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Western mercenaries ready for Syria, Russians already there

Although US President Donald Trump has announced a pullout of troops from Syria and a draw-down in Afghanistan, the fighting continues.

Waiting to make a killing are the "Dogs of War" - men who fight not for flags, but for cash. As pullouts leave geopolitical vacuums that invite or intensify conflict, the business forecast looks upbeat for "private military contractors," or PMCs - the polite corporate term for "mercenaries."

There is considerable speculation underway as to whether US PMCs - and the man who had led the American sector, Erik Prince of former blue-chip PMC Blackwater - will fill the vacuum created by Trump. However, the sector is in flux.

American and other Western contractors in recent years have profited by operating on the margins of - and under the aegis provided by - coalition and NATO military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is not the case in Syria, nor is it likely to be the future case in Afghanistan.

Moreover, Western PMCs face rising competition from market entrants with a more aggressive and risk-tolerant approach: Russian PMCs. While a war-weary West retreats from the Middle East, Russian mercenaries are benefitting from Moscow's play in Syria.

Unlike the support and security roles that are Western PMCs' stock-in-trade, the Russians are engaging in direct action. With Moscow's combat operations in Syria largely restricted to air and special forces missions, PMCs provide a proxy ground force that a casualty-averse Kremlin can keep "off the books" when it comes to body bags coming home.

Prince probes for a role

Given that the Prince-led Blackwater was the pinnacle of Western PMCs in recent years, there was excitement in US circles when Recoil magazine - "The ultimate firearms destination for the gun lifestyle" - carried a full-page ad featuring the words "WE ARE COMING" and a Blackwater logo.

The excitement was premature. Robert Young Pelton, a combat reporter who was among the first people to write about Prince, said the ad was placed by Blackwater Ammunition, a Malta-based company that sells munitions, not military services.

This does not mean PMCs are ignoring opportunities in Afghanistan and Syria. Prince and his allies have been waging a PR campaign to urge Washington to turn its training and advising mission in Afghanistan over to the private sector.

Prince first shared his idea in a May 31, 2017, op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. His ambition to deploy 5,500 private contractors, mostly former commandos, as advisors, along with a 90-aircraft private air force to provide close-air support, was laid out in an August 8 USA Today article. More details were revealed in a September 2018 Military Times article.

White House resignations are aligning in Prince's favor. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor HR McMaster were all reportedly opposed to Prince's proposal. All are now gone.

The announced pullouts indicate that Trump is losing faith in his generals. One of Prince's key arguments is that contractors are cheaper than national troops - a message that might click with Trump, who complains frequently about military costs.

Sean McFate, a former US Army officer and private military contractor who wrote The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies And What They Mean For World Order and has a new book, The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder imminent, reckons the time is right.

"Erik Prince has been waiting in the wings for Mattis and General Kelley to leave, and he is then going to re-pitch his Afghanistan plan to the president, who, I am told, is sympathetic to it," he told Asia Times. "Previously, the generals had blocked a one-on-one meeting, but they are all gone. There is a high likelihood they will meet."

He predicted that Prince "will pitch a simple plan, basically a handwave that we can solve all these problems with 6,500 contractors." McFate characterized that plan as "absurd."

But with Trump seeking "simple solutions to complex problems," McFate believes that if Prince actually gets to meet Trump, he may also pitch Syria. "Syria is now a better opportunity to demonstrate proof of concept" than Afghanistan, McFate said.

Indeed, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has opposed Prince's idea, making it non-viable. But major questions also dangle over the feasibility of a Syrian intervention by a US PMC.

The Russian model

In Syria's complex, high-casualty warscape, PMC boots are already on the ground. Secretive Russian company Wagner Group has been operating in Syria since 2015 - the first foreign PMC to operate there. And it is taking a far more aggressive approach to the business than Prince.

Western mercenaries in Africa in the 1960s and '70s were employed as war fighters in theaters like Congo and Biafra. But in recent years in Afghanistan and Iraq, increasingly sophisticated UK and US PMCs such as Blackwater, DynCorp, G4S, Control Risks and Aegis Defence Services have - largely, though not entirely - confined themselves to training, supply and logistics, and to protection of facilities, vehicle convoys, shipping and personnel.

Wagner's model is more muscular. Russian PMCs - which, like their Western equivalents, frequently recruit from the expanding pool of retired commandos who are vital assets of 21st-century militaries - do similar work to Western PMCs, similar to Prince's proposal for Afghanistan. For example, they conduct training in Africa.

However, they are also assets which, employed by high command rather than commercial clients, engage in actual combat operations.

Contractors have been used kinetically in the Ukraine and Syria. Wagner deploys contractors as light infantry - the most dangerous job on any battlefield, and more casualty intensive than the small-scale operations special forces conduct.

This role is useful for Moscow, which, following bloody interventions in Afghanistan and Chechnya, has, like Western capitals, grown casualty sensitive. As contractors, Wagner - and various other paramilitary, "volunteer" and "Cossack" forces that have emerged across President Vladimir Putin's Russia - personnel are not official Russian soldiers.

Yet, according to reports, Wagner personnel use Russian state facilities - bases, aircraft and hospitals - and are even awarded Russian state medals.

Wagner may enjoy the kind of high-level political connections that Prince can only dream of. The company was reportedly founded by Colonel Dmitri Uktin of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence unit accused in the attempted assassination of ex-spy Sergei Skripal in the UK. Russian media suggest that oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an associate of Putin, oversees Wagner.

However, Wagner's official connections remain murky. In a still-shady episode, Wagner reportedly suffered severe casualties - estimates from various sources range from 13 to 200 - when it came under US air strikes as it advanced on a Syrian Democratic Force position at Khasham in February 2018.

Russian air assets, apparently, were not supporting Wagner's operation - possibly due to a dispute between Prigozhin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Support from above

Regardless of the reason, Wagner's lack of air support on that operation served as a warning for Western contractors seeking roles in the region: They will likely be operating without the air superiority they enjoyed while fighting under their national flags.

Prince's grandiose plan involves an armed air component, and he has experience employing various aviation assets, ranging from Little Bird helicopters when Blackwater operated in Iraq, or cargo aircraft, when Blackwater created Presidential Airways, or, most recently, trying to create his own fleet of anti-insurgent gunships.

Whether a Western PMC would be able to operate under the guns of the Russian Air Force in Syria is open to question. And if such a private air force was employed, it would be moving much closer to the more risk-tolerant Russian PMC model.

Another question is whether a US PMC could engage Russians troops or a Russian PMC. There are few precedents for such a situation; McFate believes that if it transpired, it could escalate.

Still, before such risk can be calibrated, the first question any Western mercenary executive would need to ask himself is where he should pitch his business. Which countries are aligned with Western interests, are politically or militarily engaged in Syria and have cash?

"Future foreign forces in Syria are more likely to be funded by Saudi Arabia and UAE," said Pelton. As those two countries are already using mercenaries to fight in Yemen, that looks feasible.

Pelton believes Prince has reasons to engage in Syria or Afghanistan. "Prince needs money," the combat reporter said. "Many of his past projects have not worked out or even melted down and have cost him money."

Protection vs combat

Still, Prince has made no moves yet. In fact, questions hang over whether Prince even remains in the business. He has repeatedly said he is out, since selling Blackwater.

Yet, not all his connections have been severed. The firm named Blackwater is now called Academi and is part of a larger group called Constellis, which also includes companies such as Triple Canopy and Olive Group Capital Ltd.

Academi's website said it seeks "professionals from the private sector as well as former US military and law enforcement," while Constellis's website said it was an "experienced provider of security services in high-risk environments, remote areas and emerging markets in support of land-based, aviation, maritime and cyber operations."

Prince appears to have figured out that natural resource companies staffed by ex-mercenaries, such as his own Frontier Resources Group - "A private equity fund investing in natural resource opportunities in frontier markets" - can fly under the radar, such as in troubled South Sudan. He uses proxies like Lancaster 6 run by Christiaan Durrant in Malta.

A richer future in the natural resources security space may beckon Western PMCs than the Afghanistan or Syrian conflicts. As the International Institute for Security Studies points out, Western and South African PMCs have found lucrative work in this line - protecting natural resources and related companies in African nations racked by chaos - since the 1990s.

They are not alone. Wagner is already engaged in the Central African Republic - possibly offering security for diamond mines - and there are rumors of its presence in Sudan.

Prince, meanwhile, is coy on future plans. Lancaster 6 was contacted multiple times by email for this article, but there was no response.

In this, as in military operations, the Western PMC model looks - if not responsive to journalistic inquiries - less florid than the PR tactics of their Russian equivalents. According to The Atlantic, four Russian reporters investigating Wagner's operations have suffered mysterious deaths and one has gone into hiding.

[Source: By David Isenberg and Andrew Salmon, Asia Times, Bankok, 15Jan19]

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small logoThis document has been published on 22Jan19 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.