Russia steps up recruitment of Syrians for Ukraine, but how will it pay them?

By Nohad Topalian and AFP

Russian troops patrol in the Syrian district of Daraa al-Balad in the southern province of Daraa on September 1. [Sam Hariri/AFP]

Russian troops patrol in the Syrian district of Daraa al-Balad in the southern province of Daraa on September 1. [Sam Hariri/AFP]

BEIRUT -- Russia and its allies have reactivated the recruitment offices they used to sign up Syrian mercenaries to fight in Libya to gin up support for the Russian army in its war on Ukraine, Syrian activists and opposition figures say.

Russia has drawn up lists of 40,000 fighters from Syrian army and allied militias to be put on standby for deployment in Ukraine, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday (March 15), according to AFP.

The news comes as demoralised Russian troops, who invaded Ukraine February 24 amid expectations of a swift victory, suffer unexpectedly high casualties.

The recruitment process is still in the phase of where lists of names are being compiled and security checks carried out, the activists and opposition members have told Al-Mashareq.

Syrian artists paint a mural to protest Russia's military operation in Ukraine amid the destruction in the opposition-held town of Binnish in Idlib province, Syria, on February 24. [Omar Haj Kadour/AFP]

Syrian artists paint a mural to protest Russia's military operation in Ukraine amid the destruction in the opposition-held town of Binnish in Idlib province, Syria, on February 24. [Omar Haj Kadour/AFP]

To date, they said, no "combat contracts" have been signed, though this is evidently the next step in the process, if all goes according to plan.

Syrian opposition outlets and Arab and international press report that Russia has started the process of recruiting more mercenaries in several Syrian provinces, in preparation to transport them to Ukraine to fight in Russian ranks.

The recruitment efforts are being spearheaded by Syrian collaborators, who previously recruited mercenaries to fight for Russia in Libya and Venezuela.

Syria News, an opposition outlet, reported that Russian forces in al-Raqa have begun registering the names of Syrians who wish to fight in Ukraine.

Other outlets report recruitment efforts in other provinces.

Syrian opposition sources told Al-Nahar Al-Arabi newspaper that the Syrian regime's 8th Brigade has become heavily involved in implementing Moscow's policy to recruit Syrian mercenaries, opening offices in Palmyra.

The 8th Brigade's Palmyra office is targeting local youth, offering incentives such as immunity from harassment by Syrian security services, money and housing.

Ahmed al-Awda, who commands the 8th Brigade, reportedly visited Russia for 10 days in mid-November, without disclosing the reason for his visit. He appears to have been persuaded to contribute to Russian recruitment efforts for Ukraine.

Russian recruitment in Syria and unkept promises

A 32-year-old Syrian, who gave his name only as Ibrahim, told Al-Mashareq he was recruited in the city of Aleppo in 2020 to fight for the Russians in Libya.

He was motivated by money, given the dire living conditions in Syria, he said, and worked for Russia's Wagner Group in Libya for a year "as a guard at a military post".

Still facing hardships upon his return to Syria, "I went back and registered my name to join the Ukraine squad", he said.

Syrians are tempted by "the lucrative salaries paid in dollars by the Russian security companies, through intermediaries in the recruitment offices spread out in the regime's areas of influence", he said.

Yet many received just a fraction of the money the recruiters promised them.

Harsh economic realities in Russia, which the global community slammed with sanctions after its invasion of Ukraine, will make such lavish promises hard to keep.

For example, Moscow was due Wednesday to pay $117 million on two dollar-denominated bonds -- the first interest payment that has fallen due since it was largely shut out of the Western financial system. Failure to make that payment would mark Russia's first default since 1998.

In another sign of rippling hardship, the Russian central bank Monday said it would suspend its gold purchases from banks, starting Tuesday, in order to let individuals have priority in buying gold.

It is unlikely that Russia will be able to keep paying Syrian mercenaries given the impact of sanctions and their consequences, observers said.

Syrians for Truth and Justice executive director Bassam al-Ahmad said his organisation receives field reports from activists on the ground.

According to the reports, he said, Syrian "recruitment offices that previously recruited fighters for Libya were given permission to register and compile lists of potential recruits and fighters with high combat experience".

Experience in urban warfare is particularly sought after, he said.

Most of the names on the lists are men who have fought under the supervision of Russian officers and with the Syrian army's 25th Division, al-Ahmad said.

According to one man who signed up, he said, recruitment offices in Syria are compiling lists of names "to submit to the Russian forces present in Syria for approval before they join the Russian army in its war on Ukraine".

Recruits who gave testimony to Syrians for Justice and Truth were not informed of what they would receive in terms of financial compensation, he said.

Exploiting hardships

The Russian recruitment of Syrian fighters for its Ukraine offensive "began in early January before the outbreak of the war", according to Turki Mustafa, a Syrian opposition researcher from Idlib.

But the turnout has been "weak", he told Al-Mashareq, and does not measure up to the expectations of the Russians and their Syrian agents.

He noted that recruitment is being handled by offices in regime-controlled areas opened by the Russians in 2020 to recruit mercenaries for Libya.

Al-Awda, the 8th Brigade commander, is spearheading the recruitment effort in southern Syria, Mustafa said, recruiting fighters from Daraa, Busra al-Sham and Sweida in co-ordination with other regime-sponsored militias.

The Damascus area has "the top recruitment offices", he said, followed by those on the Syrian coast, where registration figures are "negligible".

"The Aleppo offices are seeing some recruitment activity," he added, with al-Hasakeh recruitment offices also seeing "acceptable" activity.

"The regime's shabiha [militias] and regime-affiliated warlords are actively urging youth to fight in the ranks of the Russian army, while the mayors of towns and neighbourhoods are playing a major role," Mustafa added.

Russia's recruitment of Syrian mercenaries is just one more example of "Russia and its Syrian allies exploiting the economic hardships that the Syrian youth in the regime's areas are experiencing," he said.

Palmyra News Network director Mohammed Hassan al-Ayed told Al-Mashareq that Russia is "withdrawing its army, fighters, elite military commanders and its foreign Wagner militias [from Syria] to fight in Ukraine".

They are being replaced by local militias allied with the Russians, he said.

Al-Ayed noted the recent "arrival of a number of 8th Brigade commanders in Palmyra on a reconnaissance mission to identify strategic areas, perhaps to position themselves in the city and its countryside, on Russian orders".

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