Syrian fighters ready to join the next phase of the war in Ukraine

BEIRUT — During a visit to Syria in 2017, Vladimir Putin praised a Syrian general whose division was instrumental in defeating insurgents in the country’s long civil war. The Russian president told him that his cooperation with Russian troops “would lead to great successes in the future”.

So far, only a small number appear to have arrived in Russia for military training before deployment to the front lines. Although Kremlin officials boasted at the start of the war of more than 16,000 applications from the Middle East, US officials and activists monitoring Syria say there have not yet been a significant number of applications. fighters from the region who joined the war in Ukraine.

Analysts, however, say that could change as Russia prepares for the next phase of the battle with a full-scale offensive in eastern Ukraine. They believe fighters from Syria are more likely to be deployed in the coming weeks, especially after Putin appointed General Alexander Dvornikov, who commanded the Russian army in Syria, as the new war commander in Ukraine.

Although some wonder how effective Syrian fighters would be in Ukraine, they could be brought in if more forces are needed to besiege towns or to offset increased casualties. Dvornikov is familiar with the multiple paramilitary forces in Syria trained by Russia as he oversaw the strategy of ruthlessly besieging and bombing opposition-held towns in Syria into submission.

“Russia is preparing for a bigger battle” in Ukraine and Syrian fighters are likely to take part, said Ahmad Hamada, a defector from the Syrian army who is now a military analyst based in Turkey.

Syrian observers and activists say the Russians are actively recruiting in Syria for the war in Ukraine, especially among Russian-trained fighters.

Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, reported that so far around 40,000 people have registered – 22,000 with the Russian army and about 18,000 from the Russian private contractor Wagner Group.

About 700 members of al-Hassan’s 25th Special Mission Forces Division, known in Syria as the “Tiger Force”, have left Syria in recent weeks to fight alongside Russian forces, it said. Abdurrahman. The figures could not be independently confirmed.

Pro-government activists have posted videos over the past two weeks on social media showing members of Tiger Force performing military exercises, including parachute drops from helicopters. Russian officers appeared in one of the videos advising paratroopers inside a helicopter as al-Hassan praised the young men by patting them on the head. It was not immediately clear if the videos were new.

Abdurrahman said there were also 5th Division volunteers trained in Russia; the Baath Brigades, which are the armed wing of Assad’s ruling Baath Party; and the Palestinian Quds Brigade, made up of Palestinian refugees in Syria. All of them fought alongside the Russian army in the war in Syria.

“The Russians are looking for experienced fighters. They don’t want anyone who hasn’t been trained by the Russians,” Abdurrahman said.

Tiger Force took credit for some of the government’s greatest victories in the 11 years of conflict. He was involved in a month-long campaign backed by Russia in the rebels’ last enclave, located in the northwestern province of Idlib, which ended in March 2020 with government forces capturing a highway north- vital south – although the rebels retain control of the enclave.

Al-Hassan “is one of Russia’s men and Russia will depend on him,” said Omar Abu Layla, a Europe-based activist who heads DeirEzzor 24, a Syrian war monitoring group.

Hundreds of fighters from the 5th Division and the Quds Brigade have registered at the Russian base in Hmeimeem in western Syria, which is leading recruitment efforts, and are awaiting orders, he said.

In late March, a Russian-trained force known as the “ISIS Hunters” militia, which has fought for years against IS, released an announcement calling on men aged 23 to 49 to come forward for testing, saying that those who pass the test and are found. appropriate will be called later.

So far, around 100 men have registered their names in the southern province of Sweida, according to Rayan Maarouf of Suwayda24, an activist collective that covers IS activities in the Syrian desert. He added that they had been promised a monthly income of no less than $600, a huge sum of money in the context of widespread unemployment and the falling Syrian pound.

Earlier this month, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US had indications that the Wagner Group was trying to recruit fighters, mostly from the Middle East, to deploy to the region. of Donbass, in eastern Ukraine.

But he said there was “no precise information” on the number of people recruited. “We’re just not there yet to see anything real demonstrable in strengthening,” he added.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in early March that so far there have been only “very small groups” trying to get from Syria to the United States. Ukraine, calling it a “very small trickle”.

Retired Lebanese army general Naji Malaeb, who is following the war in Syria closely, said there were no indications so far of Syrian fighters heading to Russia, but that could change at as the war drags on.

“It all depends on what the Russians plan to do in the near future,” Malaeb said.

Syrian and Palestinian officials in Syria have played down reports of fighters heading for Ukraine. The Syrian government is likely worried that Syrian fighters are flooding into Ukraine, opening up opportunities on the front lines that its many opponents could exploit.

In a potentially worrying sign for the Syrian government, Russia has significantly reduced its operations in Syria since the start of the war in Ukraine, with fewer airstrikes targeting IS or opposition positions in Idlib.

“Any change in the posture of Russian forces or pro-regime militias creates security loopholes that anti-regime actors, including Turkey, ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Syrian opposition groups, can exploit.” , says the ISW report.

Muhannad Haj Ali, a former lawmaker and commander of the military wing of Syria’s ruling Baath Party, said no Syrians had gone to fight in Ukraine and he did not expect there to be any .

He said he was certain that Russia would win in Ukraine without needing help from the Syrians.

“The way the operations are going makes it clear that Ukraine will not be another Afghanistan,” he said.

ABC News

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