Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
In the modern international world practice, primarily in the West, private military companies (PMCs) are increasingly used. We are not only talking about the US, Britain or France, where such structures are traditionally composed of veterans of special forces and other retirees, but also about China and Iran, whose interests extend to areas of influence beyond their borders.
Western sources in connection with the events in Syria and Central Asia write a lot about the Russian PMC Wagner. At the same time, the participation of other private military (security) companies, many of which are connected with Iran or large Syrian businessmen, are out of the equation. At the same time, the use of PMCs in the local conflict is one of the key aspects of development and the formation of an operational environment in the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR).
This is due to the clan-tribal structure of the country and the desire of some foreign partners of Damascus not to use regulars (just as its opponents do). The importance of this moment in the civil war in Syria and its development, as the situation on the fronts changes, forced Damascus to promptly adopt a legislative basis to expand the competence of local security agencies.
Until May 2013, the activities of PMCs were mainly limited to ensuring the security of shopping centres, banks, and public events. As the control area of government forces has expanded, it has become necessary to address the shortage of army units involved in protecting infrastructures and logistics routes.
In August 2013, the Assad government adopted Decree No. 55 “On Licenses for Private Military and Security Companies”, which introduced new rules for the regulation of PMCs in the country. Previously, there had been few security companies in the SAR due to its narrow scope of application. Damascus’s main allies, Iran and Russia, using PMCs, have found the best mechanism to strengthen and maintain their influence in Syria.
The Iranians have used private security companies to establish a presence in the SAR in areas sensitive to Iran, formally distancing themselves from participation, registering firms with Syrian law entities: registering them as local citizens. In the past, Tehran used security companies to maintain its presence on a strategic (Baghdad-Damascus) highway in the Eastern Desert and to guard convoys of Shi’ite pilgrims. Now the functions have been expanded to include the logistics of regular forces and control over the liberated territories.
Russia has used private military (security) companies to legalise fighters from the cooperating opposition, which is primarily due to the lack of manpower in the regular army. Following the reconciliation of some former Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions with the authorities, the question of how they might be integrated into the SAR forces arose. Some of them joined the 5th Corps, created under Russia’s supervision, which caused a problem in relations with other units of the government army (in particular, with the 4th Division under the command of the President’s brother Maher Assad): they refused to fight alongside with their recent opponents, as a significant number of the new fighters deserted from the Syrian army.
This has prompted the Russian military to use PMCs (such as Hunters for the Islamic State) to mobilise and reach out to recruits, mainly from the former FSA.
Supply and demand
There are now many private security companies in the SAR providing special services to all who need them. Some offer services outside the “security” category. They are similar to PMCs, which the Syrian government uses for military operations or sabotage operations. These include the same IS Hunters fighting the Islamic State (banned in the Russian Federation) in the Syrian Desert.
However, there remains a significant segment of security firms that are funded and used by local businessmen to protect banks and shopping malls, and sometimes for concerts. Since 2017, PMCs have appeared in a wider range of services, which became possible due to the introduction of the main provisions of Decree No. 55. About 65 percent of Syrian PMCs and security firms were established after the adoption of this legislation.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the National Security Department supervises its fulfilment. Companies subject to the decree provide facility protection, personal security and collection services. In order to obtain a PCS license, the company must be fully owned by SAR citizens, have an authorised capital of at least 50 million Syrian Pounds, and be headquartered in the area of operations; the company must register with the Commercial Register of the SAR. Owners, partners and management are required to be citizens of the SAR for at least five years, to be at least 35 years, to have a secondary school diploma (at least), and to have no record of forced dismissal from the civil service.
The largest and most influential in Syria are: “Company of Professionals” (founded on April 29, 2012 in Damascus; according to experts, independent as it belongs to local businessmen), Shorouk (founded on November 12, 2012 in Damascus, independent), Al-Husun (founded on March 23, 2013 in Latakia, independent), Qasioun (founded on October 28, 2013 in Damascus, controlled by Iran), SRK (founded on November 27, 2013 in Damascus, pro-Iranian), Al-Wataniya (founded on March 28, 2016 in Damascus, guided by Iran), IS Hunters (founded on March 16, 2017 in Hama, guided by the Russian Federation; Al-Kalaa (founded on October 10, 2017 in Damascus, pro-Iranian), Al-Areen (founded on October 19, 2017 in Damascus, guided by Russia), Sanad (founded on October 22, 2017 in Mask, pro-Russian), Fajr (founded on January 2, 2018 in Aleppo, pro-Iranian), Alpha (founded on February 15, 2018 in Aleppo, guided by Iran), Al-Hares (founded on May 8, 2018 in Damascus, pro-Iranian).
According to estimates by Turkish analysts from the OMRAN centre, of all registered companies, there are about 23 percent affiliated with Russia private security structures in Syria today, with Iran, it is 35 percent, and the independent are 18 percent. Twenty-three percent of PMCs are firms that have received a license but are not active. That is, they provide protection in the interests of specific business structures and are localised at the place of work.
Let’s consider the largest of these structures taking into account the number of employees and the quality of ammunition, arsenals, including lightweight turret mounted systems, mortars and armoured vehicles.
The independent company Shorouk, created with the active participation of retired SAR security personnel, played an important role in suppressing demonstration in Damascus. It retained its freedom of action despite the fact that the Iranians made several commercial offers to win the loyalty of board members. They are headquartered in the Al-Zahra District Administration building in Damascus.
Retired General Gamal El Dine Habib, Brigadier Ragheb Hamdoun and Colonel Ali Younis are members of the board. Everyone is closely linked to major businessmen in Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle: Hafez Mahluf and Yasser Kashlak. They actively participated in the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama in 1982. Colonel Ali Younis, who was an influential figure in the state security of the country before retirement, is the most authoritative.
The main contracts of the company in 2017-20218 were: the security of Al-Haïr and Ein Tarma markets, nightclubs in Damascus, Bab Tuma, Sham City, Kafr Suze, Marka Cusco, a chain of restaurants in Damascus and Aleppo, Ski Land, Shami Village, Al-Badiya cement plant and the Abu Shammat district in Al Dumayr. The staff includes more than 2000 employees, including administrative and personnel security structures, who are paid between 1500 and 4000 Syrian Pounds a day according to their specific tasks.
Affiliated with Russia, the private security company IS Hunters was formed to fight IS in Syria and is funded and trained in Latakia by former Russian military personnel. There is evidence that the direct management and training of personnel is carried out by the Russian PMC Wagner. Initially, the main task of the Hunters was to protect the gas and oil fields in West Palmyra liberated by the government forces, as well as the arsenals with weapons near the T-4 military airfield. Their activities quickly developed into direct participation in large-scale combat operations: the liberation of Palmyra and the crossing of the Euphrates during the sweep of the IS detachments from the eastern bank of the river can be noted.
According to some reports, it was the staff of this structure, together with instructors from the PMC Wagner that tried in February 2018 to seize several oil fields on the eastern shore of the Euphrates, which prompted the US aircraft and artillery strikes (“Night raid on the Kremlin”) and the subsequent information war in the media. The Russian Ministry of Defence then stated that Syrian militias came under coalition fire in the province of Deir ez-Zor because of uncoordinated actions with the Russian military. Twenty-five people were injured in the incident. There were no Russian soldiers in the area. It should be noted that when speaking of the absence of Russians in this area, the Ministry of Defence had in mind the presence of regular military personnel. According to indirect information, the PMC known as Wagner, consisting of citizens of Russia and neighbouring countries, was informally involved in the incident. Let’s clarify, these were only instructors. The main forces were Syrians, members of the IS Hunters. They suffered the main losses as a result of fire contact with the Americans, but the Kurds were almost knocked out of their positions.
According to the Pentagon, there were no Russian forces in the area where the headquarters of the Democratic Syrian Forces (DSA), which are supported by Washington, was allegedly attacked on February 7, 2018, said the then head of the US defence agency, James Mattis. The Pentagon distributed a transcript of his speech. Speaking of what happened, he said: “The Russians told us that from the very beginning their forces were not there. I think that’s as it may be, but we don’t have complete clarity about what the regime’s forces are doing there. But at least now it’s quiet there”. In this case, it was most likely a question of reconnaissance by battle to verify the determination of Americans to protect their areas of responsibility.
Instruments of influence
Participation of local PMCs in local conflicts allows their foreign curators to formally distance themselves from the “independent actions” of those. In doing so, tasks are solved where, for some political reasons, it is not advisable to engage professional military personnel. Turkish experts note that IS Hunters in the early stages of the conflict in Syria served as an unofficial tool of the Russian Armed Forces to influence the situation as an auxiliary force of the government troops and were most likely managed from the Khmeimim air base. The company’s only task at the time was to fight against IS units.
This role has changed since the official registration in March 2017 by Decree No. 55. In 2018, IS Hunters began to look more like PMCs, but retained special privileges for the use of heavy military equipment and artillery. After the Syrian army and allies occupied Palmyra in 2017, the Hunters were tasked with guarding the city’s facilities, cleaning up neighbourhoods and suburbs, monitoring the surrounding area, controlling local gas fields and securing roads such as the Homs-Palmyra highway.
When the siege was lifted from the Deir al-Zawr military airport in September 2017, the company’s personnel were deployed to clear the area around it on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, some 15 kilometres south-east of Deir al-Zawr. In November, they conducted a sweep of Hawijah Kate, capturing some 250 IS fighters.
The main tasks of the IS Hunters today are to protect the pipelines in East Homs and ensure security at all checkpoints between Syrian government forces and MSU in Deir ez-Zor province. The last relatively active participation of the Hunters in the fighting was during the battles for East Ghouta in 2018.
The Al Qala’a company (affiliated with Iran) is officially run by Syrian businessman Muhammad Dirki. Its main role is to ensure the safety of pilgrims from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq visiting Shi’ite shrines in Syria. The initial main reason Iran created and funded this formation was to protect pilgrimage convoys after the incidents when Shi’ite pilgrims were targeted for terrorist attacks in Damascus. There is evidence that the company includes Afghan Hazara, Iraqi and Lebanese Shi’ites. Later, Al Qala’a employees were involved in guarding pilgrims’ dormitories and some Shi’ite mosques. Since President Al-Assad’s forces took control of much of the desert in East Homs province, security guards have been routinely involved in logistics patrols, highways and intelligence operations.
According to Turkish experts, the Syrian Interior Ministry (and Russia) have approved the equipping of Al Qala’a with modern weapons, which has made it possible to assist pro-government private companies such as IS Hunters in securing roads, pipelines and other such facilities, mainly in the desert. When Al Qala’a was awarded the contract, it was supplied with 25 four-wheel drive jeeps equipped with large-calibre machine guns. The group’s forces are now deployed in East Homs, South Raqqah and part of the highway between Deir ez-Zor and Homs. During the Damascus International Fair 2018, the General Director of Al Qala’a said that the range of services has been expanded and since May the company is ready to protect objects, Shi’ite and commercial convoys, to carry out demining, to fight drug trafficking, to provide assistance in emergency situations and rear support of military operations.
Assad’s opponents rely on terrorist groups. For example, from December 2018 to February 2019, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jebhat al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliated group supported by the KSA) took control of the Idlib de-escalation zone (IDZ). Other militants obeyed the terrorists or left the area. The inaction of Ankara and pro-Turkish forces suggests that its security services are involved in strengthening the position of Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham in Idlib. Abu Muhammad al-Julani, leader of the Abu Muhammad al-Julani group, said he supports the plans for a technical intelligence operation against the Kurds in north-eastern Syria. His allies are Hizb-e-Islam al-Turkestani, Ajnad al-Qaucas and Hurras al-Din of al Qaeda. Militants intend to “settle” relations with the SAR government on the battlefield simultaneously with the start of Turkey’s operation in Zaevfratye. Under the leadership of Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham, the Military Council was created, to which the headquarters is subordinated, uniting representatives of groups such as the Coastal Division, Jaysh al-Izza and Sukur al-Sham. Formations reinforced by tanks and artillery are being created pointing towards Aleppo, Hama and Latakia. Forced mobilisation of young people is under way. Arms and ammunition, including man-portable air defence systems, are being supplied through Turkey. Ankara is openly failing to comply with the terms of the memorandum signed in Sochi on September 17, 2018 on the establishment of a demilitarised zone in Idlib.
The article is based on materials from the Middle East Institute expert Yu. Schelgovin.