Syrian Fighters May End Up on Both Sides of the Ukraine War

Young Syrians have already served as mercenaries elsewhere.

By , a British writer.
A banner depicting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin
A banner depicting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin
A banner depicting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin and reading "Justice Prevails" is displayed along a highway in the Syrian capital, Damascus, on March 8. Louai Beshara/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted global condemnation and an international response greater than almost everyone expected. Dozens of countries have cooperated to sanction Russia and its oligarchs. Companies have pulled out of Russia in remarkable numbers. Members of the Western alliance have poured weapons and financial aid into Ukraine to meet the Russian invaders, while Ukraine has also created an international legion of foreigners willing to fight against Russia. By the second week of March, Ukraine said the number of foreign volunteers had approached 20,000.

Ukraine is not alone in seeking international assistance. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that according to American officials, Russia has started sourcing Syrians to fight on its behalf in Ukraine. Indeed, some Syrians are reported to be already within Russia, preparing to enter Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has issued a call for volunteers.

There’s a certain logic to this deployment. Some Syrians have been recruited by Russia for laboring jobs in separatist parts of Ukraine’s Donbass region in the past year. Syrians are already a convenient source of cheap labor. Footage of Syrians supposedly volunteering to fight in Ukraine, which was broadcast by Russian state TV, has been repudiated by experts. But Syrian analysts say that there nonetheless is a pool of pro-regime Syrians prepared to fight for Russia in Ukraine—for the right price.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted global condemnation and an international response greater than almost everyone expected. Dozens of countries have cooperated to sanction Russia and its oligarchs. Companies have pulled out of Russia in remarkable numbers. Members of the Western alliance have poured weapons and financial aid into Ukraine to meet the Russian invaders, while Ukraine has also created an international legion of foreigners willing to fight against Russia. By the second week of March, Ukraine said the number of foreign volunteers had approached 20,000.

Ukraine is not alone in seeking international assistance. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that according to American officials, Russia has started sourcing Syrians to fight on its behalf in Ukraine. Indeed, some Syrians are reported to be already within Russia, preparing to enter Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has issued a call for volunteers.

There’s a certain logic to this deployment. Some Syrians have been recruited by Russia for laboring jobs in separatist parts of Ukraine’s Donbass region in the past year. Syrians are already a convenient source of cheap labor. Footage of Syrians supposedly volunteering to fight in Ukraine, which was broadcast by Russian state TV, has been repudiated by experts. But Syrian analysts say that there nonetheless is a pool of pro-regime Syrians prepared to fight for Russia in Ukraine—for the right price.

The Russians “have huge reserve [in Syria] ready to serve them if they can provide the money,” Suhail al-Ghazi, a Syrian researcher at the Center for Middle East Studies, told me. Russia might yet see Syrians as a reserve of pliant fighters to feed into the conflict if necessary.

Russia has only a few remaining allies, but the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is among them. In late February, Syria supported Russia’s recognition of the breakaway so-called people’s republics in eastern Ukraine that presaged Russia’s invasion of the country. Russia’s intervention in Syria’s civil war likely saved Assad from overthrow in 2015, and Russian forces have fought alongside the regime’s forces ever since. Assad owes Putin many, many favors.

Syrians have been fighting in a multifaceted civil war for more than a decade. The war has included urban combat of the sort that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may soon include. Syria’s cities have been reduced to ruins by artillery and aerial bombardment—which Russia threatens to do to Ukraine. Combat in these battlefields has been difficult and grinding. The Assad regime and its allies used a combination of aerial dominance and advantages in artillery and armor to isolate rebel pockets. It initiated sieges of the sort Russia is attempting to mount against Ukrainian cities. It used chemical weapons, as NATO leaders warn that Russia is on the threshold of doing.

Russia’s own ground forces largely did not fight in Syria. They left combat to the regime, to proxies organized by Iran, to the Russian air force, and to Russian-aligned mercenary companies like the Wagner Group, whose members have also fought in Ukraine, where they are reportedly tasked with killing President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Syrians have been fighting this kind of war for more than a decade. They have been used as supplemental foreign forces in the civil war in Libya—by both Russia and Turkey, on opposite sides. Russian Wagner mercenaries imported Assad-regime-supporting Syrians to support Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, while Turkey paid its allies in the rebel Syrian National Army to support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.

A decade of war has left a generation of young men who know only how to fight. Their footprints are visible elsewhere. Under Turkish auspices, Syrian National Army forces fought for Azerbaijan against Armenia in 2020’s Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Syrians may turn up on both sides of Ukraine’s war, too. Individual survivors of the Syrian revolution have already stated their desire to fight for Ukraine against Russian invaders. The most notable, and likely the most famous, is Suheil Hammoud. Hammoud has been given the nickname “Abu Tow” because of his facility with the BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missile anti-tank weapon. According to open-source analysis, he is possibly the most effective destroyer of military vehicles in history—or at least the best documented.

“How can I go to Ukraine and fight alongside the Ukrainian army[?] Is there a way[?] I’m ready,” Hammoud tweeted. After being told that where there’s a will, there’s a way, he replied, “There is a strong will[.] I am in Idlib now and ready to go to support the Ukrainian army. I want to help someone.”

This is not an isolated sentiment. Across Syria, many of whose inhabitants blame Russia for their own country’s destruction, former and current fighters murmur about finding another battlefield to fight the Russians. In northern Syria, artists have created graffiti and murals describing Ukraine and Syria as kindred nations, having suffered each in turn the results of Russian imperialism.

The Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh wrote for the DAWN think tank that “while a defeat of our common enemy, Putin, will not necessarily be a victory for us Syrians, a victory for Putinism will be an even bigger defeat for us, as it will diminish our already meager opportunities to retrieve our own country.”

If Hammoud had his way, rebel Syrians could find themselves fighting Syrians loyal to the Assad regime for control of Kyiv or Odesa.

This is not very likely. Travel in and out of northern Syria, where most of these fighters are based, is largely controlled by Turkey. Syrian rebels and National Army members who have fought abroad have done so under Turkish direction and with Turkish facilitation. But Turkey is increasingly taking the Ukrainian side.

After lobbying from Zelensky, Turkey closed the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits to Russian warships, citing the Montreux Convention. Turkish-made Bayraktar drones have proved successful in the Ukrainian battlefield. They have gained popular favor among Ukrainians—so much so that songs have been written about them, and a newborn lemur in the Kyiv zoo has been named Bayraktar. Turkey has recently announced, with much fanfare, that it will deliver more drones to Ukraine.

Some Syrian rebels hope that, with Turkish blessing, they too will be able to travel to Ukraine alongside the drones, where they may fight against Russians and any Syrians sent by Assad.

A lot has already been written about the brutalities of the Russian way of war: its focus on firepower, its use of aerial and artillery bombardment, and the destruction of civilian areas. Russians and their allies establish so-called humanitarian corridors only to mine and bombard them, making them unworthy of the name. Syria offers its own grim lessons here. Ukrainians with an eye to history must anticipate sieges and the possibility of chemical attacks. They must expect new provocations, of the sort that predated the outbreak of this war.

Ukraine may become in part the Syrian civil war redux. But if Russia imports and deploys its own Syrian fighters, and men like Hammoud get their wish to fight for Ukraine, the battlefields of Eastern Europe might well soon have a distinctly Syrian character—in more ways than one.

James Snell is a British writer. Twitter: @James_P_Snell

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