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Russian Special Forces Vets Are Turning Against Moscow In Syria

REUTERS/Thomas Peter

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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter

Russians are fighting on both sides of the civil war ripping Syria apart, possibly even against each other.

A small group of former Russian paratroopers are operating in northern Syria, fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces. The group was featured in a video segment hosted by Bilal Abdul Kareem, an American journalist operating in Syria who has been criticized for being overly sympathetic to Islamist groups.

“We came here to protect the weak women and children,” a masked Russian veteran told Kareem. “And to help the people which made their choice and did rise against the tyrant [Assad].”

The video showed the Russian veterans practicing military maneuvers including marksmanship, area clearing, and first aid skills. Donned with matching camouflage uniforms and carrying Russian weapons, the veterans are now using the skills they learned in Russia against the Kremlin’s allies in Syria.

The Kremlin’s backing of Assad is no matter to the Russian veterans, who are willing to fight their former comrades if need be.

“[Of] course the dynamics of the war have changed a bit, but it makes no difference to us against whom we fight,” said the Russian veteran. “Russia, Iran, [Shiites] from Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

The presence of Russian veterans fighting for Syrian rebels comes as no surprise to Dr. Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague and expert on modern Russian security and history.

“There are, after all, a goodly number of VDV (paratroop) soldiers from the North Caucasus, Tatarstan, etc.,” Galeotti told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The problem the Russians had in Chechnya was that a disproportionate number of their enemies had been Spetsnaz special forces, precisely because they were the kind of tough, aggressive recruits the Spetsnaz want.”

Thousands of foreign fighters are believed to have poured into Syria to fight in the ongoing civil war, which started in 2011. These predominantly Sunni Muslim volunteers come from countries as far away as Australia. Some of the most fruitful recruiting grounds have been Russia, the former Soviet Union satellites and the Balkans. A significant amount of these volunteers are not fighting for the moderate rebel forces (or what is left of them). Instead, they were drawn to terrorist groups the al-Qaida linked Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front.

“Several thousand Russians have fought on the opposition side since 2012, playing one of the most prominent roles of any nationality,” Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who specializes in the Syrian conflict, told TheDCNF.

Lister said it is difficult to determine what opposition group these specific Russian veterans belong to. He noted that they could belong to Malhama Tactical, a Russian mercenary group made up of self-described “elite” veterans who are paid by Islamist groups to train recruits.

“This video could well show Malhama personnel,” said Lister.

The featured group certainly fits aspects of Malhama’s profile. The small mercenary group enjoys publicity, and has only a handful of permanent members in its ranks. Malhama’s leader, Abu Rofiq, was a member of Russia’s VDV paratrooper units. The mercenary group is also known to have worked with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and aims to work with “oppressed” Sunni Muslims across the globe.

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