Reports of Russian mercenaries fighting on the ground in Syria have resurfaced, raising further questions about the involvement of Russia in the war between the Assad government and various factions of rebels. Since 2013, Russian private military companies (PMCs) have operated in Syria alongside the Spetsnaz, Russia’s premier special operations units, to support the Syrian regime in ground fighting. Most notably, the Slavonic Corps, a PMC made up of former Russian special forces, was hired by the Syrian government to protect its assets and natural resources from rebel fighters. Although the presence of military contractors likely will not heavily impact the course of the civil war, it does provide some insight into Russia’s commitment to Syria and larger geostrategic vision.
The latest reports of Russian involvement in Syria with PMCs follow increased airstrikes on rebel forces in Aleppo, some of which were conducted from an Iranian air base. It is unclear whether or not the reappearance of Russian ground fighters in conjunction with the elevated airstrikes represent a broader Russian effort to defend the Assad regime. Just as the Slavonic Corps protected Syrian resources on the ground, Russia’s general commitment to its ally corresponds with the federation’s financial interests. An increase in cooperation between rebel groups comprising the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), such as Kurdish and Arab militias, may have compelled the Syrian and Russian governments to increase retaliation efforts. As the amount of territory held by the Islamic State in Iraq in the Levant (ISIL) has decreased significantly, the regime’s allies may have ramped up attacks to further degrade the terrorist organization. In addition to supporting its ally in the region, Russia is motivated by the presence of up to 200 Russian citizens participating as foreign fighters in support of ISIL in Syria. Just as the European states from which a vast number of foreign fighters hail have increased efforts to prevent domestic attacks from returning militants, Russia considers radical Islamic terrorism, mainly from Chechen Russians, to be a high priority.
American and coalition involvement in the conflict continues to weigh heavily on halting the growth of ISIL rather than the success of rebel forces against the Assad regime. Although Washington has been irked by Russia’s targeting of American-backed rebels, it is unlikely that America will increase participation in the war in direct response to the presence of Russian ground forces. Unless a deal is negotiated, despite dwindling efforts by Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov, the United States will likely restrict its operations to limited airstrikes and covert activities on the ground.
Just as they are being employed in Syria, Russian PMCs may have a future as an important tool for the Kremlin in its increasingly active foreign policy. Laws to legalize military contractors have previously been proposed and rejected by the Russian Duma. Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, suggested in 2011 that mercenaries could function as an effective tool of achieving foreign policy goals without direct Russian involvement. Public opinion on their use tends to vary. According to one study, 78% of respondents did not support the deployment of Russian PMCs. Currently, Russia finds itself operating—officially or not—in two major foreign conflicts, namely, the Syrian Civil War and the conflict in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Given the struggling Russian economy, deploying PMCs to accomplish covert military operations could offset high national security costs. There are, however, ethical questions to consider in the growth of a private military sector. Although effective, the conduct of military contractors in war zones has been scrutinized in the past, most notably during the Iraq War. And as suggested in Russian opinion polls, military contractors tend to lack public support given their prioritization of financial benefits over patriotism.
(1) "FSB Worried About Russian Fighters in Syria." The Moscow Times. N.p., 17 May 2013. Web.
(2) Isenberg, David. "From Russia, With War." Lobe Log. N.p., 17 Mar. 2016. Web.
(3) Galeotti, Mark. "Moscow's Mercenaries in Syria." War on the Rocks. N.p., 5 Apr. 2016. Web.
Image: © Olegkozyrev | Dreamstime.com - Protest the Syrian Diaspora against Russia\'s support of Assad\'s regime
Matt Hinson is a senior in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University studying International History with a focus on religion & violence in the modern Middle East. His research interests include civil wars, terrorism, and national security.