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Russia-Ukraine war: Syria’s Moscow-backed ‘IS Hunters’ call for recruits to join fight

Syrian recruits will reportedly be the mainstay of a new force to be known as the ‘Nazi Hunters’
Syrian elite soldiers take part in an instruction session with Russian military trainers on 24 September 2019 at an army base in Yafour, some 30 kms west of Damascus
Syrian elite soldiers take part in an instruction session with Russian military trainers on 24 September 2019 at an army base in Yafour, some 30 km west of Damascus (AFP)
By Danny Makki in Damascus

As Moscow presses on with its war on Ukraine, the Syrian armed group known as the "IS Hunters" has become the latest military outfit in Syria to call for recruits to fight alongside Russian forces. 

While Damascus remains tight-lipped about Syrian mercenaries looking to make their way to Ukraine to back Russia, their potential role has been the subject of much speculation and rumours.

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However, the types of Syrian units earmarked for future deployment are slowly emerging.

The official Telegram channel of IS Hunters, a Russian-backed group that was created in 2017 to fight the Islamic State group (IS), has issued a widespread call for recruits to report to their base in Homs for registration.  

A post on the app called for willing fighters to appear at their office on 17 and 18 March, confirming that a recruitment phase will be open for those who want to join. 

The areas in which groups like IS Hunters have long operated in the desert around the government-held eastern city of Palmyra have not seen actual fighting for years.

While Ukraine was not mentioned in their post, the timing of calls for recruitment - with the war in Syria almost frozen - indicates that the final destination for the recruits would be the Ukrainian battlefield.

The advert called for “men between the ages of 23 and 49” to apply for what would be an initial screening test where only those deemed suitable “will be called up at a later date”.

Similar to recruitment calls by other groups, such as the Fourth Armoured Division, potential recruits are required to present several documents, including an ID and documents on military status, or what is known as “army papers”.

The ‘Nazi hunters’

According to sources familiar with the current recruitment plans of the group, new members of the IS Hunters will constitute the mainstay of a new force to be known as the “Nazi Hunters”.  

The mercenaries would then be deployed in hundreds at first, according to the plan, which was first revealed by Syrian news website Suwayda 24 and confirmed to Middle East Eye by the outlet’s journalist Rayyan Maarouf.

“From what we gather, the Russian military in Syria is looking to organise the recruitment of mercenaries through auxiliary forces. The IS Hunters will become a unit known as Nazi Hunters once they are sent to Ukraine,” Maarouf said.

'We were told that travel will be within weeks, not months or days, and there are clear registration contracts that need signing'

- would-be recruit

“The al-Sayyad Company for Guarding and Protection Services, the mother company behind the IS Hunters, are strongly looking for anyone who has military experience and has participated in combat operations.”

Previously, fighters from the southwestern province of Sweida have been recruited to join the IS Hunters to fight for Russia in Libya. 

While the al-Sayyad company was initially created and funded by Russia, it was registered as a private security company in Syria in 2017 by Fawaz Mikhail Gerges, a businessman with close links to Russia, according to reports.

Members of al-Sayyad were trained by the Russian mercenary group Wagner to fight IS in the Syrian desert. 

IS Hunters are infamous for offering $1m for the release of any Russian kidnapped by IS in Syria during the peak years of the war. 

A source who plans to sign up told MEE on condition of anonymity that it was still early days in the recruitment phase.

“We were told that travel will be within weeks, not months or days, and there are clear registration contracts that need signing,” he said.

When asked if they would receive compensation if something happened to them, he said, “We need to sign such documents before we go. This will determine monthly salaries, and future compensation if something happens to us.

“Dozens have reported to the base on the days the call to attend was made,” he added.

‘This is not our war’

On the official level, Damascus has shown full support for Russia. President Bashar al-Assad called the Russian invasion a “correction of history” early on.

Yet the idea of Syrian mercenaries travelling to Ukraine en masse has received no official backing or statement, indicating that Damascus is content to leave volunteers to travel of their own accord rather than commit an official military force. 

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Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be a large appetite in Syria to see recruits flock to Europe to fight.

The head of Syria’s Chamber of Industry, businessman Fares Shehabi, voiced his concern about Syrian fighters travelling to Ukraine.

“This is not our war, and no Syrian should fight in it. We have al-Qaeda in Idleb [sic] and Israel in the Golan to worry about first. Russia is our ally, but she is not in danger, and the battleground is not on Russian soil,” he said in a tweet.

Meanwhile, regular Syrians expressed alarm on social media at the idea of Syrian recruits from Sweida potentially deploying to Ukraine.

“After everything we've been through, they now want to take our children to die to defend their seats, while neither they nor their children are afflicted,” one user, Saleh al-Qassem, wrote.

Adham Amer, another social media user, saw the calls for recruitment as a trap for people to get scammed by signing up.

"[These are] schemes by recruiters to swindle young people and make money off of those pushed to go because of hunger, misery, and their bad living situation. I advise that no one goes [to Ukraine]. You are selling your blood," he wrote.

Syrians looking for a way to feed their families by fighting in Ukraine could open a Pandora’s box of problems and international opprobrium.

Yet, it seems so far that the recruitment process to get to Ukraine is limited and slow. 

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