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Pentagon: Russia recruiting Syrians to fight in Ukraine

The Kremlin appears to be shifting tactics as it meets stiff Western-backed resistance in Ukraine.
Pedestrians cross a street in front of a billboard displaying the symbol "Z."

The Pentagon believes Russia’s military has sought to recruit Syrians to fight in Ukraine as local resistance has begun to bog down Moscow’s invasion effort, defense officials said Monday.

Reports of Moscow’s alleged recruitment attempts first emerged among Syrian activist networks last month, Al-Monitor reported. A report by Deir Ezzor 24 last month said Syrians were being offer $200-300 dollars per month to work as guards in Ukraine.

  • The Wall Street Journal yesterday cited four anonymous American officials as confirming the reports, with one saying that Syrian fighters already in Russia were preparing to head to Ukraine.
     
  • A senior US defense official speaking on the condition of anonymity affirmed to reporters Monday that the accounts were accurate but said American officials had seen no evidence so far that Syrian fighters have yet entered Ukraine.
     
  • “We do believe that the accounts of the Russians seeking Syrian fighters to augment their forces in Ukraine — we believe there’s truth to that,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said later on Monday.
  • American officials have offered no details on the alleged recruitment nor indicated what evidence they have to support it. “We have indications, I’ll leave it at that,” Kirby said Monday.

Unprecedented? Russia and Turkey have both transported Syrian mercenaries to tip the scales in conflicts abroad in recent years, namely in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

  • But no side has yet brought Syrian fighters into Ukraine. Such a move would likely further isolate Moscow from the West and cement a trend of warfare relying on transnational mercenaries in recent years.
     
  • Meanwhile, other groups of fighters are already entering Ukraine’s conflict. Chechen forces are involved on both sides and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy claimed last week that some 16,000 foreigners have volunteered to join the fight against Russia’s invasion.
     
  • Russia’s Wagner paramilitary operatives, who have been accused of war crimes in both Syria and Libya, reportedly filtered into central Ukraine during the first week of the invasion with orders to target Zelenskyy.

What’s Next: It’s not yet clear whether Moscow will follow through on this possibility, nor whether Washington’s recent tactic of preemptively declassifying intelligence will embarrass Kremlin leadership enough to rule it out.

  • The Russian assault on Kyiv remains bogged down and is now several days behind schedule, American defense officials said Monday.
     
  • Ukrainian aircraft are still in the air and arms shipments from the United States and Western allies continue to flow into the country, supporting local resistance “quite effectively,” Kirby said Monday. White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed last week the United States was providing intelligence to the Ukrainians “in real time.”
     
  • Russia's forces appear to have made some preparations to face a prolonged insurgency in Ukraine, according to a US official briefed on the matter late last month. But their failure to sustain basic supply lines and establish air superiority seems to have forced Moscow to shift tactics in its bid to gain control of the neighboring country first.
     
  • “As they continue to get frustrated, they continue to rely now more on … bombardment, missile strikes, long-range artillery into city centers that they aren’t in yet, at least on the ground in any significant number,” Kirby told reporters Monday.
     
  • “When you rely more on long-range fires, you’re going to kill more people and injure more people. That’s what we think is happening,” he said.
     
  • “We do believe that [Russian forces] are having morale problems, they are having supply problems, they are having fuel problems, they are having food problems.”

Know More: Read Amberin Zaman and Elizabeth Hagedorn’s report from last week on the possible deployment of Syrians to Ukraine.

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