Russia is turning to Syrian fighters experienced in urban combat to battle Ukrainian forces as Moscow prepares for street-by-street fighting against dogged resistance from the Kyiv government, according to a new report.
Russia, which has backed the Syrian government in that country’s long-running civil war, is recruiting the fighters in the expectation that their ability at close quarters could help Moscow take the capital and overthrow the Ukrainian government, four US officials told the Wall Street Journal Sunday.
The inclusion of the Syrians indicates a potential escalation in the conflict, the report said.
It remains unclear how many Syrian combatants are already in Ukraine, where they are deployed and the scale of the effort.
The newspaper said a Syrian publication in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor has offered volunteers between $200 and $300 “to go to Ukraine and operate as guards” for six-month stretches.
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Russia has also deployed Chechen forces in Ukraine and reports last week indicated Chechen death squads sent to kill the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, had been “neutralized.”
Thousands of foreign fighters have also entered the country to fight for Ukraine after Zelensky appealed for help to repel the Russian invasion.
US officials estimate that about 95 percent of the troops Russia had massed along Ukraine’s borders are now inside the country, but are facing stiff resistance from regular forces and civilians alike.
The fighting, now in its 12th day, has forced more than 1.5 million Ukrainians to flee to neighboring countries like Poland, Moldova and Hungary.
But despite constant shelling from Russian forces, Kyiv remains under Ukrainian control, as does the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.
Russia has taken control of Kherson, a port city on the Black Sea, and other cities are under constant bombardment.
Jennifer Cafarella, a national security fellow at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, told the Journal that Syrians have honed their urban fighting skills over nearly a decade of conflict, abilities that the mostly conscripted Russian force lacks.
Some also have connections to the Wagner Group, a Moscow-linked mercenary group that has operated both in Syria and the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
But Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, questioned how effective a Middle Eastern force would be in Ukraine.
“Bringing Syrians into Ukraine is like bringing Martians to fight on the moon,” Lister told the outlet. “They don’t speak the language, the environment is totally different.”