Joshua Treviño, Austin
The mutual drive to widen the war.
The Wall Street Journal report that the Russians are recruiting Syrians to fight in Ukraine provides more questions than answers. It isn’t news that the Russians have sought non-Russian cover for their war, but what we know suggests that the efforts have been mostly unsuccessful. Belarus, despite providing territory for invasion staging and the occasional ballistic-missile attack, has thus far refused to contribute significant forces. We are reasonably sure that Kazakhstan refused a Russian request to send troops, which no doubt struck the Kremlin as ingratitude. We also know that, though technically not international, the Chechen satrapy within the Russian Federation has contributed its own distinct fighting units to Russia’s war. Recruiting in Syria, presumably with Syrian-regime acquiescence, therefore breaks no new ground.
The question is why Syria and Syrians, and here the answers given don’t quite add up. WSJ reports that they are sought for their urban-combat expertise, and there are undeniably a great many Syrians possessing that. But it is exceptionally doubtful that there is unique Syrian capability in this sphere that the Russians don’t have. Neither national army, such as they are, offers much by way of qualification except to the extent they’re willing to blast away with field artillery over open sights in residential neighborhoods. This is not something Russia needs Syrians for.
So what would Russia need Syrians for? A few possibilities present themselves, with the usual caveat that this is all speculative. To the extent that Russian soldiers have proven unwilling to do hard and cruel things in Ukrainian cities — probably not a very great extent — Syrians might not have those compunctions. Relatedly, there may be an element of terrorization the Russians hope to bring to bear attendant to a Syrian presence. A Syrian contingent might also have the effect of lending (admittedly quite weak) international legitimization to the Russian war effort. Finally, we might consider the possibility that Russia is running into challenges manning its war, not two weeks in, and they need men however they can get them.
It is impossible to assess any of these possibilities, except to note that they are possibilities. Nevertheless we have a signal and there is merit in pulling as much of it as possible from the noise.
Russia and the Soviet Union operated in a world of strange coalitions, to say the least. The Communist world was a miasma of odd expeditionary forces and “volunteer” units, sometimes amounting to whole armies. We therefore had North Koreans aiding the Zimbabweans in the persecutions in Matabeleland; Cubans waging artillery duels in Angola versus the South Africans; Soviet pilots dueling Israelis on Egypt’s behalf in the War of Attrition; and of course the Chinese pouring in to save North Korea. The operational memory of the present Russian regime being firmly grounded in the late-Soviet era, the solicitation of foreign fighters to come to the war will be a familiar recourse. It might be seen as a riposte to Ukraine’s own International Legion, but it is probably without reference to it. Whatever the reason, Russia will bring Syrians to Ukraine and give them the Z insignia.
(Pause for a moment, for those few of us who are Orthodox Christians, to reflect upon the infamy of this act: the solicitation of others to kill your own.)
Assuming this becomes a pattern, we may think ahead to other sources of Russian war-effort manpower and discern a few possibilities. Armenia is one: following its disastrous defeat in the last war with Azerbaijan, the Armenian state exists mostly as a Russian dependency, and though there is little enthusiasm for the Ukrainian war there, there is sufficient economic desperation to entice some volunteers. Serbia is another: the only country to host large pro-Russia demonstrations in the past two weeks. Pakistan is another, as one of the few nations to refuse to break economic ties with Russia. It is very easy to envision the North Koreans sending an expeditionary force in exchange for commodities, but less easy to envision the Russians wanting them to. Finally, the real prospective source is probably Iran—especially if, as seems likely, the Biden Administration gives them the nuclear-deal pass they’re seeking. In that case, they’d owe the Russians a favor, and the IRGC would be only too happy to establish itself in Europe.
What this narrative illuminates is the increasing interest of both the war’s contending parties in internationalizing the war. This interest is obvious and overt on the Ukrainian side, including naked demands for NATO intervention that, if met in full, would probably be far worse than the status quo in that Ukraine would run a good chance of reduction to radioactive ash. It is less obvious and overt on the Russian side, but it is growing as that state plays catch-up versus the extraordinary isolation to which it has been subjected. It is therefore possible to envision a near future in which the Russian invasion force features putative coalition partners. It is also possible, assuming a given level of American or European involvement on Ukraine’s behalf—say, weapons systems, or intelligence provision—to envision a quiet Chinese presence on the Russian side as well. It is hard to imagine the PRC wishing to rescue Russia from its adventure in Ukraine; but it is very easy to imagine the PRC wishing to observe, or even advise upon, the battlefield employment of the latest Western weapons and methods.
We talk a lot at Armas about the reflex to expansion of a problem as an approach to solving it. We also talk about how this is frequently a pathway to disaster for the nation that tries it. In the war between Russia and Ukraine, both parties have a compelling and obvious interest in that expansion. They are actively seeking it. The addition of some Syrians to the battlefield isn’t going to change the war much. But what they represent—the drive to a wider war, undertaken by both sides—assuredly will.
Joshua Treviño is the Chief of Intelligence and Research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He writes at Armas about culture, events, and strategy, with a particular focus on Texas, Mexico, and China.