Russia recruits Syrian militia veterans to fight in Ukraine
March 31, 2022 Jennifer Cafarella, Ezgi Yazici, and Zach Coles
• Russia began redeploying Russian private military contractors (PMCs) and their Syrian proxies from Africa and Syria to Ukraine in approximately the second week of the war. These forces have not had an observable effect within Ukraine. Their redeployment has created security gaps in the places they have left that Russia is attempting to mitigate at least partially.
• A reported decrease in Russian air sorties in Syria could indicate the withdrawal of some Russian assets, but ISW cannot confirm any redeployment of Russian military forces or equipment from Syria.
• Russian forces are redeploying within Syria. It is possible that this redeployment indicates preparation for a future partial withdrawal from parts of Syria. However, it is also possible that Russia is merely changing its posture in order to support the recruitment and training of Syrian fighters.
• Russia’s attempt to generate Syrian recruits appears to focus on individual replacements for Russian fighters rather than the redeployment of existing Syrian militias as coherent units. Russia is prioritizing Syrians with combat experience who have fought in units with close relationships with Russian forces, including the Tiger Forces, 5th Corps, Liwa al Quds, and others. However, even fighters from these units are unlikely to significantly alter the situation in Ukraine. The number of fighters Russia has recruited and/or already deployed to Ukraine is unclear from available sourcing at this time.
• Any change in the posture of Russian forces or pro-regime militias creates security gaps that anti-regime actors including Turkey, ISIS, al Qaeda, and Syrian opposition groups can exploit. It also affects core Iranian interests. ISW has already observed early indications of changes in the posture of Iranian proxy militia forces in Syria in reaction to recent developments and will publish an assessment in the coming days.
Russia is attempting to redeploy Syrian units with experience working under Russian commanders to Ukraine to mitigate high Russian casualties. ISW previously assessed that Russian conscription efforts at home are unlikely to provide Russian forces around Ukraine sufficient combat power to replenish casualties and restart major offensive operations in the near term.1 A redeployment of Syrians is unlikely to significantly alter the situation in Ukraine and will incur risks to core Russian interests in Syria by exacerbating the vulnerabilities of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime that Turkey, ISIS, and anti-Assad groups can exploit. Any change to the disposition or deployment of pro-regime forces in Syria also has major consequences for Iranian interests. ISW has observed early indications of changes in the posture of Iranian proxy militia forces in reaction to recent developments and will publish an assessment in the coming days.
Syria represents the largest single pool of experienced foreign fighters that Russia can draw from to generate additional combat power relatively quickly. The pool includes Syrians currently serving alongside Russian PMCs like the Wagner group, including abroad, or in Russian-backed Syrian militias. It also includes Syrians with prior experience in such units that could be remobilized. Initial reporting indicates Russia is likely taking a phased approach to mobilizing Russian and Syrian reinforcements from the Middle East and Africa in order to generate multiple waves of reinforcements.
Russia began a redeployment of Wagner units and their Syrian proxies from Africa and Syria to Ukraine in early February. Libyan media sources began reporting the redeployment of Wager Group units along with their Pantsir air-defense systems and Syrian proxies in early February, with later reports appearing to corroborate this redeployment in early March.2 Unconfirmed Syrian sources reported that 500 Wagner fighters had already deployed to Ukraine from Syria by March 8 alongside fighters from the pro-regime “ISIS hunters” militia, which works closely with Russian forces in Syria.3 Ukrainian forces first reported on March 8 that they discovered Wagner dog tags with Syrian phone numbers on killed Russian soldiers and later stated on March 20 that Wagner personnel were arriving in Ukraine. British military intelligence said on March 28 that more than 1,000 Wagner militants and senior leaders will deploy to eastern Ukraine.4 Russia has likely also pulled Wagner forces from other deployments, including the Central African Republic. Wagner Group is also recruiting actively in Syria.5 Syrian sources reported as early as March 9 that Russian officers offered Syrians fighting in Libya new contracts to fight in the Central African Republic, likely in order to backfill Wagner forces.6
At the time of publication, there is little evidence that Russia has begun to move military assets out of Syria, although such movement could have occurred without revealing open-source indicators. Reports by anti-regime sources of an observed decrease in Russian air operations and ground patrols beginning in early March could indicate that Russia has reduced its air posture in Syria. However, the change could also simply reflect the change in Russia’s immediate prioritization of efforts in Syria. On March 28, Russia conducted its first airstrikes in Idlib since Russian forces invaded Ukraine, indicating Russia likely seeks to maintain at least a minimum level of capability in Syria even if it is freeing up assets to shift to Ukraine.7
Russian forces are redeploying within Syria in order to recruit and mobilize additional Syrian fighters for a second wave of reinforcements. The Kremlin announced on March 11 that it would welcome “16,000 Middle Eastern” fighters to deploy to Ukraine alongside Russian forces and published footage of Syrian combatants preparing to deploy to Ukraine.8 Ukrainian military intelligence claimed on March 20 that the Russian military ordered its base in Hmeimim, Syria, to send up to 300 fighters from Syria to Ukraine daily.9 Syrian sources corroborate that the Hmeimim airbase is the hub for Russia’s effort to redeploy Syrians to Ukraine.10 Numerous Syrian news outlets and social media users attest since then that Russian forces are identifying and recruiting Syrian fighters interested to fight in Ukraine in exchange for salaries and a six-month contract.11 This recruitment effort appears to prioritize individual replacements for Russian soldiers rather than the redeployment of existing pro-regime militia groups as coherent units.
The Russian Reconciliation Center in Syria, which maintains headquarters in multiple Syrian provinces, is leading the recruitment effort and has likely refocused away from other missions at least temporarily.12 Major recruitment pushes are occurring in at least Hama, Aleppo, Damascus, and Deir ez Zour. Ukrainian Intelligence claims and several unconfirmed reports refer to as many as 12-14 recruitment centers across Syria’s M5 highway, which connects Aleppo to Damascus.13 Russia is likely organizing most if not all of these centers with support from Syrian elements (more below).
Some reports indicate that Russia pulled back Russian forces stationed near front lines in Aleppo and in Aleppo City on March 19, reportedly in order to relocate to Hmeimim airbase.14 These forces are presumably military police and/or Spetznaz and could be relocating to Hmeimim airbase or onward to recruitment centers elsewhere in Syria to support the mobilization of Syrian fighters. New recruits from the 5th Corps reportedly replaced these Russian forces. Similar Russian redeployments may also have occurred in other areas including Dera’a, Suwayda, Homs, Deir ez Zour, and Hasaka provinces, but ISW has not collected evidence of further Russian withdrawals from key areas or front lines.
Some Russian forces may be preparing to redeploy to Ukraine. Unconfirmed reports of Russian reinforcements to key bases in Syria could reflect a troop surge necessary to tear down Russian basing or, alternatively, that Russia is committing resources to continued recruitment and possibly the mitigation of resulting risks in Syria. Some reports indicate that Russian Military Police and Wagner Group reinforcements arrived at Qamishli airbase in Hasaka and Tabqa airbase in Raqqa on March 8 and March 23, respectively.15 Unidentified Regime and Russian-backed forces also reportedly deployed to reinforce 5th Corps positions near Kobani on the Turkish border on March 27. The purpose of these reinforcements is unclear and could include deterring a Turkish attack or supporting a recruitment drive in Eastern Syria. Reported resistance to Russian recruitment in southern Syria could have caused Russia to reprioritize recruits from the east.16 It is also possible that these Russian forces are supporting the decommissioning of these Russian bases in order to redeploy assets to Ukraine, however. Some unconfirmed reports state that Russian soldiers and Wagner militants withdrew from Syria’s second largest military storage facility in southeastern Homs on March 29 before redeploying to the Palmyra military airport.17 ISW will publish further updates on the movement of Russian forces within or out of Syria as more information becomes available.
Russia is leveraging its pre-existing relationships with multiple pro-regime units to coordinate the recruitment and select individuals from these units with combat experience.18 These units include the Tiger Forces (aka 25th Division), “ISIS Hunters” militia, Liwa al Quds, and reconciled opposition forces who joined the Russian-commanded 5th Corps.19 Syrian regime security structures including Syrian Military intelligence and Syrian translators who have worked with the Russians are also recruiting, likely in coordination with Russian forces.20 Some reports state that Russia has denied applicants who do not possess combat experience.21 Other unconfirmed reports indicate Russian commanders have expressed a desire for Syrian fighters with experience in urban combat.22 Key Russian-backed Syrian units including the Tiger Forces and Liwa al Quds do have urban experience and have conducted urban training with Russian forces in Aleppo.23 However, the likely effectiveness of these Syrian forces should not be overstated. The urban defense that Ukraine’s armed forces and Ukrainian civilians are preparing in Kyiv is significantly more robust than what pro Assad regime militias faced in Syria’s Aleppo.24 Moreover, the fierce fighting underway in Kharkiv, Kherson, and Mariupol indicates that Syrian replacements are likely to have a marginal effect at best.
Finally, Russia is attempting to recruit and train a wider range of pro-regime Syrian fighters who do not have prior experience working with Russian forces, likely as a contingency for the upcoming months to replace combat losses and set conditions for a longer war. Syrian fighters who have not worked under direct Russian command can offer an alternative source of recruits to Russia’s ineffective reserves but will likely need a months-long training process for Russia to effectively integrate them into the Ukrainian battlefield. The Kremlin faces a trade-off between a shorter training process that would result in a relatively quick low-quality reinforcement that is unlikely to generate additional combat power and a longer training effort that would significantly delay battlefield results. Pro-Assad regime militia units with less established relationships with Russian forces also have been conducting recruitment efforts since as early as March 15. It is possible that Assad aims to offer Russia additional recruits in order to mitigate the scale of Russia’s redeployment of more capable Syrian units. Russian forces began providing public attention to these recruitment efforts on March 27, especially the pro-regime National Defense Forces militias.25
Any change in the extent or focus of Russian support to the Assad regime’s military posture can significantly affect the status quo in Syria. To date, Russian airpower has allowed Russia to set the pace of fighting, deny rivals similar opportunities, and stabilize frontlines (relatively). The efforts of Russian officers to supply and coordinate a wide range of pro-regime stakeholders and perform other stabilization functions receive less attention but are a major contributor to the status quo. The combined effects of Russian airpower and Russia’s physical presence across Syria provide a minimum level of security for core Russian interests: the air and naval bases on Syria’s Mediterranean coast and Syrian oil and natural gas fields which Russian companies have secured contracts to operate. The refocus of Russian forces in Syria on a recruitment drive can itself jeopardize these effects and create friction within the pro-regime coalition. The potential redeployment of Russian forces or major elements of pro-regime forces in key areas or frontlines could create major security gaps and indicate that Russia is willing to take significant risks in Syria to support a long war in Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s decision regarding the scale of redeployments of Russians and Syrians from Syria to Ukraine will determine the gaps and opportunities that pro-regime partners and rivals alike can selectively exploit. ISIS is the most likely to move fast in Syria and is already waging an aggressive campaign against pro-Assad regime forces in central Syria that has sustained pressure on regime supply lines and oil and natural gas fields since 2019.26 Turkey is balancing its role and seeks opportunities to serve as a mediator in Ukraine but could still escalate in Syria if it perceives a need or opportunity to gain additional leverage against the Kremlin. ISW is evaluating how other actors, including Iran’s proxies, are recalibrating in Syria as the Kremlin refocuses and will provide updates in future publications.