On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Russian air force base Khmeimimim. He announced the withdrawal of the Russian forces from Syria. It remains questionable whether Russian troops will actually pull out extensively.
During his visit, which Bashar al-Assad and the influential brigadier general Suheil al-Hassan attended, Putin explained:
„You come home with a victory.“
However, this declaration was ment only for the Russian armed forces, but not for private military companies such as the security and military company Wagner. The origins of Wagner lie in the dark. Not much is yet known in detail about concrete assignments. One thing is certain, the establishment of private military service providers was officially banned in the Russian Federation.
Shortly before the turn of the year 2016/2017, President Putin signed an amendment to the law and on 9 January 2017, law number 53 on military service in Russia came into force, as public sources report. Since then, any Russian, who has completed military service or is a reservist, is considered a Russian soldier if he „prevents international terrorist activities outside the territory of the Russian Federation“. Since almost every male Russian has done his basic military service after school, the law affects almost everyone. The law will make it possible to deploy Russian mercenaries worldwide and will create the conditions for the legal expansion of the Russian military with private military companies.
During the crisis in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, Wagner mercenaries were sighted on the side of pro-Russian self-defense forces. Wagner also plays an important role in Syria, on the one hand by taking part in combat in strategic battles such as Palmyra 2015, Palmyra 2016 and Deir Ezzor 2017, and on the other hand by training smaller contingents of Syrian special forces.
This should not hide the fact that the USA is also betting on mercenaries. Russia, however, according to Russian military analyst Ruslan Pukhov, integrated the Wagner fighters into Syrian troops and uses these units at the frontline, unlike the USA that uses mercenaries only in support missions. According to information, Wagner is said to have trained the government-affiliated volunteer unit „ISIS Hunters“.
This explains the great sadness expressed when, a few months ago, two Wagner mercenaries were captured by the terrorist militia „Islamic State“ near the village of Shulah on the outskirts of the eastern Syrian town of DeirEzzor. ISIS Hunters „said on Twitter a month ago that they were willing to exchange several dozens of ISIS members imprisoned in Deir Ezzor for the two Russian mercenaries.
— ISIS Hunters (@ISIS_Hunters) November 19, 2017
Up to 2500 Russian mercenaries in Syria
According to the newspaper „Fontanka“ from Saint Petersburg, almost 1500 Wagner mercenaries were present in Syria at the same time. Other sources speak of 2500 mercenaries. Al-Assad has a constant demand for mercenaries. The stationing in Syria is also worthwhile for the normally well-trained former Russian soldiers. The Moscow Times writes that the mercenaries earn about 4,300 US-Dollars a month on an active combat mission in Syria, while the deployment in a base in Russia is paid with 1,380 US-Dollars a month.
In addition to operations in Eastern Ukraine, Syria, some sources also claim that the Russian military company is present in Libya and even in Southern Sudan. The Russian government denies the existence of military contractors serving the Kremlin.
A few days ago, the Russian newspaper „Fontaka“ claims to have published details of a contract between Wagner and the Syrian government. Accordingly, Wagner protects oil and gas fields in East Homs and Deir Ezzor against ISIS and other anti-Assad forces. The New York Times claims, citing a military analyst, that the Syrian government is willing to trade security and combat services of the Russian company for access to its country’s natural resources. This could not be independently confirmed by Eurasia News. It is unclear, why a mercenary company should intend to produce oil and gas.
However, access to Wagner allowed Russia to station large troops in Syria without fear of a reaction to domestic sentiment. The death of regular Russian troops would adversely affect domestic consent in Russia.
Wagner thus plays a key role in the Russian military campaign in Syria. It allows Moscow to multiply its armed forces by sending factually real soldiers to the front line without having to mention the number of „official“ deaths of Russian soldiers in Syria. According to the Swiss Tages-Anzeiger, former members of the unit estimate the number of fighters killed in Syria at „at least 100“.
This explains the low number of Russian deaths spread by the Russian Ministry of Defense at approximately 41, and the agreements between mercenaries and the security company prevent family members from talking to the media.
All this allows the Russian government to maintain public support in the run-up to the presidential elections. While the withdrawal of the Russian armed forces has begun, it seems certain that mercenaries of private military companies will remain in Syria to save the Syrian army, which has lost more than a third of its fighting force since the beginning of the conflict in 2011.