The Russo-Ukrainian war has provided the regime in Damascus, once considered a political pariah in the region, much-needed respectability on the regional and world stages.
Syria was one of the handful of countries to support Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine. Apart from this moral support, the Russian military campaign in Ukraine has provided an opportunity for the regime to send its paramilitary forces to fight for its old ally and return the favor it received all these years.
There are two concrete issues that need evaluating regarding Syria’s position vis-à-vis the Russo-Ukrainian war. The first is military and the second is political. On both of these, Syria appears to be making a significant contribution to the war as well as the larger geopolitical context.
Syrian contribution to the war
It is now established that Russia is recruiting Syrian paramilitaries and serving soldiers to fight under its flag in Ukraine. Rather than a conscription drive, there appears to be genuine support for Russia in Syria at the moment. Tens of thousands of Syrians have shown readiness to sign up to fight in Ukraine for Russia in at least 14 recruitment centers across the country.
Going by the current scenario on the ground, the Kremlin’s military campaign in Ukraine is likely to be a long-drawn-out one. From the earlier conventional war, the Russians are facing what may be called an insurrectional war in Ukraine.
Such wars require irregulars capable of adapting to complex dynamics on the ground. Consequently, if the war strategies employed by Moscow in the besieged cities of Mariupol and Kharkiv are anything to go by, we are in for protracted urban warfare. This involves encirclement and hammering of cities resisting Russian advances with a special kind of armament and soldiers.
What can the Syrian recruits to the Russian campaign bring that the Russian soldiers cannot? First, the Syrian recruits are battle-hardened and come with plenty of war experience under their belt.
Second, some of these recruits are ideologically driven and want to bring success to the Kremlin’s campaign in Ukraine and make good on the support they received from Russia in the past.
Third, these soldiers and paramilitaries are extremely adaptable in urban combat – they bring to the war a special kind of skill that the conscript Russian army lacks.
National Defense Forces
Of all the Syrian recruits, it is the National Defense Forces that are likely to prove crucial in this war. Arguably, the NDF militia has the best battle experience in contemporary Middle Eastern warfare. They have been fighting relentlessly in Syria’s civil war since 2012.
At a time when the Syrian Armed Forces were struggling with defections, reliability, and trust among their ranks, it was the NDF that demonstrated the most motivated, loyal, and effective infantry in the ruling regime’s power consolidation campaigns.
The NDF have proved their mettle while acting in an infantry role, while directly engaged in combat with rebels on the ground. More important, they have proved to be exceptionally successful in running counterinsurgency operations. Being well versed in urban warfare and constant battle readiness has made NDF recruits an extremely potent military asset.
The NDF’s deployment in Ukraine under the Russian flag may be the beginning of the militia’s transformation from a national infantry division to an international armed brigade.
It is worth mentioning that Syrian fighters have been deployed in foreign theaters before, by both Russia and Turkey in Libya, and by Turkey in Nagorno-Karabakh to help Ankara’s ally Azerbaijan.
With the retreating US security guarantees in the Middle East, there is a real possibility of local regimes exploring indigenous safety mechanisms to address their internal security needs. If the NDF militia makes a good name for itself, in securing vital successes for Putin in the battlefields of Ukraine, it will significantly increase its profile as an effective force that could be called upon for deployment at short notice beyond Syria.
Syria’s growing rapprochement with the United Arab Emirates and beginning of the end of the ruling regime’s pariah status may open possibilities for other authoritarian regimes in the region to take a leaf from President Bashar al-Assad’s war manual and hire NDF recruits in their dissent-suppressing initiatives.
Syria has stood out as one key player in undermining the success of the US-led campaign to isolate Russia on the world stage. Its actions may have made a small dent, but it is a dent nonetheless. As days and weeks pass and we see an increase in Russia’s gains on the Ukrainian war front, this outcome is likely to embolden the Assad regime further.
Amalendu Misra is professor of international politics at Lancaster University in England. Follow him on Twitter @MisraAmalendu.