eastern and southern regions of the country. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have fled the towns, which were home to around two-thirds of the population before the invasion began on February 24.

Ukraine remains in the hands of Mr. Zelensky’s government, and the largest cities, the capital Kiev and Kharkiv to the east, remain under government control. Russia has captured the port city of Kherson, and other cities in Ukraine now face a Russian assault.

Syrian fighters have spent nearly a decade fighting urban warfare, while Russia’s largely conscripted force lacks that skill set. Ms Cafarella said Syrian forces deployed in Ukraine could also be asked to play a supporting role, based on how they have worked in Syria with the Wagner Group, a mercenary force some see as a government proxy. Russian.

Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, wondered how useful recruits from the Middle East could be in Ukraine. Mr Lister said there were Russian-trained Syrians who were involved in hunting down Islamic State operatives who might be in Ukraine, but in general Moscow did not see Syrian fighters as good in the hunt. urban warfare.

“Bringing Syrians to Ukraine is like bringing Martians to fight on the moon,” Lister said. “They don’t speak the language, the environment is totally different.”

Russia has been a key supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since he entered this conflict, largely through airstrikes, as well as Russian armed forces. The Wagner Group, which arrived in Syria shortly after Russia entered the conflict on behalf of the Assad regime, has carried out support operations such as seizing oil and gas deposits and securing other government infrastructure, such as airports.

Russia, which positioned nearly 200,000 troops along the Ukrainian border in the weeks leading up to the invasion, said on Wednesday that 498 of its soldiers had been killed and 1,597 others wounded, a rare public admission of losses on the battlefield. Others put the numbers much higher, including the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff, which according to a Reuters report said the estimated death toll among Russian soldiers was closer to 11 000.

Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com, Nancy A. Youssef at nancy.youssef@wsj.com and Alan Cullison at alan.cullison@wsj.com

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