Moscow reportedly luring Syrian men to Russia and coercing them into joining army
The Russian authorities have been coercing refugees from Middle Eastern and African countries into fighting in the war against Ukraine, according to a new investigation from Novaya Gazeta. They reportedly do this by tricking the migrants with the help of the same intermediaries who have helped them send other refugees into E.U. countries through Russia and Belarus in recent years. Often, the middlemen are from the same countries as the refugees themselves.
The investigation tells the story of several refugees from Syria who traveled to Russia on student and tourist visas in hopes of ultimately moving to Europe. Two of them, men named Samir and Mohammed, temporarily lived with the article’s author, Novaya Gazeta Middle East correspondent Wadih El-Hayek. After paying several thousand dollars each to get to Russia, Samir and Mohammed tried twice to enter the E.U. The first time, they tried to get to Poland through Belarus, and the second time, they tried to enter Finland from Russia. Both attempts failed.
In late 2023, Mohammed went to Minsk after deciding to try one more time to cross the border into Poland. Samir went to Yekaterinburg, where he hoped to extend his student visa. El-Hayek hasn’t heard from either of them since.
From his guests, however, he learned about the stories of two other Syrian men who entered Russia on tourist visas. When their residence permits expired, they were arrested in Pskov. The authorities then gave them a choice: they could either spend months in a temporary detention center before ultimately being deported to Syria, or they could sign contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry and receive financial compensation and Russian citizenship. The men were promised that they would be serving as doctors, not soldiers, and that they would not have to use weapons. They agreed.
“Here, I think, the Arabic language played a nasty trick on the recruits: it has just one word for both ‘doctor’ and ‘pharmacist.’ And these Arabs were pharmacists. I don’t know how they could have been useful as field doctors. But when they arrived at the training camp, they quickly changed their minds,” El-Hayek wrote.
The Syrians told El-Hayek in a video call that they’re currently awaiting their trials and deportations:
In addition, according to the investigation, videos have been spreading on Syrian and Russian Telegram channels that show men from Egypt, Syria, Somalia, and India in military uniforms along with photos of the Russian passports the men were purportedly issued. In one of the clips, Novaya Gazeta said, a person behind the camera says that the Syrians shown in the video received Russian citizenship in just five days. The men then thank somebody named “Doctor Akram” for their passports.
El-Hayek said that all of the Russian passports issued to Syrians that he’s seen were issued in the far-eastern Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia. “They told us that Yakutia is big and there are very few people there. They said we’d just stay there on garrison duty and that nobody would send us anywhere,” some of the men told him.
Novaya Gazeta identified the man responsible for recruiting Syrians to come to Russia as Wassim al-Dimashqi, a Syrian man who previously worked as a recruiter for Wagner Group. He lures Syrians to Russia by offering them jobs guarding gold and diamond mines in Yakutia, promising them salaries of around $2,000 a month. The last group he sent consisted of 40 people. Al-Dimashqi receives around $337 for each person he recruits, according to the investigation.
After arriving in Moscow, the recruits are reportedly met by another Syrian man named Akram Dib Tarraf. According to Novaya Gazeta, he receives 320,000 rubles ($3,540) for each person who signs a contract with the Defense Ministry, though it’s unclear who pays him.
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From Moscow, the Syrian recruits are sent to Yakutia, where they’re split into two groups. One of the groups is sent south to Ulan-Ude for professional military training, while the others are sent to a field camp in western Russia, where they’re trained as infantrymen. Despite not speaking Russian, the men are given contracts to sign in Russian, after which they’re issued Russian passports.
El-Hayek received two audio recordings from his sources. One contains what sounds like a recruiter, while the other contains the voice of a Syrian man at a training camp. He described the recordings in his article:
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