After 11 years of war, the destruction of towns, cities and much of the Syrian military, Bashar al-Assad’s army has launched a recruitment drive. But the recruits are not fresh from bootcamps and will not fight on the home front. They are the vanguard of what could be the biggest state-backed mercenary force in the world. Within days, Syrian troops could be deployed to reinforce the stalled Russian frontlines in Ukraine, where Vladimir Putin is about to extract a lethal price for Moscow’s rescue of the Syrian leader.
The first Syrian troops to join Putin’s ranks – an advance force of 150 – arrived in Russia on Thursday, European intelligence officials claim. Ukrainian military intelligence, echoing a claim by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, believes 40,000 Syrians have signed up to fight – a figure that would represent a sizeable chunk of the battle-ready capacity of the country’s entire military.
In the economic wasteland of post-war Syria, the best – and maybe only – state-backed job on offer is one that those who sign on for might not come home from. The vast majority of newly enlisted Syrian mercenaries are trading in salaries of $15 a month for monthly deals worth between $600 and $3,000. Rank and experience in the gruelling decade of insurrection attracts the higher dollars, but even the basic salary is luring recruits who have few ways out of overwhelming poverty.
Syrians have shown a readiness to sign up at least 14 recruitment centres across the country, in Aleppo, Damascus, Deir Azzour, Homs and Hama, as well as Raqqa, which less than five years ago was at the centre of the war against Islamic State.
“They have been arriving in the dozens to the regime base in Raqqa,” said a Kurdish fighter with the Syrian Democratic Forces in north-east Syria. “We can see them turn up. The Russians have also asked [Kurdish groups] to join them, but I don’t know of anyone who has done so yet.”
In western Syria, some of the regime’s most prestigious units claim to have signed up thousands from their ranks. The Fifth Division, which was trained by Moscow, the 4th Division, which is loyal to Assad’s brother, Maher, and the Tiger Forces, which played prominent roles in the war, are all central to the recruitment push, which will seriously stretch their already depleted ranks and potentially turn Assad’s ragtag army into the largest mercenary force in Ukraine.
Comparatively safe in his palace thanks to Russian backing, and in the debt of Putin if he wants to remain there, Assad appears to have given Moscow carte blanche to airlift his army, and his commanders free rein to enlist them. The vulnerable state that leaves his forces at home seems secondary to returning a favour that the Syrian leader has no other way to honour. [Continue reading…]