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There is ‘little evidence’ Syria fighters headed to Ukraine despite Russian recruiting attempt: CENTCOM

United States Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie said there was “little evidence” that foreign fighters were traveling from Syria to Ukraine as Russia looks to ramp up recruitment for its war. 

“We see little evidence of recruiting in Syria to bring people back to Ukraine,” McKenzie told reporters Friday. “Not saying it couldn’t happen, and I’m not saying that one or two, three or four haven’t gone. But we haven’t seen the large-scale effort to do that.”

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The general’s comments were in response to questions on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reported efforts to have Syrians join the fight in Ukraine. 

Earlier this month, Syrian news website DeirEzzor24 claimed that Moscow was offering six-month contracts with pay ranging between $200 and $300 a month in a push to increase its force posture in Ukraine. 

“We find noteworthy that Putin believes that he needs to rely on foreign fighters to supplement what is a very significant commitment of combat power inside Ukraine as it is,” a senior defense official told reporters earlier this month. “They continue to be frustrated by a stiff Ukrainian resistance, as well as their own internal challenges.”

The general said that despite its slow progress in Ukraine, the U.S. has not seen any signs Russia is changing its “force level” in Syria or other parts of the world, including in Central Asia, where Russia has a significant presence in countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

“We have no evidence that the Russians are intent on escalating anything in Syria,” McKenzie said. But added, “I think we’re well postured for anything that could happen, and we’re prepared for any eventuality.”

McKenzie, who is set to retire soon, touched on other top issues for CENTCOM’s area of responsibility, which includes Northeast Africa, the Middle East along with Central and South Asia.

FILE - Syrian soldiers hold up Baath party flags and a portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad. With its war on Ukraine now in its third week, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, March 11, 2022, approved bringing in volunteer fighters from the Middle East into the conflict. 

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“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about August of last year,” he said in reference to the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan that led to the death of 13 U.S. service members on Aug. 26, 2021.

“You go back, and you always try to find ways, things that you could have done different, but I will just tell you this,” he continued, “the battlefield is a dynamic place. It is not a business plan. It is a contest of wills. It is a contest of plans.” 

“We stopped a number of attacks, we were not able to stop this attack,” he added. “I don’t know what we could have done that would have prevented this particular attack.”

McKenzie drew on the similarities between the war in Ukraine and the Taliban’s near immediate push to overthrow the Afghan government. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has garnered international praise for his refusal to leave Kyiv as Russian forces continue to pummel the nation and security officials warn Putin will look to overthrow him and instate a puppet regime instead. 

As the Taliban stormed across Afghanistan and advanced on the capital city of Kabul, former President Ashraf Ghani drew international criticism for his decision to flee on Aug. 15. The next day Kabul fell to the Taliban.

Russia’s failure to quickly take over Ukraine, despite its sheer size and superior armed forces, has left many questioning why the Afghan armed services were not able to hold off an insurgent group after years of training by U.S. forces. 

Ukrainian soldiers take positions outside a military facility as two cars burn, in a street in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022. Russian troops stormed toward Ukraine's capital Saturday, and street fighting broke out as city officials urged residents to take shelter. 

“You can train an army, you can equip an army,” McKenzie said. “What you can’t give an army is the fighting spirit of an individual soldier.”

“Clearly the Ukrainians have tremendous fighting spirit,” he continued. “They’re defending their homes, they’re defending their country.”

McKenzie also pointed out that Russian soldiers do not appear “particularly motivated or engaged in the campaign.”

The general said he viewed the failure of the Afghan army to oppose the Taliban as “not just a military collapse but really a national collapse – ultimately [they] couldn’t find the will to stand and fight.”

“And I’m still digesting that,” McKenzie told reporters. “The collapse of the Afghan government was not the result we desired.”

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