The Kremlin says thousands of fighters from Syria and the Middle East will join Russian forces in Ukraine and fight alongside its army to control major cities. President Vladimir Putin said the 16,000 fighters are “volunteers” and serve “free of charge.”
But “free” might be a strong word as reports say lump payments of $1,200 to $1,800 are being offered to the “volunteers” to guard facilities in Ukraine and carry out other support roles.
Under President Bashar al-Assad, Syria has fought a civil war featuring combatants of many affiliations, including ISIS. It has relied on backup from Russia and Iran to retain control of most of its territory. Some of those chips are being cashed in as Putin’s military faces far stiffer resistance in Ukraine than anticipated.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says Russia welcomes the fighters to Ukraine and accuses the United States of supporting Western mercenaries fighting alongside the country’s defenders. “If the West is so enthusiastic about the arrival of mercenaries, then we also have volunteers who want to participate,” Peskov said Friday.
Though the origins, numbers and timeline of these new arrivals are blurry, one thing that is not in question is the pool of experienced soldiers Syria and surrounding areas have to offer. The uprising against Assad began 11 years ago and Syrian forces have since fought rebels from within the country and the Islamic State.
Damascus has given its blessing to the fighters to sign up, though it will be up to local leaders to convince them to go. However, the quality of training and cohesiveness with Russian forces in a far different country may be another story. Military experts consider Syrian fighters to be somewhat less than competent warriors, and it has taken a coalition of foreign soldiers and militants to keep Assad’s Syrian opponents at bay.
Russia continues to broadcast wild claims about Western and particularly US actions in defense of Ukraine. Friday, the Kremlin said that American forces in the Middle East are training former ISIS militants who have “changed their spots” and use other names to join the Ukrainian side through Poland.
These accusations are nothing new, and Russian diplomats stepped up their false claims Friday before the United Nations Security Council that the US and Ukraine are jointly developing chemical or biological weapons to use against the invaders.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy agreed with US sentiment last week that the Kremlin may be laying the groundwork for a false flag operation that will implement these weapons and point blame towards the Ukrainian defenders. In a televised address Thursday, Zelenskyy said, “If you want to know Russia’s plans, look at what Russia accuses others of.”