US confirms Russia recruiting Syrians to fight in Ukraine, as crisis drives Damascus closer to Moscow

Russian soldiers and Syrian government forces gathering next to a bus during the evacuation of rebel fighters and their families from the town of Dumayr, Syria, April 19, 2018. (Photo: SANA via AP)
Russian soldiers and Syrian government forces gathering next to a bus during the evacuation of rebel fighters and their families from the town of Dumayr, Syria, April 19, 2018. (Photo: SANA via AP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) The Pentagon confirmed press reports on Monday that Moscow is recruiting Syrians to fight in Ukraine, as Russia's own efforts there stumble.

The Russian recruitment of Syrian fighters is the latest indication of how the conflict in Ukraine has drawn Damascus increasingly closer to Moscow. 

As with the one in Belarus, the Syrian regime owes its continued existence to Moscow. Consequently, Bashar al-Assad and Alexander Lukashenko both seem prepared to do pretty much whatever Russian President Vladimir Putin asks.

Russia Recruiting Syrian Fighters—amid problems with its own forces

"Moscow is recruiting Syrians skilled in urban combat to fight in Ukraine," The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday, citing official US sources.

Russian forces first intervened in Syria in the fall of 2015 to save the Assad regime from internal revolt. However, Russia has only recently begun recruiting Syrian fighters for Ukraine in the hope that "their expertise in urban combat can help take Kiev," the Journal said.

Russian forces are making slow progress in the south, where they are moving to cut off Ukrainian access to its Black Sea coastline. However, in the north, including around the capital of Kiev, they have stalled, taking unexpectedly high casualties—as much as 11,000 fatalities, the Journal said, citing a Reuters report, based on Ukrainian figures.

Speaking to Britain's Sky News on Tuesday, the British Defense Secretary seemed to confirm, at least roughly, those figures speaking of "large-scale" deaths among Russian troops.

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters on Monday that low morale was "a problem for many of the Russian forces" in Ukraine, particularly in the north and east.

And there are increasing questions as to what Russian soldiers understood before their assault on Ukraine began. 

"It's not clear to us that all of the soldiers that Russia has put into Ukraine realized that that's what they [would be] doing, that they were actually going to invade Ukraine," Kirby said.

Russian forces in Ukraine consist primarily of conscripts. This has fueled unusual protests in Russia, even though Russians can face extended jail sentences for protesting this war. 

On Monday—International Women's Day—Putin appeared to respond to that discontent. In a televised statement, addressed to Russian mothers and wives, he promised that conscripts and reservists would not be sent to Ukraine—only professional soldiers. 

But the Russian army in Ukraine is predominantly a conscript force! Putin is in no position to change that. So how can he fulfill his promise? 

First Reports Came from Deir Ezzor

A media outlet in eastern Syrian, Deir Ezzor 24, was the first to reveal Russia's recruitment of Syrian fighters—which is occurring primarily in regime-controlled areas, as it reported.

In eastern Syria, Moscow directed that recruitment be "opened for volunteering for a period of six months to go to Ukraine and operate as guards, with salaries ranging between 200 and 300 US dollars," Deir Ezzor 24 reported some two weeks ago.

In addition, it said that the Wagner group, which is closely tied to the Russian government, has "equipped Syrian fighters, including a number of long-serving elements from Deir Ezzor province," who fought in Libya's civil war, in order to "transfer them to the Russian-Ukrainian battlefield."

"Russian forces continue to complete contracts with men and youth from Syria in general and Deir Ezzor (Deir al-Zor) in particular," Deir Ezzor 24 reported a week later. 

"Recruitment operations are concentrated in areas under the control of Assad's forces," it said.

US Confirms Russian Recruitment of Syrian Fighters

Asked about such media reports, Kirby responded, "We do believe" the Russians are "seeking Syrian fighters to augment their forces in Ukraine."

Most of the large number of Russian forces concentrated around Ukraine's borders before the invasion are now inside Ukraine.

Putin "has an awful lot of combat power available to him," Kirby said, responding to a reporter's question, and "I can't begin to speculate why he would find it necessary to seek help from foreign fighters."

Kirby noted the problems currently hampering Russian forces are more than just low morale. 

"They're having supply problems; they're having fuel problems; they're having food problems," he said, and "they're meeting a very stiff and determined Ukrainian resistance."

Russia's Tightening Alliance with Syria

On Jan. 20, ISIS suddenly launched a stunning attack on a Kurdish-controlled prison in northeast Syria in the city of Hasakah in an effort to free ISIS fighters detained there. After ten days of hard fighting, the local US-backed forces regained control of the prison.

As they did so, they charged that Syria had been involved in aiding ISIS in the attack. The assault appeared to be part of a joint effort by Syria and Russia to pressure the Kurdish-led administration of northeast Syria to come to terms with the Assad regime, which it, so far, has been unwilling to do.

Read More: Understanding the Hasakah prison siege: how brutal parties use force, violence

On Feb. 17, Russia's Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, visited Syria, where he toured Russia's Hmeymim airbase and its Tartus naval base. His visit occurred amid Russia's largest naval maneuvers in the Mediterranean in 30 years. Russia's official news agency, TASS, described Shoigu's trip as a "warning message" to the US and NATO.

Read More: Ukraine Crisis: Implications for the Middle East, including the US, Rojava, and the Kurdistan Region

On Feb. 23. on the eve of Russia's assault on Ukraine, Syria's Foreign Minister, Feisal Mekdad, visited Moscow. While there, Mekdad told Kurdistan 24 that the US was to blame for the failure of Syrian Kurds to reach an understanding with Damascus.

Read More: Syrian FM blames US for pressuring Syrian Kurds

Later on the evening of Feb. 23, Mekdad told Syrian television that he had gone to Russia "with the aim of strengthening strategic relations" with that country. Hours later, Moscow's assault on Ukraine began.