The Insane Story of Russian Mercenaries Fighting for the Syrian Regime

11/21/2013 12:47 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014
  • James Miller Managing Editor for Interpreter Magazine, reporting on Russia, Syria, and the Middle East

It's a story fit for a Hollywood summer blockbuster. A group of roughneck mercenaries are recruited by a private military contractor to guard some expensive assets in a conflict zone. Thinking that their mission was cleared with their own government (these black ops always are), the mercs are told to leave all identifying documents and military gear behind (because the enemy's spies never sleep) and get on a plane. Upon landing in the warzone, however, nothing is as it seems. Their employers may or may not be who the mercenaries thought they were. They're not sure what their mission is, but it seems that their mission is far more dangerous than they've been told. Furthermore, their weapons and equipment are sub-par, because the nicest gear has been confiscated by the local military. Soon, the soldiers of fortune are ambushed, the chain of command is confused, and when the group starts to take hits from an overwhelming force of religious zealots, the mercenaries flee. In their chaotic retreat, precious identifying documents (which were not supposed to be taken into the warzone, but were anyway) fall into enemy hands. Barely escaping with their lives, the mercenaries finally make it home. But upon arrival, their angry employers refuse to pay them and their own government arrests their leaders.

But this is not a movie script. This actually happened in September and October, when 267 Russian mercenaries, the "Slavonic Corps," were hired to fight against Syrian rebels between Homs and Deir Ez Zor. Their employer told them that the mission had been cleared by the Russian Federal Security Services (FSB) and they were initially under the impression that the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, was hiring them to protect oil assets. Upon arrival in Syria, the mercenaries were told that their employers were private individuals, not the Syrian government, and the weapons they were told they'd be given, including T-72 tanks, were replaced by antiquated tanks that didn't run, and by makeshift armored vehicles with machine guns. Also, they soon learned that instead of guarding oil fields, they were supposed to be recapturing them from jihadists. The mission fell apart during the first sign of combat, and the Russians fled the warzone. When they touched down in Russia, however, the same FSB that they thought had OK'd the plan in the first place denied any knowledge of the operation and arrested two of the businessmen responsible for the operation.

It's easy to dismiss this story as a great read (and it really is) but a rather insignificant chapter in a complicated civil war. But there are a few details in the story that should give us all cause for concern. For instance, the head of the Slavonic Crops was a commander in the FSB reserve. New York University professor Mark Galeotti has studied the way the Russian security apparatus operates. In an interview for The Interpreter on the topic, he told me that private military contractors would need to clear all such operations with the FSB, which would mean that the FSB has placed Syria on the list of nations where foreign operations were approved. Galeotti went even further. When asked whether he thought there were more Russian mercenaries fighting for the Assad government inside Syria, he said that this was "likely," and it's not just mercenaries who are helping Assad:

"I anticipate that 'mercenary' is merely a cover story for Russian soldier or spook, just as the "Russian engineers" working on Syrian air defense systems are going to be military."

There is significant reason to believe that the FSB knew about the mission. But as Thursday's story in Foreign Policy explains, the Russian government had good reason to clip the mercenaries' wings:

It's not hard to surmise why the FSB would have turned on a company it may have given tacit support to send men into Syria. The mercenaries performed poorly in the field, and proof of their illicit activity had been plastered all over the Internet, so not tossing Gusev and Sidorov in the clink might have caused the kind of scandal that even an unembarrassable Kremlin would want to avoid. Moscow has been outspoken in its criticism of U.S. and Arab arms transfers to Syria's rebels, even as its own state arms export company dispatches more and more sophisticated hardware to Assad, according to the State Department's Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria. The Kremlin is also trying to ensure that the imperiled Geneva II peace conference takes place in December, just in time for the regime to be in a much-strengthened negotiating position after a series of tactical gains on the battlefield.

Foreign fighters in Syria are nothing new. Jihadists and volunteers from across the Islamic world have come to Syria by the hundreds, and from Iraq by the thousands, to fight against the Syrian government. Hezbollah foot soldiers and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officers have helped Assad turn the tide. Thousands of Iraqi Shiites have been ushered into Syria with the help of Iran to help prop up the Assad regime.

But all of those cases are different. Iran is under heavy economic sanctions by the United States and the EU. So are Hezbollah fighters. So, in a sense, the internationally community at large is not condoning these actions. Other foreign fighters moving into the country may have financial backing, but those ties have never been linked directly to a government or major business. On the other hand, the Russian government is supposed to be officiating a peace deal between the Assad regime and the Syrian rebels. Furthermore, as the investigation published in Foreign Policy proves, the Moran Security Group, the company behind sending the Slavonic Corps to Syria, is 50% owned by another company, Neova Holdings Ltd., which is based in the British Virgin Islands. Not only has the Caribbean territory passed its own sanctions against Syria, but so has the UK. This means that a company registered in British territory is responsible for sending mercenaries to support a government that the British, the United States, and the European Union would like to see go.

The Russian government almost assuredly knew about these mercenaries. Are there more companies like the Slavonic Corps, or was this the first disastrous test of the idea to send Russian mercenaries to Syria? Is the company responsible for sending them using Western money and resources to support the Assad regime?  We don't know (yet). But if the Russians are increasing military support for the Assad regime now that the threat of American force has been taken off the table, it could have significant implications for the negotiations, led by Russia, that are supposed to bring an end to the bloodiest chapter of the Arab uprisings.