A Syrian soldier talks on the phone in Jobar, eastern Ghouta. The UN says 158,000 people were displaced from Eastern Ghouta since March 9. Photo: Reuters / Ali Hashisho
A Syrian soldier talks on the phone in Jobar, eastern Ghouta. Syrian men have become a commodity for export to the world’s war zones. Photo: Reuters / Ali Hashisho

When Russia was building up troops on the Ukrainian border ahead of the February 24 invasion, local sources reported that Syrian fighters were registering for deployment. Claims that a recruitment effort was under way were not particularly surprising – they mirrored earlier deployments of Syrian mercenaries by Russia in Libya, among other places. 

These reports gathered steam after President Vladimir Putin gave the green light on March 11 for “16,000 volunteers” from the Middle East to be deployed to fight in Ukraine.

Despite the escalation of the war, there is still no hard evidence that Syrians have arrived or started fighting in Ukraine. It appears logistics, combined with how much the Kremlin needs more boots on the ground, has postponed their arrival. But as the conflict continues to go badly for Russia, a mobilization of Syrian mercenaries cannot be ruled out. 

Syrian fighters being used abroad is nothing new. A decade of brutal conflict has led to a lack of opportunities at home and little hope of a stable future. What many young men do have, however, is experience in combat – a skill that is in significant demand, both locally and abroad.

For several years, Syrians from both pro-government and opposition groups have been recruited and sent to fight in Libya. They were also used in the 2020 conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. There have even been reports of Syrian mercenaries being sent to Venezuela and the Central African Republic.

The growing use of Syrian mercenaries plucked from either side of the conflict at home has allowed Russia, and Turkey, to pursue their foreign-policy goals at low cost and under a cloak of deniability.

In the past three months, there have been first-hand accounts of the recruitment process under way in Syria’s government-held areas. Mirroring previous efforts, the recruitment is reportedly carried out by the Russian Wagner Group in coordination with local intermediaries, including private security firms, former rebel forces and pro-government factions.

In terms of incentives, the mercenaries are offered monthly salaries ranging from US$1,000 to $3,000 depending on experience. Even the lower figure is more than 10 times the average paycheck that they could earn in Syria. The fighters are also offered compensation for injury or death.

According to European intelligence officials, 40,000 Syrians have signed up to fight in Ukraine and at least 150 of them have already arrived in Russia. Yet there is still no verified evidence that any Syrian mercenaries have reached the front lines.

The logistical difficulty of transporting them to the battlefield might be one of the reasons for this. Moscow would first need to get the fighters from different areas inside Syria to its military airbase in Hmeimim, Latakia. The fighters would then be flown to Russia before being deployed to Ukraine.

These mercenaries are usually used as foot soldiers, so Moscow would need to transport a substantial number for there to be a significant military impact on the battlefield.

But the difficulty in moving hundreds of fighters is not the only reason for the lack of deployment. Despite the scale of its military operation in Ukraine, Russia still has vast resources to use both against its neighbor and continuing the military support that helped President Bashar al-Assad cling to power in Syria. Moscow is probably questioning the value that would be gained from using Syrians in Ukraine. 

While Russia has typically relied on Syrian mercenaries in a proxy war like Libya, Moscow is largely using its own troops in Ukraine. This means that Russia is not in desperate need for boots on the ground, other than to offset the domestic political damage to Putin from Russian casualties.

Moscow has already drawn on forces from Chechnya, which is ruled by Putin loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov. With Moscow claiming that it is shifting focus to the east of Ukraine after failing to take Kiev, does Russia really need more foreign forces at this stage?

In addition, Syrian mercenaries are not an elite force – they lack discipline and, because they are recruited individually, the ability to fight as a unit. They neither know the terrain in Ukraine nor do they speak the language so as to coordinate with Russian forces swiftly. More important, deploying foreign mercenaries would further stain the reputation of Russian forces and deepen the rift with the West.

In that case, why would Russia’s intermediaries spend three months gathering the details of 40,000 Syrians without Russia’s blessing or instructions? Moscow might have aimed to portray the process as a sign of international support for its Ukraine war. Putin already claimed that people from the Middle East who are volunteering to fight in Ukraine are “motivated by a desire to help those living in Donbas.”

That said, it would be wise not entirely to rule out the possibility of Syrian mercenaries appearing in Ukraine. The Ukrainian resistance to the invasion has been far more fierce than initially anticipated by Moscow. Therefore, a prolonged conflict might increase Russia’s need for expendable fighters.

Regardless of what happens in Ukraine, the lack of financial opportunities and instability at home mean young Syrian men have become a commodity for export to the world’s war zones – a commodity that Russia, among others, will continue to exploit.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Haid Haid

Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and a consulting associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.