By Alex Kassidiaris
The shadowy Russian Wagner Group has drastically affected the course of the conflicts in Libya and Syria. While the Group cannot be clearly identified as a mercenary force or a private military company, its activity in war-torn countries continues to pose a serious threat to regional stability.
The recent appointment of Mohamed Younis al-Menfi, as Libya’s interim President, and the election of Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah as Prime Minister, have been described as historic moments for the country and milestones for the long and tenuous peace process. The developments indicate that the country could possibly hold the long-sought-after elections –which have been cancelled twice in the past – by December 2021.
However, one of the most serious existential threats for the country’s peace and stability still remains. Thousands of foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya could undermine a potential peaceful democratic transition at any point. The massive deployment of mercenaries has played a pivotal role in the formation of the current status quo in Libya – and previously in Syria. The discussion around their effect will always be relevant, when examining each conflict.
Redefining Mercenary Concepts: Back to Basics
The very essence of mercenarism can be summarized by the motivation of the people engaging in this activity: mere profit, as the Latin word merces confirms. Mercenaries have historically been shadowy fighters conducting war with no ethnic, religious, or ideological impetus, and attracting much criticism, given the dishonorable nature of this occupation.
Xenophon – one of the first mercenaries in recorded history – was expelled from ancient Athens probably because he offered paid military services to the Persian Prince Cyrus the Younger (see Xenophon’s landmark book “Anabasis”). Machiavelli, in his monumental treatise “The Prince,” described mercenaries as useless and dangerous, completely lacking discipline and always ready to betray their leader.
It took centuries for the traditionally ambiguous and outlaw nature of mercenaries to be somehow countered. The activity of the South African firm Executive Outcomes during the 1990s could be seen as the starting point, later succeeded by Western agencies such as Blackwater, DynCorp, and GardaWorld, which provided military services in the context of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
This latest framework has consolidated mercenarism into the concept of Private Military Companies (PMCs), a somewhat more legitimate version of the earlier mercenary entities, while fitting everything into a corporate structure. Despite the controversies and known atrocities perpetrated by some PMCs – as seen in the Nisour Square incident – it seemed the corporate restructuring could work as the onset for international regulation and direct monitoring of such organizations.
Yet, the emergence of the Wagner Group has changed this trajectory and re-established a vague and unlawful modus operandi.
How the Wagner Effect Changed Regional Dynamics
In contrast to the PMC framework, the Wagner Group has been working covertly, unofficially pushing the Russian agenda abroad, without complying with any regulations or norms ensuing from international treaties and law. In the cases of Syria and Libya, the timely intervention of Russia has literally changed the course of each conflict; the paramilitary and mercenary activity has been a cornerstone of Moscow’s action.
In Syria, the decisive 2015 Russian involvement saved the Assad regime from collapse. The deployment of Russian mercenaries has been a critical factor in the Syrian civil war, furthering the significant role of the Russian Air Force, Navy, and the advanced Russian weapon systems. The mystery around the Wagner Group enabled Moscow to deploy thousands of battle-hardened fighters, who participated in the operations under no official capacity. This provided the Kremlin with the necessary flexibility of plausible deniability to avoid backlash.
But the Russian plan did not stop at that point; the presence of Russian “military advisors,” or mercenaries, set the base for the massive recruitment of Syrians. This essential step secured a direct Russian influence in the working- and middle-class levels of the Syrian society. The marked Russian involvement in Syria – both in political and military terms – achieved the long-term loyalty and respect of the Assad administration, consolidating Moscow’s influence in the most senior levels of the surviving regime.
The parallel strategy of recruiting Syrians for private security roles not only won the hearts and minds of the suffering Syrian people, who have been seeking a steady source of income, but also created an active reserve list for further Russian endeavors across the region. At the same time, this Russian expansion in each and every level of the Syrian society, directly challenged the influence of the country’s traditional patron, Iran. Hence, Tehran has recently adopted a similar approach, seeking to establish Iran-backed private security entities in the country, as a last resort to counterbalance the Russian footprint.
The massive recruitment of Syrian soldiers-for-hire became promptly apparent in another war-torn country in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Libya. As per the Wagner model, Russian recruiters created cells of Syrians, willing to fight “another people’s war” in exchange for a very competitive salary, based on the standards of their national economy.
According to a report by the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), during the summer of 2020 large numbers of Wagner fighters were transferred to Libya, with converted Ilyushin Il-76 of the Russian Air Force. Wagner operators have reportedly been stationed at al-Gardabiya, al-Jufra, and Brak al-Shati bases in Libya. Russian personnel were also a part of this coordinated effort, mostly in management and administrative roles, with the vast majority of the recruits being of Syrian origin.
These activities in Libya are a clear example of how Russia can gain leverage in a fragile context abroad. The Russian-backed forces played a key role in the development of the battle and eventually blocked the advance of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). Through overt political involvement and covert military support, Moscow has become a de facto bargainer in the country’s transition planning and peace process, and a predetermined key player in the potential post-war Libyan landscape.
In the case of Libya, Turkey moved fast to fill a power vacuum amidst the escalating civil conflict taking opposing sides from Russia. Ankara supported the Tripoli-based GNA, while also implementing mercenary strategies and tactics and seeking to counterbalance the Russian influence utilizing the same tools; a model similar to the one adopted by Tehran in Syria.
The US Inspector General Office report for Q2 2020, confirmed that substantial mercenary forces have been fighting on both sides of the Libyan front. The report was a follow-up to the previous one, which indicated that the number of Turkish-backed mercenaries in Libya could be up to 3,800.
Recruitment, Facts, and Figures
Utilizing information provided on the basis of anonymity from reliable in-country sources, the recruitment process of the Wagner-affiliated entities is the following:
Cell offices are acting as the points of contact for Syrians willing to be recruited. After visiting those offices, which can be found across the Syrian territory, the candidates are reviewed by official Syrian government bodies, including the Military Intelligence Directorate, and those selected are being contacted by the respective recruitment offices.
The recruits are then transferred to the Hmeimim Air Base, in Latakia Governorate, from where they are flown out to Libya. The typical contract for Syrian fighters in Libya, lasts for six months and the monthly salary ranges from US$1,200 to 1,800, depending on the specialty of each recruit; one should consider that the monthly salary in Syria is just a minimal fraction of the aforementioned figure.
Moreover, considering the official data of the US reports, the estimation of in-country experts on the actual number of Syrian mercenaries is even more concerning. The numbers of Syrian mercenaries in Libya, who are favoring the Assad regime, could be close to 15,000, in addition to approximately 4,000 Wagner-linked Russian military advisors.
At the same time, the number of Turkish-backed mercenaries of Syrian origin – anti-Assad in their overwhelming majority – could be as high as 20,000. As opposed to the US reports, these numbers seem to align with the estimates provided by the UN Acting Special Representative in Libya, Stephanie Williams.
Long-term Prospects and Conclusions
The considerable number of Russian or Russia-backed mercenaries in the war-torn countries of Syria and Libya have created a new reality, probably with long lasting effects. The activity of the so-called Wagner Group has regenerated the shadowy mercenary concept, leaving aside the more favorable PMC structure and rationale, which has been developing internationally since the 1990s, and mostly after the early 2000s in the West.
The presence of boots on the ground provides the necessary leverage to foreign powers which are seeking to expand their influence abroad. Russia has fully utilized this strategy, consolidating its long-term influence in Syria and Libya while also containing the actions of Moscow’s “bitter friends,” namely Turkey and Iran. And, if left unregulated or unchallenged, the actions of mercenary forces in vulnerable, war-torn countries in MENA – especially in Libya – will continue to pose a grave risk to regional peace and stability.
Alex Kassidiaris is an International Security Advisor, based in London. He has worked with several Fortune 500 clients and firms. He holds a Master’s degree from the War Studies Department of King’s College London. His research interests include security and politics across the Eastern Mediterranean and MENA, and the rise of PMCs in modern warfare.