Syria's dire economy and years of fighting send young ‘mercenaries’ to fight in Ukraine

Russian soldiers salute President Vladimir Putin at Hmeimim Air Base, during a 2017 visit. Russia's airbase in Syria serves as the launchpad from which volunteers are flown from Syria to Ukraine to fight alongside the Russian army. The image is used under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

This article was first published by Raseef22 on 19 March 2022. An edited version is published as part of a republishing agreement with Global Voices.

Following years of a devastating war that continues to fragment the country, Syria is now exporting professional mercenaries to other hotspots of conflict, including Libya and the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and they are soon expected to arrive in Ukraine. They packed their fighting experience and headed to foreign arenas, some to fight in Russia’s wars and others fighting Turkey’s foreign wars.

Its like a Syrian once said: “Blackwater Latakia and Aleppo… Welcome to New Syria”.

When it comes to the recruitment of pro-regime fighters, the name of the Russian private military company Wagner Group stands out. The paramilitary organization has a special contract with the Syrian Defense Ministry to fight inside Syria.

The company coordinates with the authorities of the Hmeimim Air Base, Russia’s base of operations in Syria, to recruit Syrians for the purpose of sending them abroad. Wagner’s contractors are not openly present on the scene, but rather operate through a front consisting of Syrians to attract those who are willing.

Since the start of the Russian war on Ukraine in the last week of February 2022, many people, parties, movements, and institutions came out to say: “We are with you, Russia.” These all collectively came as an echo of the official Syrian position which firmly and resolutely stands with Russia — a position that is understandable in the general political context, as no one expects the Syrian regime to stand against its international ally.

But sending “mercenaries” to fight in Ukraine's streets is another matter entirely. It seems that the fighters affiliated with the Syrian regime and the forces that support it have once again set their sights on the dollars that working as “mercenaries” (dubbed  “volunteers”) would provide, just like when thousands went to provide support for Russia to face the Turks in Libya. How wouldn’t they, when the USD 700 dollars they were getting paid in Libya per month have gone up to a monthly USD 1000?

On March 11, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Moscow was deploying Syrian mercenaries in his country. Russia has not officially confirmed this, but its Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported that 16,000 “volunteers” from the Middle East are ready to fight alongside Russia’s allies in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

The Middle East here refers to Syria — the only place where Russians have allies ready to embark on a mercenary adventure for political conditions and economic hardships the Syrian war created for its people. Also, Syria is the only place that fighters, logistically, can be transferred from to Russia, through the Hmeimim Air Base.

Russian President Vladimir Putin added:

If you see that there are these people who want of their own accord, not for money, to come to help the people living in Donbas, then we need to give them what they want and help them get to the conflict zone

Packing their bags

Majed is a 28-year-old Syrian man residing in Homs. He packed his belongings in preparation for travel and the subsequent fighting in the Donbas region.

He told Raseef22 he is a former fighter from a combat group within the backup forces in the Qalamoun region that was dissolved in 2017, referring to the Qalamoun Shield Forces, an auxiliary military group that isn’t affiliated with the government army but fights alongside it, just like the National Defense Forces, the al-Bustan Association, the Qalamoun Shield Forces, and the Tiger ‘Nimr’ Forces (named after the nickname of Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan).

Majed recounts how he went to Libya in late 2020 and fought there over two periods. Each period of time consisted of five months, and between the two periods, he went back to Syria for three months.

He added:

Now I’ve been contracted with the Hmeimim Air Base to fight in Ukraine alongside our Russian brothers as a fighter with a salary of 1,000 dollars a month. I do not get the salary while I am on the job, but with my leave to return after seven months, I will receive the full amount for all the months as well as an additional month’s salary.

While speaking, Majed tries to wrap the issue in a principled, patriotic, nationalist, and ideological covering, but the issue has more to do with unemployment and the being used to carrying weapons.

For his part, Sami — whose real name is not used for security concerns — is a young man who was contracted with what is being called “The Campaign.” This consists of individuals who gather young people to send them abroad through a center established in Homs. He says that it is not public, and at the same time is not hidden, so whoever wants it will easily reach it.

Sami is a former fighter in the National Defense Forces. He found himself without a job following Russia’s intervention in the war in 2015 and his squad being relieved of its services. He has nothing to invest in other than his strength and his proficiency using a B7 launcher.

Sami began his talk with the necessity of supporting their “Russian brothers, repaying their moral debt to them, and standing by them.” When asked if he thinks Russia was right to annex Crimea, his reaction revealed shock at the question and lack of knowledge on the subject. He replied with: “What is Crimea?”

A former fighter in the “Fifth Assault Corps or the FAC” — a corps that was officially established in 2016 just months after the Russian intervention in Syria, to control the militias fighting alongside the regime by shaping them within a military framework with attractive pay — told Raseef22:

This corps was created in Hama under Russian-led command years ago, and will be the backbone of the (military) campaign headed to Ukraine. A fighter within this corps exclusively gets paid $200 outside of the army, and in Russia’s campaign, the amount will multiply exponentially. Everything is very enticing; food, drink and a great salary.

The fighter, who spoke to Raseef22 on the conditions of anonymity, added that fighters’ dispatch “is also secured through the Hmeimim Air Base, and it is a condition that the volunteers are strong and experienced in fighting as well as skilled in the use of weapons. They do not want people to die for free.”

He has not yet made a decision himself, saying “I am still thinking about it.”

Poverty everywhere

Syria is facing the worst economic conditions since the outbreak of violence over a decade ago, which is the key factor driving young Syrians towards choices such as these. These young men are easily scouted by agents who are tasked with connecting the willing with the Hmeimim Air Base in return for an amount of money that would be agreed upon in advance with each fighter, usually a month or half a month’s salary. It is a “business” that is currently in progress, just like what happened in their deployment to Libya.

Around 30,000 young men have signed up to “volunteer,” according to various sources closely following this issue, most notably a Syrian officer who is linked to the Hmeimim Air Base and is coordinating with the Syrian apparatus, asking them to check the criminal records of those volunteering before accepting them. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has spoken of numbers reaching up to “more than 40,000.”

But not all those who signed up will be accepted. There are criteria and requirements that play an important role. The Russians, strangely enough, refuse to accept any recruits who have committed serious crimes, or those who are wanted for military service.

The initial contract — the contents of which Sami explained to Raseef22 — states that whoever is killed will not be treated as a martyr in his country, rather, his family will be compensated with a sum of money that is not specified in the contract. The contract also includes a clause that was part of the contracts of the mercenaries sent to Libya, which states that there will be no leave or a return home for the first seven months.

On the other hand, the Syrian Observatory stated that, in addition to the campaigns to recruit fighters for Russia, “mercenary leaders and forces that fought in Libya and Azerbaijan have submitted lists of hundreds of people, in preparation for military operations in Ukraine against Russia.” It spoke of “monthly salaries exceeding $2000 US dollars.”

The observatory indicated that “Turkish-backed factions have prepared lists in large numbers, by order of the Turkish intelligence,” but that no fighters have left for Ukraine as of yet.

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