October 20, 2020

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The Syrian Mercenaries Fighting Foreign Wars for Russia and Turkey

TAL ABYAD, SYRIA - OCTOBER 13: Members of Syrian National Army pray at the cemetery before an event to mark the first year of Operation Peace Spring as life turned to normal in Tal Abyad, Syria on October 13, 2020. A year on after Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring against PKK, listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU, and the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Turkey regards as a terror group, to eliminate terrorists from northern Syria in order to secure Turkeyâs borders, aid in the safe return of Syrian refugees, and ensure Syriaâs territorial integrity. (Photo by Bekir Kasım/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Elizabeth Tsurkov

The nearly decade-long civil war has created an entire generation of young men whose only marketable skill is fighting.

“They sent us directly to the front lines. The situation is terrible. Terrible. There is fighting every day. We are charged with storming. There is no rest. There are many men missing and we can’t get to them,” explained Abdel Basit, a Syrian mercenary speaking from Azerbaijan (for their safety, I have altered the names of all living Syrians in this report). What made this former Syrian rebel, displaced from his home in Rastan, in rural Homs, decide to sign up to fight in a foreign country? His father, who is still in Rastan, had to take out a large loan because of a family emergency, but “his salary is not enough [to pay it off]. I was forced to go. Against my will,” he said, repeating the phrase with exasperation in his voice.

Abdel Basit is one of hundreds of Syrian fighters who, since the beginning of September, have been dispatched by Turkey to wage war against Armenia in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. In this competition for regional dominance, Syria’s broken and broke men have become the cannon fodder. Four of Abdel Basit’s friends from Rastan were killed in the span of two days, shortly after disembarking in Azerbaijan. Two more were killed a week later.

The Syrian war, which has cost the lives of at least half a million people and displaced more than half of the pre-war population of 21 million since it began in 2011, is gradually turning into a frozen conflict: the front lines have stabilized since March 2020, the longest period since the outbreak of fighting in which there have been no new offensives. The ability of any force to advance is limited by the presence of foreign forces: the United States (still) in the northeast; Russia, Iran, and the Damascus regime controlling most of Syria; and Turkey in the north. Unable to shift the balance of power in Syria, Turkey and Russia in particular are looking for new arenas where they can project power and gain the upper hand in their competition with each other.

This might have meant respite from hostilities for the Syrians who have been fighting on behalf of Russia and Turkey in Syria, but that was not to be. Numerous countries that intervened in the Syrian civil war, including the United StatesIsrael, and Iran, created or supported their own Syrian proxy forces, but only Russia and Turkey began exporting theirs as mercenaries to fight in foreign conflicts. The mercenaries Turkey sent to Libya, starting in late December 2019, and now also to Azerbaijan, are largely drawn from the ranks of a proxy force created by Turkey back in 2016, now known as the Syrian National Army (SNA). Ankara used this force to secure its southern border against the Islamic State, or ISIS, in 2016, and later, again, to wage war against the Kurdish YPG militia (People’s Protection Units) in northern and northeastern Syria in 2018 and 2019. This proxy army was able to reengineer the demographics of the border regions, displacing most Kurdish inhabitants and replacing them with Arabs, themselves displaced by the Assad regime from further south.

Meanwhile, Russia drew the mercenaries dispatched it dispatched to Libya from the ranks of pro-Assad militias and formations of the Syrian Army, which Russia and its private security company, Wagner Group, have been cultivating since 2015. These forces include the 5th Corps, Division 25 (formerly known as the Tiger Forces), the Quds Brigade, and the so-called ISIS Hunters. Russia and Assad originally deployed these forces against Syrian rebels and ISIS, but starting in early 2020, Russia began recruiting men from these formations to travel to fight in Libya. In addition, Russia recruited some active service personnel and militia members in the Syrian National Defense Forces to fight alongside the Wagner Group’s forces in Libya, backing those of the rebel general Khalifa Haftar.

Typically, as civil wars wind down, men demobilize and return to civilian life. Indeed, many of the men recruited by Russia and Turkey to fight abroad had already quit fighting, either by finally being demobilized from the Syrian Army after eight to nine years of service, or by quitting the rebellion due either to injury or a sense that the armed rebellion has lost its way, or in an attempt to find a less dangerous profession. But the Syrian economy is so ruined that even the demobilized fighters who possess some labor market experience and skills struggle to find civilian jobs.

Then, too, there are the men who have even fewer alternatives. The nearly decade-long war has created a generation of young men whose only marketable skill is fighting. These are often young men who were still in school when the fighting started, whose education was then disrupted by the war. In my conversations with them, some insist on using only voice messages and calls, as they struggle to write even in the simplified version of Arabic used in speech.

The Syrian Mercenaries Fighting Foreign Wars for Russia and Turkey