Russia falsely claims that foreign jihadists are fighting on Ukraine’s side

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On March 28, Sputnik News in Arabic, a Russian state news agency, said a group of Islamist jihadists had left Syria to fight against Russian forces in Ukraine. Citing “private sources,” Sputnik said 87 militants went to Ukraine, all of them former members of the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

Sputnik said most of the militants are from Iraq, Chechnya, Tunisia and France. After leaving IS, they linked up with other jihadist groups in northwestern Syria, including Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din (HaD) and Ansar al-Tawhid.

“Private sources confirmed to Sputnik that 87 militants had left for Ukraine…all 87 were formerly affiliated with Daesh [Islamic State] before they merged into new groups,” Sputnik reported.

This is not substantiated.

Sputnik provided no evidence for his claim. In addition, Sputnik gave conflicting figures about the alleged militant fighters in previous reports. Sputnik has also claimed without evidence that the United States is training jihadists in Syria to send them to Ukraine.

Russia and its ally Syria have been trying to exploit jihadist propaganda since President Vladimir Putin ordered his “special military operation,” also called war, against Ukraine on Feb. 24.

On February 28, Al Baath media, a Syrian state news network, said mercenaries from the Nusra Front and other factions would go to Ukraine to fight the Russians.

“The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has asked Turkish intelligence to train militants and send them from Syria to fight in Ukraine,” Al Baath claimed, citing unnamed media reports and the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

On March 8, Iran’s Tasnim news agency quoted a Sputnik report that hundreds of terrorists from various armed groups had arrived in Ukraine. The agency quoted unnamed sources as saying the United States is training IS terrorists at its al-Tanf base in eastern Syria, who will then be transferred to Ukraine.

The US has had an army garrison in al-Tanf, along the Syrian border with Iraq, since 2016 to counter IS operations.

Sputnik has been inconsistent in its coverage of the number of “terrorists” allegedly fighting in Ukraine. On March 3, it reported that the Ukrainian government had granted asylum to more than 1,000 terrorists, including jihadists from Syria.

“In the current situation, the purpose of the special military operation in Ukraine is not only to eradicate Nazism, but also to combat terrorism,” Sputnik quoted an unnamed source as saying.

On March 4, Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), a human rights watchdog, reported on an ongoing process to register the names of experienced fighters in Syria to fight in Ukraine. The registration was initiated by some fighters and commanders within the rebel groups, the group said.

STJ said that in rebel-controlled areas of Syria, mainly those under the influence of the Turkish military, some armed factions had indeed asked their leaders to register.

However, a first-class officer of the Syrian National Army (SNA), a coalition of armed groups that oppose the regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad, told STJ that Syrian rebels have sent Turkish intelligence to Ukraine.

“These registrations were initiated on the basis of the factions’ desire to fight the Russians, and this was explicitly expressed during a meeting between Turkish intelligence and second-class commanders,” STJ quoted the first-class officer as saying.

“The commanders asked permission to travel and fight in Ukraine. However, the Turks were clear that they will not send experts from the Turkish army to fight in Ukraine and that Turkey will keep an equal distance from the Ukrainians and the Russians.”

The Assad government controls most of Syria, while the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces control the northeastern part. The Turkish-backed SNA controls northern Syria, while disparate factions operate in the northwest, dominated by HTS. Scattered IS cells are also active in the Syrian desert.

Russia has provided extensive military support to the Assad regime and defended it against accusations of using chemical weapons during Syria’s decade-long civil war.

As Sputnik sounded the alarm over Syrian fighters going to Ukraine to fight Russia, the Kremlin has opened the door for Syrian mercenaries to join the Russian side. On March 11, Putin gave the green light to recruit 16,000 volunteers from the Middle East.

“If you see that there are people who of their own accord, not for money, want to help the people in Donbas, then we have to give them what they want and help them get to the conflict zone,” Putin said. said.

STJ said it interviewed two people in Syrian government-controlled areas who were drawn to Putin’s call.

One was a young soldier who registered his name mainly for economic reasons, while the other was a member of a government reconciliation commission in the Rif Dimashq governorate (the Damascus countryside).

“The process is still in its early stages, the registration stage,” the latter told STJ. “Russians will decide whether to send those who have registered or not after they have been trained for a while by Russian officers.”

On March 29, Syrian news website Deir Ezzour 24 reported that Abdullah Shlash, the head of the reconciliation committee in Deir el-Zor, announced that hundreds had signed up to join Russian forces in Ukraine and awaited further instructions from the Russian and Syrian authorities.

Still, there is no evidence that anyone left to fight for either side in Ukraine, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British human rights monitor, reported.

On March 18, Major General Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of the United States Central Command, told reporters, “We see little evidence of recruiting in Syria to bring people back to Ukraine.”

Turkey mediates peace talks between Moscow and Kiev. On March 29, delegations from Ukraine and Russia concluded a round of negotiations in the capital Istanbul. Both sides expressed optimism about a possible peace deal, but no major breakthrough was achieved as the attack on Ukraine enters its second month.

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