MOSCOW -- Belarus plans to deploy up to 200 troops to Syria to serve alongside Russian forces in the country, according to a Russian government document released Monday, a move strongly condemned by Belarus' opposition leader.
A draft agreement between Russia and its ally Belarus endorsed by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin says that the Belarusian troops will work to provide “humanitarian assistance” to the population outside combat zones.
The document, which is yet to be signed by the countries' foreign and defense ministries, states that Belarusian troops will act under operational control of the Russian military in Syria when deployed to the country.
Russia has waged a military campaign in Syria since 2015, teaming up with Iran to help Syrian President Bashar Assad's government reclaim control over most of the country after a devastating civil war.
The planned deployment of Belarusian troops' to Syria reflects increasingly close defense ties between the two ex-Soviet neighbors and allies.
In recent weeks, Russia has moved troops from Siberia and the Far East to Belarus for sweeping joint drills. The deployment added to the Russian military buildup near Ukraine, fueling Western fears of a possible invasion.
Belarus’ authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who has increasingly relied on the Kremlin’s political and financial support amid bruising Western sanctions triggered by his crackdown on domestic protests, has called for closer defense ties with Moscow and recently offered to host Russian nuclear weapons.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger to Lukashenko who was forced to leave the country after Lukashenko's re-election to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition and the West saw as rigged, strongly criticized the deal for sending Belarusian troops to Syria.
She described the move as Lukashenko's payback for Moscow's support, arguing that it violates the country's constitution and runs contrary to the national interests.
“Lukashenko is paying with Belarus' sovereignty for the support he received in 2020 that helped him stay in power,” Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press.
Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine contributed to this report.