War in Ukraine: the Syrian divide

As Arab fighters engage hostilities in Ukraine, this article examines their roles and motivations in joining the conflict.

Introduction

In April 2022, Russia entered the second phase of its invasion of Ukraine, redeploying soldiers away from Kyiv and focusing on the eastern Donbas region and southwest. Now, amidst more failed talks, there are fears the conflict will drag on until the end of 2023 with major repercussions for the rest of the world. Some of these effects are already being felt: changing dynamics with global demand for oil and gas and inflating prices of basic goods. This article examines the scale of Arab participation in the conflict and the motivations for Arab fighters going to Ukraine. It will also address mainstream Western narratives placing Arab fighters monolithically on the Russian side by documenting Arab fighters in support of Ukraine.  

“16,000 Fighters”: Putin’s Arab Legion

Following the invasion, Ukraine quickly drew tens of thousands of international volunteers. Russia was slower in welcoming foreign fighters, perhaps believing victory would come with ease due to their far larger army. A sizable fighting force supplied by Chechnyan leader and staunch Putin ally, Ramzan Kadyrov, supplemented Moscow’s numbers.

By mid-March, likely seeking a propaganda victory, the Russian state claimed to host 16,000 volunteers from the Middle East. By the end of March, the BBC published a video alleging multiple registration centres in Syria to facilitate Russian reinforcements. Yet, as recently as the beginning of April, US officials claimed only a small number of fighters from Syria reported for training in preparation for deployment. In the month or so that followed, numbers have increased, however, exact figures are difficult to obtain. 

Russia’s Reality

With heavy losses and danger of the conflict becoming protracted, Russia may need more fighters at the frontlines – this could explain the increased numbers from Syria. In early April, Ukraine claimed almost 19,000 Russian military casualties. While the Kremlin disputes these figures, Russia has lost more soldiers than expected. 

Rumours of increased Syrian participation bolstered since Russia placed General Alexander Dvornikov in charge of military activities in Ukraine. Dvornikov made his name internationally during the Syrian Civil War, where he oversaw Russia’s brutal shelling campaigns against towns and cities controlled by ISIS and other rebel groups during the mid-late 2010s. Since Dvornikov’s involvement, Western sources highlight the arrival of more than 50 Syrian technicians in Russia specialising in the design and delivery of barrel bombs. 

Syria’s Significance

Russia’s potential to draw on Arab fighters undoubtedly includes a Syrian contingent alongside combatants from North Africa, particularly Libya. Many of these fighters are drawn from private Russian contractor, the Wagner Group, who, in recent years, are responsible for securing Russian interests in Libya. Since 2014, the Wagner Group is active in the Donbas region, following the establishment of the two breakaway republics in Luhansk and Donetsk. A report from the New York Times also stated one small contingent of fighters sent to Russia for training included Iraqis and Lebanese. Nevertheless, Syrians likely constitute the largest MENA contingent assisting Russia. According to the anti-Assad Syria Observatory for Human Rights, in April, those offering to fight from Syria numbered at around 40,000, including those who signed up to the Russian military and those who joined through the Wagner Group.

Two major “pull factors” might illustrate motivations of Syrian fighters. Firstly, the material (also relevant to Libyans): while the Civil War settled somewhat in recent years, the spiralling economy hasn’t. With a collapsed currency and mass unemployment, purchasing basic goods is harder than ever, a situation worsened by the war in Ukraine. Hence, the prospect of lucrative contracts to fight with Russia holds mounting appeal to those with experience fighting in the Civil War, either with the army or loyalist militias.

Historic ties are also significant: Syria enjoyed a mostly warm relationship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, especially after the Baghdad Pact (1955) was established between Britain, the USA and West-aligned MENA monarchies. Allying with Moscow helped Syria improve military technology and challenge Israel. Russia has since acted as one of few international allies for the isolated Assad regime. Indeed, military support was paramount for the Ba’athist regime reclaiming territory lost to ISIS and other rebel groups in the mid-2010s.  

Hence, Assad’s military support for Russia seems logical. Thus far, Assad allowed physical recruitment offices and online advertisements on regime-affiliated websites. However, Assad’s position in Syria is still precarious and the loss of soldiers or militiamen loyal to the regime could encourage the resurgence of rebel forces at home. Additionally, Moscow would have less capacity to assist in crushing resurgent rebels. Indeed, many Russian soldiers left Syria already, which offers Turkey opportunity to launch against Kurdish forces in the north-east. Meanwhile, Assad’s recent regional rehabilitation shows signs of stalling.

Othering and the Other Side

Russian support for the Syrian regime is a significant driver for those Syrian fighters opposing Russia. Western media coverage constructs a narrative of pro-Russia Arab fighters (particularly Syrians), failing to acknowledge those on the other side, thus continuing a trend of “othering” Arabs. Interestingly, coverage of Chechen involvement bears similarities, with many news reports documenting Kadyrov directing troops to fight alongside Russia. Tabloid reporting portrays Chechens as particularly bloodthirsty. However, involvement of Chechen fighters on the Ukrainian side receive less attention, bears similarities,  motivated by bitter memories of Putin’s brutal campaign to quash the early-2000s independence movement. Biased western reporting could be explained by possible Islamist associations of combatants. Unsurprisingly, Russian publications such as Russia Today are more comfortable highlighting and exaggerating the ideological leanings of Syrians supporting Ukraine. However, inaccurate and misleading reporting is unhelpful and obscures the multifaceted nature of populations as well as distorting how they are perceived. 

Although some Syrians may feel an affinity towards Moscow for its role in defeating ISIS, others resent its destruction of entire cities and restoring Assad’s grip over Syria. Indeed, protests against Russia’s assault on Ukraine were held in Syria’s remaining rebel territories. Syrians for Truth and Justice reported around 1000 Syrians signed up to fight for Ukraine in March, with rumours of six-month contracts worth $1200 per month. While exact numbers of those who travelled to Ukraine are hard to obtain, it is likely some anti-Assad fighters have undertaken the journey for revenge on Putin with many more intending to join them. 

Yet, Syrian participation in the conflict is subject to Turkish interference as Turkey exerts control over large parts of northern Syria as an opponent of the Assad regime. However, Syrian fighters from these areas previously fought in foreign conflicts to secure Turkish interests, such as Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, and unconfirmed reports from the Syrian state indicate approximately 2500 people are permitted to travel to Ukraine Meanwhile, key actors from the Free Syrian Army continue calling on Syrian rebels to join the fight in Ukraine and even urged the creation of a transit corridor (which also depends on Turkey). 

Conclusion

Despite well-documented reports of Syrian fighters in Ukraine, it is difficult to judge how this has translated to boots on the ground. Since General Dvornikov took charge of Russia’s war effort, there is evidence Arab participants have increased, with lucrative military contracts in the context of a dire economic situation and a history of warm relations between the states attracting Syrians. Yet, Russia’s role in consolidating Assad’s power is simultaneously alienating for some Syrians, attracting an influx of fighters supporting Ukraine. Yet, these participants are largely ignored by western media which paints Syrians as monolithically flocking to Putin’s aid. Thus, Syrian participation on both sides of the conflict serves as a timely reminder of the divisions that persist amongst Syrians, even as the war at home drifts from global mainstream consciousness and the world’s attention shifts to Eastern Europe. 

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