Russian mercenaries are wild card in the Syrian conflict

Technically, the contractors are violating Russian law, which bars working as a private military contractor in another country.
Sunday 10/06/2018
A portrait of a Russian contractor who was killed in combat in Syria is seen at his grave in his home town of Togliatti in Russia. (Reuters)
Open secret. A portrait of a Russian contractor who was killed in combat in Syria is seen at his grave in his home town of Togliatti in Russia. (Reuters)

The Syrian conflict is negatively affecting US President Donald Trump’s public regard for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has made intervention in Syria a cornerstone of Russia’s revived Middle East policy.

On September 30, 2015, Russia formally launched military operations in Syria and, ever since, Moscow’s military investment in Syria has not been insignificant. Elements of the Russian Air Force, Navy and ground forces operate in Syria. The murkiest element of Russian military support for the embattled Assad regime, however, has been the deployment of “private military contractors” — “mercenaries” in more common parlance.

The most notorious contractor is the Wagner Group, which has played a central role in military operations in Syria and Ukraine. The Wagner Group has been Russia’s pre-eminent military contractor since 2013. Russia has been using contractors to collaborate with the military in ways like those pioneered by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The deployment of contractors in Syria may provide Putin with plausible deniability and lower military body counts. It could, however, become a problem because rising numbers of casualties are increasingly getting attention in the Russian media and the dead mercenaries’ families are speaking out.

Even before the heightened attention, the mercenaries were an open secret. Consider the December 14, 2016, interview on Estonian TV with “Oleg,” a Russian mercenary in Syria. His monthly salary was 300,000 roubles — about $4,700 — plus bonuses, at a time the average Russian monthly wage was $600.

Recently returned from the battlefield, Oleg observed: “I went there for money. Could it really be simpler?” Oleg described how well-equipped Wagner’s men were: “We had a range of equipment: mortars, howitzers, tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers.”

What blurs the lines is the way the contractors get to Syria and their treatment if injured or killed. They fly on Russian military aircraft, which land at Russian bases. They are treated at hospitals reserved for the Russian military and they receive state medals. Wagner Group mercenaries killed in battle know their grieving families will receive 5 million roubles — about $80,000.

The deployments have not been casualty-free. On the night of February 7, a Kurdish-held oil field in north-eastern Syria came under attack by forces allied with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Heavy US air strikes and artillery fire repelled the assault over the course of three hours, killing dozens.

Reports emerged that many of those killed were Russian mercenaries and that they worked with Wagner Group, which has close ties to the Putin regime. Russian-language sources estimated Wagner casualties at 200-600 in the incident.

Two months later, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis told the US Senate Armed Services Committee: “The Russian high command in Syria assured us it was not their people and my direction to the chairman was for the force, then, to be annihilated and it was.”

Technically, the contractors are violating Russian law, which bars working as a private military contractor in another country. In reality, Russian citizens have participated in wars across the former Soviet Union in the 27 years since it broke up. Thus, there is a ready pool of battle-hardened potential recruits for private contractor companies.

It’s not just in Syria that mercenaries are proving useful to the Putin regime. Many Wagner Group mercenaries fought alongside Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass.

However, it is in Syria that the mercenaries complicate an extraordinarily complex battlefield situation. Russia threatened the United States and Western powers with the “gravest consequences” if they undertake military action against the Syrian regime in response to the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma.

Trump, along with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May, unleashed a volley of “nice and new and smart” missiles in an attack April 14 on Syria’s chemical sites. No Russians were injured in the assault and the Syrian media reported that two largely intact US cruise missiles were sent to Moscow.

If the United States continues its attacks on Syria, it is likely that Russian mercenaries will figure in the body count, as the Kremlin seems increasingly to be embracing the further use of private military contractors. Russian media reported that mercenaries had been sent to South Sudan to support Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s assault against  “rebels” and there were increased numbers of Russians ready to join private military contractors swelling the ranks of the Wagner Group to 4,840. In that context, peace for the Syrian people seems farther away than ever.