The involvement of Syrian fighters in the war currently taking place in Ukraine has caught the attention of the international media after President Vladimir Putin appeared to welcome this publicly during a meeting he held with his military advisers. This did not come as a surprise as Syrian mercenaries have previously been used by Russia to support its allies in Libya and the Central African Republic (CAR). The question that comes to mind when looking at this issue is, was it the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad that offered to send mercenaries to Ukraine, or did this happen based on a request from Russia? The answer is unclear, but what is certain is that there are shared interests between both regimes in instrumentalising the desperate. These interests go beyond increasing the manpower of the Russian army or attempts by Bashar al-Assad to court favour with Putin. The way that the Russian media has described Syrian mercenaries as volunteers from the Middle East aims to imply that Moscow’s campaign in Ukraine has popular appeal in different parts of the world. For the Syrian regime, sending mercenaries overseas is a way of helping some of its militiamen to gain a living, given the dire economic situation inside the country.
Russian intervention to prop up a fragile regime
In 2015, the balance of power in the Syrian war against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad changed. His forces had such minimal control of the country’s overall territory that he was described by many Syrians as the “mayor of al-Muhajreen,” in reference to the fact that his power did not go beyond his presidential palace in Damascus. Syrian opposition forces in the countryside of Damascus were on the outskirts of the capital. Large swathes of land in the governorates of Dar’a and Aleppo were under the control of the opposition. In the eastern part of the country, ISIS had engulfed large chunks of land which were annexed to its self-proclaimed Islamic state. It was widely thought that the Syrian regime was on the brink of collapse, as it could not hold on to the multiple fronts that it was fighting on, even with the help of Iranian and Iraqi militias. In September 2015, Russia intervened directly in the Syrian conflict to prop up the Syrian regime. Russia claims that this happened after a request from the Syrian government to aid it against what it described as “rebels” or “terrorists.” Regardless of how this intervention happened, its consequences were disastrous for the Syrian opposition, which ended up losing the majority of the territories it held in 2015. The intervention enabled Russia to establish a strong military presence in Syria and to become an important player in Syrian domestic policies by forming militias to fight on the ground. The success of the Russian intervention in Syria also established a patron-client relationship between Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad, where the latter offers concessions to the Russians, such as gas and phosphate deals on Syrian lands, so that the former can continue to provide diplomatic and military support to keep him in power.
Syrian mercenaries support Russian geopolitical ambitions
By supporting the Syrian regime with the formation of the 8th brigade in southern Syria, and attempting to integrate the surrendered rebels under the command of the Syrian army, this has enabled Russia to infiltrate the centre of command and control of the Syrian army. Russia has deployed many of its military officers and advisers across Syria. During their service in the country, they have worked on establishing ties with militiamen with the aim of developing a long-lasting influence in the country. For example, in eastern Aleppo, Russia supported and funded the militia of the Al Berri clan, which competed with the al-Baqer brigade militia, supported by Iran, over the spoils of war in the governorate. After having access to these human resources in the “land of militias,” Russia started using them to pursue its geopolitical ambitions by deploying them to different battlefields across the world. In June 2021, a UN expert panel accused the Russians of using Syrian mercenaries to prop up the Bangui government against a new rebel coalition in the Central African Republic. Before that, Moscow actively recruited fighters from Syria to assist the Russian-aligned former warlord, Khalifa Haftar, in the Libyan civil war. In this competition for regional and international dominance, Syria’s desperate mercenaries have become cannon fodder. This seems to be happening again in the case of the Ukrainian war.
Shared interests of Assad and Putin in using Syrian mercenaries in the Ukrainian War
For the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, who is currently isolated by the international community, sending Syrian troops to Ukraine is one way of showing gratitude to Vladimir Putin for enabling him to stay in power. It could also be a way of helping his militiamen to benefit from the associated financial rewards given to them, however meagre, considering the stifling economic situation within the country. The Syrian civil war led to a sharp increase in the number of militias that fought alongside the regime. The war economy, which included looting and plundering of towns and villages in opposition areas after gaining control of them, gave members of the regime’s militia a lucrative source of profit that helped them to survive, something deemed necessary considering how inadequate their official government income is. However, the war has been stagnant for two years and these looting activities have declined significantly. Many of the Syrian fighters are willing to fight in overseas wars, supervised by Russia, in order to secure an income that would support a decent life upon returning to Syria. From one conversation I saw on a social media platform belonging to the regime, one person stated to another, “If I were to go and fight alongside the Russians, I could buy a house for my family with six months’ salary.” Apart from the obvious benefits that deploying mercenaries on the front lines would have for Russia in terms of saving Russian lives, and reducing the toll on the Russian army, announcing this issue publicly in the media is an attempt to gain a psychological advantage. For Putin, using Syrian mercenaries in the war in Ukraine shows the western world that Russia still has some support in the international community, especially given that Russian media describes these “Syrian mercenaries” as “volunteers from the Middle East” in an attempt to show that there is a wide support for Russia’s invasion in the Arab world. This is meant to send a message that Russia is not on its own in this invasion and that the human cost will not be a factor that will stop this war anytime soon.
The catastrophic situation that Syria finds itself in, as a failed state where militias thrive, will continue to be a source of destabilisation as regional and international players that are involved in Syria continue to recruit fighters from the country and use them as pawns in their geopolitical battles across the world.