Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Eastern European fighters are being recruited via Hezbollah in Lebanon to fight alongside Syrian government forces, according to sources who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat.
Local and international media have reported that Rafik Al-Hariri International Airport in Beirut, Lebanon, has become a gateway for Eastern European fighters heading to Syria to help the Syrian government in its conflict against rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. The fighters’ movement into Syria is reportedly being facilitated by Hezbollah, one of Assad’s main supporters.
The Iran-backed militia secures the passage of fighters from the Lebanese capital Beirut to Syria, through the Bekaa valley and Al-Nabi Shayth village, Lebanon’s English-language Daily Star newspaper reported on Saturday.
In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, the director of Qalamoun’s media center, Amer Al-Qalamouni, confirmed the reports, affirming that Hezbollah is using the Masnaa border crossing as a main passageway for sending fighters and weapons to Syria.
Qalamouni said: “Fighters from Eastern Europe, particularly pilots, have become a clear [force] in the battles in Syria.”
“The [Assad] regime has started to depend on pilots from Ukraine and Russia to shell civilians in the rebel-held areas with barrel bombs after they faced problems with Syrian pilots who either leak information about target sites or refuse to shell their own people,” he added.
Walid Sukarieh, a Hezbollah MP in Lebanon, categorically denied reports that the Lebanese militia was helping the Assad government hire mercenaries from Eastern Europe. He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “This is absolutely untrue,” adding that “Hezbollah does not need the help of [foreign] fighters.”
“How can [Russian and Ukrainian] fighters go through Rafik Al-Hariri International Airport without the knowledge of the [Lebanese] security forces?” he asked, adding, “Can all [Lebanese] security forces be supportive of the Syrian regime?”
Free Syrian Army (FSA) Supreme Military Council member Faraj Al-Hamoud told Asharq Al-Awsat: “All Iraqi and Iranian fighters enter Syria through Lebanon,” adding that fighters from Eastern Europe enter Syria either through Antakya, on the Turkish border, or Beirut.
Last January the first batch of Eastern European mercenaries, which included approximately 23 fighters, arrived at Rafik Al-Hariri International Airport. They subsequently travelled in Hezbollah convoys to Chtaura and then on to Al-Nabi Shayth, the Daily Star reported, quoting a security source.
A second batch of eleven fighters arrived at the airport individually.
According to the Lebanese newspaper, over the past three months many groups of Arabs and Europeans have also joined the ranks of the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS has come under increasing pressure from more moderate Islamist rebel formations bent on purging the Syrian armed opposition of extremists.
“FSA elements have found passports of Russian fighters in Manbij, an Aleppo suburb, [belonging to people] fighting alongside ISIS,” Hamoud said.
The latest reports of the Assad government hiring Eastern European mercenaries to fight against rebel factions will be discussed at the next meeting of the Syrian National Coalition in Cairo, scheduled for early March.
Sources within the Syrian National Coalition revealed that the group’s General Secretariat is seeking to meet at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on March 7 and 8. Arab League foreign ministers are set to meet in Cairo on March 9 and 10 to discuss a number of issues, including the Syrian crisis.
Arab diplomatic sources, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, said that Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby had agreed “in principle” to the move but that “the subject is still being discussed, due to this meeting possibly clashing with a meeting of Arab League delegates.”
The opposition Coalition has also called on the Arab League to allow it to attend the upcoming Arab Summit in Kuwait scheduled for March 25 and 26. The issue will be discussed at the Arab League preparatory meeting ahead of the Kuwait Summit.
Syrian National Coalition representative to Turkey, Khalid Khoja, denied reports that the Coalition intends to decamp to Cairo after the Turkish authorities asked the opposition body to leave. He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “I met with the Turkish Foreign Ministry representative yesterday and he confirmed that Turkey welcomes the Coalition and its members. Turkey views this as a principles position based on supporting the Syrian people’s struggle against dictatorship.”
“Some figures within the Coalition are calling for our headquarters to be transferred to Cairo for personal reasons. It would not be in our interest for this to take place, because Cairo is far away from Syria and it would not be easy to transfer assistance from Egypt to Syria, in contrast to Turkey, which shares a border with Syria.”