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Ukraine war: Russia deploys Syrian fighters to shore up its defences

A few hundred Syrians have been sent to eastern Ukraine after training in Russia, but are yet to see combat
A Ukrainian soldier of an artillery unit fires towards Russian positions outside Bakhmut on November 8, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
A Ukrainian artillery unit fires towards Russian positions outside Bakhmut on 8 November 2022 (AFP)

Russia has deployed more than 500 Syrian fighters in Ukraine for primarily non-combatant roles, tasking them generally with safeguarding facilities in Luhansk and Donetsk in the past few months, regional intelligence sources told Middle East Eye. 

The sources said the experienced fighters were drawn mainly from pro-Syrian government units that were backed, trained and managed by Russia in the fight against opposition forces and the Islamic State group (IS). These include the 25th Special Mission Forces Division, known as the Tiger Forces, Fifth Corps and Liwa al-Quds, a militia made up predominantly of Palestinian Syrians. 

A Syrian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told MEE that Russia had recruited the Syrians, including former rebels, through its special forces and the notorious Wagner Group private military contractor, and transferred them to Ukraine. 

In March, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said during a United Nations Security Council meeting that Moscow had received more than 16,000 applications from people in Middle Eastern countries to help fight in Ukraine.

However, that was perceived by many observers as an attempt to scare Ukraine and other European countries in the conflict's early days.

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Members of the Tiger Forces in Aleppo in 2016 (AFP)
Members of the Tiger Forces in Aleppo in 2016 (AFP)

In the same month, MEE reported that adverts were circulating in Syria calling for potential recruits, promising substantial salaries of around "$3,000, depending on the specific skills and expertise each person has” - large sums in Syria's shattered economy. 

The official Telegram channel of IS Hunters, a Russian-backed group that was created in 2017 to fight IS, also issued a widespread call for recruits to report to their base in Homs for registration, to fight alongside the Russians in Ukraine.

However, with little evidence that Syrians had been deployed in Ukraine following reports of recruitment, suspicions arose that the calls to arms were a scam.

'The Syrians aren’t partaking in the actual fighting, they are mainly functioning as logistics near the front lines'

- Syrian government official

The New York Times reported earlier this year that at least 300 Syrian fighters had been sent to Russia for further training, before being deployed in Ukraine.

The Syrian government official told MEE that about 1,000 Syrian fighters were flown to Russia for the training, but only half of them had gone to Ukraine.

The official said the main task of the Syrian fighters was providing security and protection for areas managed by Wagner and other military contractors in Luhansk and Donetsk, but they could be called to the front for combat if an emergency or pressing need presented itself. 

A Ukrainian official told MEE that Kyiv had seen indications from the field that Syrians have been deployed to Ukraine. 

People familiar with the Syrian deployment say the fighters weren’t sent to the front line due to a set of technical issues, such as problems that may arise over coordination and a language barrier.

“They wouldn’t be able to communicate smoothly with the fellow Russian regiments in an open battlefield, and for example the Russian artillery could hit them,” a person familiar with the issue said.

“There would be issues of conduct, since the front line is a quite large area.” 

Those sources told MEE that the Syrians might be serving under the Russian military contractor Shchit (“Shield”) and a Wagner subsidiary group called Task Force Rusich, which earned a reputation for its self-declared neo-Nazi ideology during its deployment to eastern Ukraine in 2014. 

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There are already reports of Syrian casualties in eastern Ukraine. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group that monitors Syria's conflict, claimed earlier this month that nine fighters from Liwa al-Quds and the Tiger Forces have died since September.

The Observatory also alleged that 2,000 Syrian fighters have been participating in the defence of Russian-occupied territory in Kherson and Donetsk.

However, the Syrian government official said the number of Syrian fatalities was much higher than reported, with at least 50 killed in the Ukrainian bombardment so far.

“The Syrians aren’t partaking in the actual fighting, they are mainly functioning as logistics near the front lines. However, there is a small number of them that work as part of the artillery,” the official told MEE. 

Russia has previously deployed Syrian fighters in Libya during the 2019-2020 Libyan conflict, where they fought as part of the Wagner Group on behalf of eastern commander Khalifa Haftar.

Middle East Eye has previously reported that Syrians were used by Wagner during massacres in the Central African Republic.

Turkey, meanwhile, has deployed Syrian fighters in conflicts in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

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