Syrian fighters are ready to join the next stage of the Ukraine war

BEIRUT (Associated Press) – During a visit to Syria in 2017, Vladimir Putin paid tribute to the Syrian general whose division had been instrumental in defeating rebels in the country’s long-running civil war. The Russian president told him that his cooperation with Russian forces “will lead to great successes in the future.”

Now members of the dean. Major General Suhail al-Hassan’s division is among hundreds of Russian-trained Syrian fighters who have reportedly signed up to fight alongside Russian forces in Ukraine, including Syrian soldiers, ex-fighters and seasoned fighters who have fought for years against the Islamic State in the Syrian desert. .

So far, only a few seem to have arrived in Russia for military training before deploying to the front lines. Although Kremlin officials boasted early in the war of more than 16,000 requests from the Middle East, US officials and activists monitoring Syria say there have not yet been significant numbers of fighters from the region joining the war in Ukraine.

However, analysts say this could change as Russia prepares for the next phase of the battle with a large-scale offensive in eastern Ukraine. They believe fighters from Syria are likely to be deployed in the coming weeks, especially after Putin’s nomination General Alexander Dvornikov, Who led the Russian army in Syria as the new warlord in Ukraine.

Although some questions How effective are the Syrian fighters? In Ukraine, they could be brought in if more troops were needed to besiege cities or to compensate for mounting losses. Dvornikov is well acquainted with the various paramilitary forces in Syria that Russia has trained while overseeing the ruthless strategy Siege and bombing Opposition-controlled cities in Syria to submit.

Ahmed Hamadeh, a Syrian army defector and Turkey-based military analyst, said that “Russia is preparing for a bigger battle” in Ukraine and it is likely that Syrian fighters will participate.

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Syria monitors and activists say the Russians have been actively recruiting in Syria for the Ukraine war, particularly among Russian-trained fighters.

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and an opposition war monitor, reported that so far about 40,000 people have been registered – 22,000 in the Russian army and about 18,000 with Russia’s private Wagner group.

Abdul Rahman said that about 700 members of the 25th Al-Hassan Brigade for special missions, known in Syria as the “Tiger Force”, left Syria during the past weeks to fight alongside the Russian forces. It was not possible to verify these numbers independently.

Pro-government activists have posted videos over the past two weeks on social media showing members of the Tiger Force performing military exercises including skydiving from helicopters. In one clip, Russian officers were shown advising paratroopers in a helicopter while Hassan praised the youths by clicking their heads. It was not immediately clear if the videos were new.

Abdul Rahman said that there are volunteers from the Fifth Division who trained in Russia. – The Ba’ath Brigades, the military wing of the ruling Ba’ath Party. The Palestinian Jerusalem Brigade, made up of Palestinian refugees in Syria. They all fought alongside the Russian army in the Syrian war.

The Russians are looking for experienced fighters. “They don’t want anyone who has not been trained by the Russians,” Abd al-Rahman said.

Tiger Force has been credited with some of the government’s biggest victories in the 11-year conflict. It took part in a months-long, Russia-backed campaign on the last rebel enclave, located in the northwestern province of Idlib, which ended in March 2020 with government forces seizing a vital north-south highway – although that enclave remained in control of the opposition. .

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Omar Abu Laila, a Europe-based activist who runs the Deir Ezzor 24 group monitoring the war in Syria, said Hassan is “one of Russia’s men and Russia will depend on him.”

He pointed out that hundreds of fighters of the Fifth Division and Liwa al-Quds have registered at the Russian Hmeimim base in western Syria, which is leading the recruitment efforts, and are waiting for orders.

In late March, a Russia-trained force known as the “ISIS Hunters” militia, which has fought for years against the Islamic State, posted an ad inviting men between the ages of 23 and 49 to come in for screening, saying that those who pass the test and are found will be found A proper call later.

So far, about 100 men have registered their names in the southern province of As-Suwayda, according to Rayan Maarouf from As-Suwayda 24, an activist group that covers Islamic State activities in the Syrian desert. He added that they were promised a monthly income of at least $600, which is a huge amount amid rampant unemployment and the collapse of the Syrian pound.

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

But he said there was “no specific information” on the numbers of recruits. “We are not there yet to see anything real that can be proven when it comes to reinforcements,” he added.

General Frank McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in early March that so far there are only “very small groups” trying to make their way from Syria to Ukraine, calling it a “very small drop”.

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Retired Lebanese Army General Naji Malaeb, who follows the war in Syria closely, said there is no indication yet that Syrian fighters will travel to Russia, but that this may change as the war continues.

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

Syrian and Palestinian officials in Syria downplayed reports of fighters heading to Ukraine. It is possible that the Syrian government is concerned about the influx of Syrian fighters into Ukraine, which opens opportunities on the front lines that its many opponents can exploit.

In a worrying signal to the Syrian government, Russia has significantly scaled back its operations in Syria since the start of the war in Ukraine, with fewer air strikes targeting ISIS or opposition positions in Idlib.

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

Muhannad al-Haj Ali, a former lawmaker and commander in the military wing of the ruling Baath Party in Syria, said that no Syrians have gone to fight in Ukraine and that he does not expect any of them to leave.

He said he was sure that Russia would win in Ukraine without having to help the Syrians.

“The way operations are going is a clear indication that Ukraine will not be another Afghanistan,” he said.

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