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Russian Volunteers For Syria Are Recruited – And Trolled – Online

  • Anna Shamanska

New recruits for Syria?

New recruits for Syria?

It has been relatively quiet in eastern Ukraine recently. So some pro-Russian online groups organized to dispatch volunteers to fight alongside separatists in Donbas may be trying to use the lull to open a new front in Syria, where Moscow has ramped up military support for President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

They don't seem to be having too much success.

The Kremlin has emphasized that it is not calling for volunteers to fight in Syria and polling has shown most Russians would oppose sending ground forces into the civil war. And the groups that do exist do not appear to have attracted the same interest as those formed to recruit Russians to fight against Kyiv's forces in Ukraine.

Still, a survey of existing websites and pro-Russian separatist groups on Russian social-networking site VKontakte (VK) did turn up a few prospective volunteers who say they are trying to get to Syria.

Call For Volunteers

One online group, Dobrovolec.org (Volunteer.org), has been recruiting men to fight in Syria since late September.

Founded in 2014, according to its website, Dobrovolec.org claims to help Russian and foreign volunteers enlist with the separatists in Donbas and provide support for locals in the so-called "people's republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk.

It also calls on members to "take part in special events as part of the Russian mission, aimed at stabilizing the situation in the region, protecting important facilities and enforcing the Russian military and political presence in Syria."

Dobrovolec.org requires its candidates to sign at least a six-month contract if they meet all the demands.

Yesterday Donbas, Today Syria

In a special VK group, created by the Dobrovolec.org for potential Syria recruits, there are only 18 members. Among those, only four have publicly requested additional information about becoming volunteers or stated their desire outright.

"Surgut," a 32-year-old Russian man whose nom de guerre comes from the name of his Siberian hometown, is one of them. He told RFE/RL's Current Time TV that he was "preapproved" to go to Syria, and what remained was to collect the necessary paperwork. He said he did not know exactly how he would get there, but added that "looking at a map may make things clearer."

Surgut said that he spent almost a year fighting alongside the Russian-backed separatists in Donbas, but left two months ago, claims that seem to be matched by personal photos posted to VK. Now, he said, his sense of Russian patriotism is leading him forward to Syria.

"That's geopolitics. If my country enters a war, then so be it. We are not knights without fear and reproach. We are only defending our country's interests, I'm not afraid to say it, on the world stage," he wrote in a message.

Nevertheless, Surgut said that his mission in Donbas is not over yet. If the conflict there gets hot again, he believes that he and his comrades will return "like a flock of migratory birds."

Another man asked the VK group about other ways to get to Syria, as he "didn't fit the age requirement" for potential candidates, who must be 23 or older. Dobrovolec.org suggested he contact the Syrian Embassy "to get a Syrian passport and be enrolled in the Syrian army."

When contacted by RFE/RL's Current Time TV however, the man said he was merely "monitoring the situation" and had no intention of going to Syria.

'Distraction From Donbas'

Even among enthusiastic Russian nationalists, volunteering to fight in Syria is controversial.

The call for volunteers by Dobrovolec.org prompted a backlash and the organization published a new message 20 minutes later, claiming that "Novorossia remains a priority" -- a reference to faded hopes of hewing off a big chunk of Ukraine, far beyond Crimea, and making it part of Russia.

According to Yandex WordStat, the phrase "to volunteer in Syria" went from 200 searches in August to 2,411 in September.

But one of the largest campaigns to date appears to be one aimed at trolling potential volunteers.

A poster for something called the International Crusader Battalion recruiting volunteers to help "our Syrian bothers" was widely shared online. However, the Donetsk contact number turned out to be misleading: would-be volunteers were directed to a regional drug, alcohol, and tobacco addiction-treatment service instead.

Apparently, there were so many calls that the clinic had to publish a note on its website asking people not to "succumb to provocations."

In an interview for the Russian radio station Govorit Moskva, Igor Girkin, a former commander of separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, claimed that a Russian brigade or battalion might be formed within the Syrian government forces.

"I probably wouldn't say that they are volunteers. Maybe because private military companies formed in Donetsk and Luhansk sent [people] to Syria. Meaning, roughly speaking, [they are] mercenaries," he said.

But he rejected the idea of going to Syria himself. He said he found it "uninteresting."

"I think that now the war in Syria is a distraction from the desperate situation [in the] 'Russian republics' in the southeast of Ukraine," Girkin said.

But Surgut told RFE/RL's Current Time TV that many of those who fought in Donbas were interested in going to Syria. "People like me, who are not married and have no children, are more resolute," he said.

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