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 in meet the Russian invaders, while Ukraine has also created of an International Legion of foreigners willing to fight against Russia. By the second week of March, Ukraine claimed the number of foreign volunteers had reached 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. The 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 labouring jobs in Donbas in the past year.Syrians are already a convenient source of cheap labour. Footage of Syrians supposedly volunteering to fight in Ukraine, which was broadcast by Russian state TV, has been rubbished by experts. Although 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’, said Suhail al-Ghazi, a Syrian researcher at the Center for Middle East Studies (ORSAM). Russia might yet see Syrians as a reserve of pliant manpower 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 ‘people’s republics’ in eastern Ukraine which presaged Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 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 favours.
Syrians have been fighting in a multifaceted civil war for more than a decade. The war has contained urban combat sort that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may soon include. The country’s cities have been reduced to ruins by artillery and aerial bombardment – which Russia threatens to do to Ukraine. Combat in these battlefields was difficult and grinding. The Assad regime and its allies used a combination of aerial dominance and advantages in artillery and armour 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 organised 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 Zelenskyy.
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 General 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 Suhail Hammoud. Hammoud is called ‘Abu TOW’ by reputation because of his facility with the anti-tank weapon. According to open source analysis, he is responsible for 146 tank, vehicle and aircraft kills, 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-Hajj Saleh wrote for DAWN 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 Kyiv or Odessa.
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 Zelenskyy, Turkey closed the Dardanelles and Bosphorus to Russian warships, citing the Montreux Convention. Turkish-made Bayraktar drones have proven successful in the Ukrainian battlefield. They have become favourites of Ukrainian morale – so much so that songs have been written about them, and a new-born lemur in the Kyiv zoo has been named Bayraktar. Turkey has latterly 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. The way Russians and their allies establish ‘humanitarian corridors’ only to mine and bombard them and make 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 which 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.
This piece was originally published in Foreign Policy.