Russia Recruiting Syrians for Urban Combat in Ukraine, US Officials Say

WASHINGTON — Moscow is recruiting Syrians skilled in urban combat to fight in Ukraine as Russia’s invasion is poised to expand deeper into cities, according to US officials.

An American assessment indicates that Russia, which has been operating inside Syria since 2015, has in recent days been recruiting fighters from there, hoping their expertise in urban combat can help take Kyiv and deal a devastating blow to the Ukraine government, according to four American officials. The move points to a potential escalation of fighting in Ukraine, experts said.

It is unclear how many fighters have been identified, but some are already in Russia preparing to enter the conflict, according to one official.

Officials declined to elaborate on what else is known about the deployment of Syrian fighters to Ukraine, the status or precise scale of the effort.

According to a publication based in Deir Ezzor, Syria, Russia has offered volunteers from the country between $ 200 and $ 300 “to go to Ukraine and operate as guards” for six months at a time.

Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of the Chechen Republic.


Photo:

Yelena Afonina / Zuma Press

Syrians aren’t the only foreigners said to be involved in the invasion of Ukraine. Chechen forces have also been deployed to Ukraine, according to a Reuters report citing Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechen Republic and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Fighters are also pouring into the country to fight on the side of the Kyiv-based government. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said last week that 16,000 foreigners have volunteered to fight for Ukraine, part of what he described as an “international legion.”

With volunteers from other countries flowing into Ukraine, the conflict there could become a new center of gravity for foreign fighters, said Jennifer Cafarella, national security fellow at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, DC

“The Russia deployment of foreign fighters from Syria into Ukraine internationalizes the Ukraine war, and therefore could link the war in Ukraine to broader cross regional dynamics, particularly in the Middle East,” she said.

A Russian serviceman on guard in front of the Kremlin.


Photo:

kirill kudryavtsev / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Tens of thousands of Russian troops are inside Ukraine and mortar, missile and other attacks are occurring daily in the northern, eastern and southern regions of the country. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have fled the cities, which were home to roughly two-thirds of the population before the invasion began Feb. 24.

Ukraine remains in the hands of Mr. Zelensky’s government, and the largest cities, Kyiv, the capital, and Kharkiv in the east, remain under government control. Russia has taken over the port city of Kherson, and Ukraine’s other cities now face an assault from Russia.

Syrian fighters have spent nearly a decade fighting urban warfare, while Russia’s largely conscripted force lacks this skill set. Ms. Cafarella said Syrian forces deployed to Ukraine could also be asked to work a support role, based on how they worked in Syria with the Wagner Group, a mercenary force that some see as a proxy for the Russian government.

Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, questioned how useful the recruits from the Middle East could be in Ukraine. Mr. Lister said there are some Russian-trained Syrians who were involved in hunting members of Islamic State who might be in Ukraine, but generally Moscow did not consider Syrian fighters to be good at urban warfare.

“Bringing Syrians into Ukraine is like bringing Martians to fight on the moon,” he said. Lister said. “They do not speak the language, the environment is totally different.”

Russia has been a key backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since it entered that conflict, largely through airstrikes, as well as Russian armed forces. The Wagner Group, which arrived in Syria shortly after Russia entered the conflict on behalf of the Assad regime, has conducted support operations such as seizing oil and gas fields and securing other government infrastructure, such as airports.

Russia, which positioned nearly 200,000 troops along the Ukrainian border in the weeks leading up to the invasion, said Wednesday 498 of its troops have been killed and another 1,597 have been injured, a rare public admission of battlefield losses. Others have put the figures much higher, including the Ukrainian armed forces’ general staff, which, according to a Reuters report, said the estimate for Russian troop deaths was closer to 11,000.

Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com, Nancy A. Youssef at nancy.youssef@wsj.com and Alan Cullison at alan.cullison@wsj.com

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