Iraq News

Fate of leaderless Russian mercenaries in Syria remains murky

By Diyaruna

Members of the Wagner Group stand on the balcony of the circus building in the city of Rostov-on-Don, on June 24. [Roman Romokhov/AFP]

Members of the Wagner Group stand on the balcony of the circus building in the city of Rostov-on-Don, on June 24. [Roman Romokhov/AFP]

Two weeks after the Wagner Group's rebellion against the Russian state, the status of its fighters in Syria remains uncertain, as does the whereabouts of its founder, financier and leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

In the immediate aftermath of the botched mutiny, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin flew to Syria, where he informed the regime of Bashar al-Assad that Wagner Group forces would no longer operate there independently.

He urged al-Assad to stop Wagner Group mercenaries from leaving Syria without Moscow's oversight and permission, the Wall Street Journal reported June 28.

Al-Monitor on July 1 confirmed reports that the Kremlin has notified top officials in Syria and elsewhere that it will assume control of Wagner Group forces.

Russian soldiers stand by an armoured personnel carrier in Daraa al-Balad district in southern Syria on September 6, 2021. [Sam Hariri/AFP]

Russian soldiers stand by an armoured personnel carrier in Daraa al-Balad district in southern Syria on September 6, 2021. [Sam Hariri/AFP]

But a June 27 admission from Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Wagner Group is "fully funded" by the Kremlin makes it clear that the mercenary group has been acting as an arm of the state all along.

War within a war?

Shortly after the Wagner Group began its march on Moscow, Russian military police and the Syrian regime's intelligence apparatus swooped in on the mercenary group's officials in Syria, al-Arabi al-Jadid reported June 27.

They arrested Wagner Group commanders and elements across the country, Al-Hadath news channel reported, including the head of a unit in charge of recruitment in Sweida.

Three high-ranking commanders were arrested inside the Russian-controlled Hmeimim air base in Latakia province, and Russian police raided three Wagner Group bases in Deir Ezzor, Hama and Damascus, the channel said.

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activists reported that the Russian forces gave Wagner Group elements the choice to either leave Syria or join the Russian army and work in Syria, the Observatory said June 28.

Syrian contractors with the Wagner Group also were to be disbanded in accordance with a schedule determined by Russian forces, it added, amid fears of a Wagner Group rebellion against the Russian and Syrian regime forces.

Telegram channels associated with the Wagner Group denied reports of the round-up, Al-Monitor reported June 30.

US officials have since told the outlet they have continued to see regular movements in the region by Wagner Group elements, who depend on Hmeimim base as a forward logistical hub.

Symbiotic relationship

The Wagner Group entered Syria when Russian forces intervened in the war there in late September 2015 on the side of the Syrian regime.

The mercenary group was contracted to carry out security operations inside Syria and engage in military battle on the frontlines with opposition factions and the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), the Observatory said.

Despite the group's ostensible role as "ISIS hunters", however, it became increasingly clear the mercenaries were in Syria primarily to defend Russia's economic interests -- specifically phosphate fields and oil and gas wells.

Wagner Group forces in Syria comprise around 2,000 Russian nationals and those from former Soviet states and the Balkans, as well as around 3,000 local recruits, according to the Observatory.

Some of the local recruits have been shipped off to serve in other areas where the Wagner Group operates, including Ukraine and various African countries.

In Syria, Wagner mercenaries are deployed in Latakia, Hama, Homs, Palmyra, Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, al-Hasakeh and Damascus, the Observatory said, and they remained in place until the Wagner Group mutiny.

Wagner elements are stationed in Russian bases in Aleppo province, it added, and with Russian forces at several camps in the Homs province town of Rabiah.

"Russian forces have denied their relations with Wagner forces in Syria," the Observatory said.

"However, all developments on the ground prove that the Russian company's movements and operations take place only after co-ordination with Russian forces and intelligence service," it said.

Meanwhile, Wagner Group mercenaries "have the same prerogatives granted to Russian soldiers and undergo the same sanctions applied in the Russian army".

"Moreover, Wagner company's troops are transported to Syria on Russian planes which land in Hmeimim military airbase," the Observatory added.

Yet the mercenary forces account for "just a small contingent of the Kremlin's overall presence in Syria", according to Al-Monitor.

Impact of mutiny

Analysts say it is likely that the already opaque relationship between the Wagner Group and regular Russian forces will become even more knotted.

In a July 1 report, Al-Monitor contributor Anton Mardasov noted that the structure of the Wagner Group in Syria is "extremely complex".

"I am not sure that the military will begin to change it overnight," he said.

"Military intelligence has always controlled their operations, I think; one way or another, this control will remain," Mardasov said.

Meanwhile, the Wagner Group appears rudderless as its leader, Prigozhin, has dropped out of sight following the mutiny, and there is still uncertainty surrounding the group's fate and that of the deal that ended the rebellion.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko helped broker a deal to end the mutiny under which Prigozhin and some of his fighters were to be exiled to Belarus.

Under the plan, Wagner Group fighters who wanted to keep fighting for Russia would sign contracts with the conventional army.

But on Thursday (July 6), Lukashenko said Prigozhin was still in Russia.

On Monday, the Kremlin said Putin had met with Prigozhin on June 29 in the Kremlin -- announcing the meeting after Putin had condemned the mutineers as "traitors" and warned against the danger of civil war, AFP reported.

"The president gave his assessment of the events of June 24," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, adding that Putin also "listened to accounts given by (Wagner) commanders".

During the three-and-a-half-hour meeting with Wagner commanders, Putin "offered them alternative options for employment", including in combat roles.

But it is unclear how this will play out -- including in Syria -- and who will be calling the shots going forward, with Prigozhin's status unknown and speculation also swirling that there could be a reshuffle among Russia's military leadership.

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