Putin Says 16,000 Syrians Will Fight in Ukraine. But It's Complicated.

Vladimir Putin said the “volunteers” will join Russian soldiers on the battlefield. But sources in Syria told VICE World News negotiations with tribal leaders had not yet begun.
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PHOTO: LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images

Up to 16,000 “volunteers” from the Middle East will join Russian forces in Ukraine “free of charge,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday. 

Since the war in Ukraine started two weeks ago, false claims of recruiting fighters from Syria have been thrown around by both sides as the world watches Russia’s advance towards Kyiv. Ukrainian soldiers, armed civilians and some foreign fighters have formed a resistance that has stalled the prospect of a quick takeover by the Russian backed rebel groups in the country. 

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The Syrian government was one of the very few Russian allies in the region to publicly promise to support Russia in its bid to “liberate” the Donetsk and Luhansk enclaves in eastern Ukraine. It made this pledge just three days before Russia invaded Ukraine. 

Putin’s claim that he has recruited thousands of foreign fighters comes after rumours of fighters from the Syrian rebel-held enclave of Idlib going to fight for Ukraine. Reports claiming “450 terrorists of Arab and foreign nationalities” were passing through Turkey to Ukraine were put out by Russian state news agency Sputnik. 

This week, the Pentagon has also claimed that Russians sought Syrian mercenaries in a shift of tactic, and rely on foreign fighters. Deir Ezzor 24, a media outlet run by anti-Syrian government activists reported that the Russians has brought their Syrian contractors back from Libya with the intention of making them join the Russian side in the Ukraine war.

VICE World News talked to a number of Syrian locals familiar with the first rounds of recruitment to Libya by the Russians, which include negotiations with tribal leaders and figures in local Syrian communities. None of that has yet to happen despite early claims of thousands already registered by Putin today.

Ten years after a popular uprising against his regime morphed into fighting between jihadist groups, democracy activists, Kurds, and government forces, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has ended up fighting one of the longest wars in modern history. Still, he has managed to keep the vast majority of the country under his control, thanks to military support from Russia and Iran. 

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Damascus has already given permission for Syrian fighters to take up arms in Ukraine, but persuading young people to join the fight also requires local mediators to convince them to sign up. Wagner Group, a notorious Russian private security firm, previously hired people living in Assad-controlled areas to join their ranks in Libya, where Russian mercenaries are fighting for warlord General Khalifa Haftar. 

Both the Syrian opposition and the government have accused each other of sending armed men to Ukraine.

Syrian and Russian state-run media outlets have already speculated that Islamist fighters from Idlib have arrived in Ukraine. 

This week, Baladi News, a Syrian opposition weekly, reported that the Russian commander of a government army base in Hemeimeem asked Nabil al-Abdullah, the leader of National Defence Militia to register the names of his militia members who want to fight for Russia in Ukraine.

According to multiple reports from outlets of anti-Assad groups, the Russians are looking for people to sign short term contracts with Syrians willing to join them for a lump payment of between $1,200 and $1,800 to “guard public and military facilities.”

Abdullah was quoted by Syrian state TV saying that he supports Russia’s military, citing the friendship between Assad and Putin. The story was widely covered in the Russian state-run television throughout the week. 

A video circulated on social media shows dozens of soldiers wearing pro-Syrian military fatigues chanting “we will sacrifice our soul and blood for Bashar, we will sacrifice our soul and blood for Syria,” with Russian and Syrian regime flags waving in the background. 

Last Friday, Russian intelligence agencies put out a statement claiming that the US has been training “ISIS fighters” to join the Ukrainian sides via Poland, calling it “a training camp for ISIS terrorists before they are sent to Donbas.” 

Russia has claimed that the US is training ISIS militants in al Tanaf, an oilfield controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, in the middle of the Syrian desert in Deir Azzour province. US troops still hold a few bases from which to fight the remnants of ISIS after the group’s “caliphate” was defeated in the spring of 2019.