Are Russian soldiers, or possibly hired Russian mercenaries, helping Syrian President Bashar Assad fight rebels forces? It seems the evidence is mounting.
On Saturday, the Syrian rebel organization Jaysh Al-Islam reported that an attack the previous day had included a convoy of Russian soldiers.
An opposition fighter patrols through an abandoned building in the Jubaila neighborhood of Syria's northeastern city of Deir Ezzor on Oct. 22, 2013. (Getty Images)
"It appears the soldiers convoy was making its way to the town of Al-Sukhna to assist Assad's regime forces there," the rebel group said, according to a translation from a Syrian website provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitoring branch.
According to Syrian rebel fighters, several Russian soldiers were killed and three Russian officers were injured, one critically, and were evacuated to the Tadmur hospital in Syria.
Steven Bucci, former assistant secretary of defense under Donald Rumsfeld and a senior defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told TheBlaze that Assad's forces have received help from Iranian Special Forces, Hezbollah advisers and other special military units, and it "would not surprise" him that Russian mercenaries are now involved as well. He said Russians are possibly working either as official advisers or as freelancers.
There are "lots of unemployed bad guys available, but could also be off the books guys 'loaned' to Assad by that wonderful international statesman, (Russian President) Vladimir Putin," Bucci said.
While Western intelligence sources told TheBlaze they know central Asian Muslims from the Russian Caucuses have been fighting with the jihadist rebels, it would be a new development if Putin is involving his military.
A U.S. counterterrorism official with knowledge of the region told TheBlaze on condition of anonymity that "the Syrian conflict has drawn in all types of foreigners fighting for various groups and various reasons. Reports of Russian mercenaries fighting for Assad aren't surprising, as Syria is looking more and more like a free for all."
The jihadi website Kavkaz Center said Oct. 20 that the "'successful attack' in the town of Al-Sukhna in the Homs governorate was carried out by the mujahideen of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who killed over 100 pro-Assad and Shiite soldiers, including Russian mercenaries," according to the MEMRI translation.
Kavkaz Center included a video clip that apparently shows Russian mercenaries in Syria joking around and breaking items over one soldier's helmet-protected head.
There are also pictures of documents allegedly seized from the Russian mercenaries; the website gave the identity of at least one of the Russian casualties, identifying him as Aleksei Malyuta from Abinsk in Russia's Krasnodar Territory.
The documents seized in the attacks indicate that the Assad regime used a company out of Hong Kong, the Slavonic Corps Limited company. The general director of the company is named S.V. Kramsky, according to the website.
According to the website Hong Kong Companies, which gathers information on companies based there, "it is not part of a group and the company has no filed accounts. The company was incorporated one year ago." It was incorporated Jan. 18, 2012.
Intelligence sources told TheBlaze it's unknown how many Russian mercenaries are on the ground fighting alongside the Assad regime.