Exploitative Russian recruiters robbed many Syrian fighters deployed, sometimes forcibly, in war zones like Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh of their wages, pushing many of these young men to commit crime such as burglaries, sex trafficking and kidnappings in order to survive, revealed an investigative report last week.
Since late 2019, Russia has recruited thousands of men as mercenaries, directly or indirectly, in the decade-old Syrian war, AFP reported.
The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC), in collaboration with the Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), conducted a study into the exploitative recruitment of these mercenaries and published it on May 27.
Russian military players, such as the shadowy Wagner Group, have recruited former members of the regular Syrian army and fighters in allied militia groups.
Syrian youths-turned-mercenaries recruited by Russia have gone to Libya for more than a year to buttress the forces of Libya's Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whom Moscow backs.
Others fought last year in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
"The participation of Syrians as mercenary fighters in combat abroad is serving to enrich and strengthen some of the most criminal armed groups inside the country," said Mohammad al-Abdallah, executive director of SJAC.
"The international community must hold those involved accountable, while also addressing the root causes that make mercenary work one of the only sources of income for many Syrians," said STJ executive director Bassam al-Ahmad.
Unpaid and defrauded
The report details how many of the fighters sent to Libya or Nagorno-Karabakh had little choice in the matter and received only a fraction of the money that their recruiters promised them.
Observers learned of cases of unpaid compensation after Syrian mercenaries were killed in Libya and in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russian forces in Syria depend on provincial brokers and tribal elites to recruit mercenaries, especially in Homs and Deir Ezzor provinces, according to the report.
Such individuals advertised the mercenary contracts in their areas on behalf of the 5th Corps -- a Russian-created unit of the Syrian army -- and recommended lists of recruits to Russian forces, according to a captain of the unit.
The monthly wages offered ranged from $1,000 to $2,000, depending on the mercenary's specialty, though without compensation for injury or death, said the report.
The recruits received payment either directly or through brokers who took a commission.
In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, Russian forces then transported the recruits to the Russian-operated Khmeimim (or Hmeimim) Air Base in Latakia province, Syria, before they boarded flights to the disputed region, it said.
The 5th Corps captain told field researchers that Syrians who expected to fight in Libya but found themselves in Nagorno-Karabakh "weren't entirely informed of the details of the process" and were not aware that their work assignments had changed so drastically.
The exact role of the Syrian mercenaries whom Russia brought to Nagorno-Karabakh remains unclear, noted the report.
At least some fighters were responsible for guarding military and logistics facilities.
Given that some fighters had already operated as mercenaries in Libya, the Kremlin might have planned a combat role for them in Nagorno-Karabakh, said the report.
The testimony of families of Syrians who were killed in combat in Nagorno-Karabakh supports this hypothesis.
Keeping unpaid fighters from a covert operation stranded in a foreign war zone was a recipe for crime, said al-Abdallah, the executive director of SJAC.
"The reduction of wages pushed the fighters -- who consider themselves above the law -- to engage in more criminal activities," he told AFP.
Syrian mercenaries committed burglaries, sex trafficking and kidnappings in Libya, said al-Abdallah.
The recruitment of mercenaries has also had negative effects on women and children left behind in Syria, the report added.
Most of the families whose primary breadwinner turned to mercenarism found only "greater economic precarity and social dislocation in their households".
Recruiters often misled families of Syrians fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh too. Many of the families were surprised to hear that their relatives were fighting there instead of in Libya.
The report urged Russia to "cease the financing and recruitment, whether direct or indirect, of Syrian armed groups or individuals for the purpose of mercenary combat abroad".
The latest report confirms a history of Russian duplicity in Syria.
Job ads targeting Syrian youth regularly appear on social media pages with names like "Contract work with our friends" or "An opportunity to work with Russian friends", Nizar Bou Ali, an activist in Sweida, Syria, said in April.
The ads detail some requirements like age, health status and required documents while remaining intentionally vague about job title or work specifications, he said.
Some ads offer enticing salaries for "security" work in Libya, he said.
A number of Syrian youth -- including one of his own relatives -- responded to an advertisement offering well-paid work in Libya, because of the lack of jobs and their deteriorating financial situations, said Bou Ali.
"They contacted the advertising party, and they were directed to head to the Khmeimim base and bring their official documents, and there they underwent a quick medical examination," he said.
"They signed renewable three-month work contracts, stating that ... the work entails protecting oil installations, and they were told not to divulge secrets or take photographs," he said.
But upon arrival in Libya, he added, "they saw the situation was totally different from advertised and were forced to take part in ongoing combat operations".
Meanwhile, in Syria, activists have accused Moscow of using "private security firms" to gain military control in regions that either need reconstruction or have oil and mining potential.
These contractors have pushed out rival militias affiliated with the Syrian regime and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in order to lock in gains in these regions -- now and during any future reconstruction.