Technicians linked to the Syrian army’s infamous barrel bombs that devastated much of the country have been deployed to Russia to help prepare for a potentially similar campaign in the war in Ukraine, European officials believe.
According to intelligence officers, more than 50 specialists, all with extensive experience in manufacturing and delivering the raw explosive, have been in Russia for several weeks working alongside officials from Vladimir Putin’s army.
Their arrival is seen as one of the factors behind US and European warnings that the Russian military may be preparing for the use of chemical weapons in the conflict, which entered its fourth month with little signs of slowing down.
Barrels of explosives – raw explosives packed into a drum and dropped from a helicopter – have been used to devastating effect throughout the war in Syria. The regime has also been regularly accused of filling canisters with chlorine and dumping them on opposition-held towns, causing hundreds of deaths and triggering widespread alarm.
Without anti-aircraft weapons, the anti-Assad opposition had little to counter the Syrian army’s air supremacy, which has been a major factor in the regime’s 10-year reclamation of parts of the country. of war.
The situation is very different in Ukraine, however, where Ukrainian troops armed with deadly surface-to-air missiles can shoot down Russian jets and helicopters, delaying advances and exposing ground forces to deadly artillery fire.
“That’s probably why we didn’t see them crossing the border,” said a European official. “We know the ability is there, but if they use it, they lose; we’ll find out who did it, and they’ll probably be killed anyway.
Barrel bombers were at the forefront of the forces the Syrian government sent to Russia to support Putin, whose support had helped secure the Assad regime’s grip on power.
Officials believe that between 800 and 1,000 Syrian soldiers have so far volunteered to go to Russia, where the Kremlin has promised them salaries of between $1,500 and $4,000, up to 20 times the amounts they would receive in Syria, where an economic collapse has ravaged the value of the local currency.
The Syrian government has established four main recruiting centers for the Russian deployment, in Damascus, Latakia, Hama and Homs. The recruits are deployed under contract with the Wagner Group, Russia’s private military organization, which has played a leading role in hiring mercenaries to support Russia’s foreign adventures.
Wagner played an important role in Libya and eastern Syria supporting Russian interests. However, he sometimes had a frayed relationship with the Kremlin. In early 2018, his forces were engaged in a brutal battle with US and Kurdish forces in Syria’s Deir Azzour province, in which more than 140 mercenaries were killed, mostly by US artillery. European officials said the Russian government had given the green light to the attack.
“It looks like they’ve outgrown their boots,” an official said. “We know for a fact that the Kremlin let them down.”
Since then, Wagner has been at the center of Russia’s actions. His forces were among the first deployed in Ukraine and are accused of committing atrocities in Bucha, where up to 1,000 people were massacred in days in early April.
A relative of a Syrian army lieutenant who signed up to fight in Ukraine has denied that his uncle was a mercenary. “They go there as a regular army unit,” he said. “He travels with a full peloton. Only four of them did not want to go. Putin has done a lot for us, and we can help him now.
In late April, the Ukrainian government claimed that up to 25 Libyan or Syrian fighters had been killed in the town of Popasna, although this was denied by Syrian officials and opposition members.
“I asked my uncle that,” said the relative, who declined to be named. “He said it wasn’t them, but it could be Libyans. He insists that none of them crossed the border.
It is believed that Wagner deployed up to 500 men as reconnaissance elements in Ukraine. Many were airlifted from hotspots in North and Central Africa.