Russian mercenaries, a discrete weapon in Syria

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad visits a Russian air base at Hmeymim, in western Syria in this handout photo posted on SANA on June 27, 2017, Syria. (REUTERS)
Updated 18 February 2018
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Russian mercenaries, a discrete weapon in Syria

MOSCOW: The death of Russian citizens in Syria from a US coalition strike last week, which has been played down by both Moscow and Washington, has exposed the role of Russian mercenaries in the multi-front conflict.
The incident followed a steady trickle of reports about Russians dying in battle in Syria while employed as guns for hire in a privately-owned outfit whose role may be securing oilfields for President Bashar Assad.
Russia on Thursday has finally recognized that five Russian citizens, not officially affiliated with the Russian military, were likely killed in the strikes in eastern Syria, in the first admission of non-military combat casualties.
The US had said the coalition acted in self-defense when an enemy unit of 300-500 people launched an attack on an established SDF position east of the Euphrates river in Deir Ezzor province.
The coalition warned the Russian military and proceeded to strike the formation, killing up to 100 people. The Russian military said it had no troops in the area.
While US officials have refused to disclose the nationality of the attackers, various reports indicated a death toll of up to several hundred Russians from the strike.
Russia can legally prosecute mercenaries under an existing law which has been applied against several citizens fighting in Ukraine and Syria in recent years.
In 2014, two Russian men, Vadim Gusev and Yevgeny Sidorov, were sentenced to three years in prison after they recruited over 200 former military soldiers to an outfit called the Slavonic Corps for a trip to Syria’s Deir Ezzor.
According to Fontanka website, which has chronicled the involvement of private military contractors in Syria, the Slavonic Corps later became the core of a new mercenary group recruited by former member Dmitry Utkin, nicknamed Wagner.
The Wagner group has no website or social networking page, instead attracting men with military experience through word of mouth.
Utkin and the Wagner group was blacklisted by the US Treasury in 2016 for having “recruited and sent soldiers to fight alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine.”
It is known to train at a military base in a village called Molkino outside Krasnodar in southern Russia. According to Fontanka, the Wagner group has fought in Syria since late 2015.
Unlike Gusev and Sidorov, Wagner has not been prosecuted. Instead, he was honored in the Kremlin in December 2016. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at the time that Utkin was invited as a decorated military veteran.

According to Fontanka, Wagner is associated with a Russian company Yevro Polis, which has signed a deal with the Syrian government.
Under the deal, the company would capture and secure oil and gas infrastructure in Syria in exchange for a 25 percent share in future resource production.
Fontanka has tied Yevro Polis to the empire of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Saint-Petersburg businessman running the company Concord Catering which controls several restaurant businesses and has won many contracts from the Russian defense ministry.
Prigozhin, and Concord Catering, were blacklisted by the US Treasury for “having materially assisted” Russian officials and being tied to a company building a military base near Ukraine’s border. Yevro Polis is also on the blacklist.
The US special prosecutor investigating Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election indicted Prigozhin Friday for running an influence campaign on the Internet through a “troll farm” company in Saint-Petersburg.
Prigozhin has denied ties both to the Internet company and to Wagner group.
Mercenaries not directly affiliated with the Russian military may be convenient for Moscow’s business interests in Syria while assuring deniability of government involvement.
But after numerous reports of casualties in Syria and capture of two Russians, reportedly from the Wagner group, by Daesh last year, Russian officials have called for legalizing mercenaries.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in January said legislation was needed to “protect these people,” referring to Russians in private military companies.
“Everybody understands the need for a law,” said Mikhail Yemelyanov, an MP in the Just Russia party, who is one of the authors of a bill on private military companies currently being reviewed by government.
Asked if the need was due to Russians fighting in Syria, Yemelyanov told AFP that it’s “because it’s not just Russians fighting there” and because private military companies are legal in many countries.
Some reports have said that the Russian defense ministry did not know about Russian citizens fighting in the area at the time of the US coalition strike. This would be impossible under the new bill, Yemelyanov said.
“We wrote in the bill that the defense ministry would coordinate and that participation in armed conflicts would only be with their permission,” he said.
“If our bill would be passed, everyone would know who is fighting where.”


5 years after mall Kenya attack, Al-Shabab’s threat grows

Updated 26 min 45 sec ago
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5 years after mall Kenya attack, Al-Shabab’s threat grows

  • Analysts say the Somalia-based extremist group has been pushed down Africa’s east coast as far as Mozambique
  • The Al-Qaeda-linked extremist group has vowed retribution on Kenya for sending troops to Somalia since 2011

NAIROBI: Five years after Al-Shabab fighters burst into a luxury shopping mall in Kenya’s capital, hurling grenades and starting a days-long siege that left 67 people dead, analysts say the Somalia-based extremist group has been pushed down Africa’s east coast as far as Mozambique as its regional threat expands.
The assault on Westgate Mall on a sunny weekend afternoon horrified the world and exposed weaknesses in Kenya’s security forces after it took them hours to respond. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta promised reforms.
Now the government of East Africa’s commercial hub is praising itself, saying security forces have effectively limited attacks to areas near the Somali border. “We learnt our mistakes and corrected them,” police Inspector General Joseph Boinnet told reporters this week, pointing out real-time intelligence sharing among security agencies.
Analysts, however, say few sustainable lessons have been learned while Al-Shabab, the deadliest Islamic extremist group in sub-Saharan Africa, has changed its strategy with devastating effects.
The Al-Qaeda-linked extremist group has vowed retribution on Kenya for sending troops to Somalia since 2011. The group has killed hundreds of people inside Kenya, which has been targeted more than any other of the six countries providing troops to an African Union force in Somalia.
“Al-Shabab’s goal in carrying out attacks outside Somalia is to pressure authorities within the region to pull their troops out of Somalia. That aim has not been achieved and all indications are that the movement continues to plot assaults in cities across East Africa to advance its objectives,” said Murithi Mutiga, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.
A new report by the think tank says some Al-Shabab extremists previously based on the Kenyan coast have moved south into Tanzania and, in response to crackdowns there, relocated into northern Mozambique and forged ties with local fighters.
The Kenyan government’s initial response to the Westgate attack, involving blanket arrests of Muslims and indiscriminate crackdowns aimed at ethnic Somalis, inflamed communities and made matters worse, Mutiga said.
The government later changed its approach and appointed local ethnic Somalis to lead security operations in the northeast near the Somali border.
That area, however, has seen growing attacks by Al-Shabab that have killed more than 100 police officers since May 2017.
“Kenyan security officials seem to have failed to contain that threat,” Mutiga said. Other major attacks since Westgate in the region, often targeting Christians, have included massacres of bus passengers and the assault on Garissa University in 2015 that left 147 people dead.
The pressure on Al-Shabab since Westgate has included training and counterterrorism equipment provided by Western countries including the US and Britain.
The attack also changed the way Kenyan institutions are protected. Shopping malls, office buildings, university campuses, government facilities and the main airport have invested substantial sums in additional security, including surveillance.
As Al-Shabab focuses its attacks largely on Christians in Kenya’s Muslim-majority border communities, it has managed to stall economic activity and education, said Kenya-based security analyst and former US Marine Andrew Franklin. Many children who drop out of school as teaching staff flee become targets for recruitment by the extremists.
Kenyans make up the majority of Al-Shabab’s foreign fighters.
While economic activity in the borderlands weakens and corruption grows, morale and effectiveness of security forces has eroded, Franklin said.
There is a “tremendous amount of complacency” among security agencies, he said, leading to the conclusion that senior officials have little interest in countering Al-Shabab’s insurgency.
For Andrew Munya, who was injured in the Westgate attack when shrapnel hit his left shoulder, Kenya will not be safe until Al-Shabab is dealt with for good.
“There is no difference whether a life is lost in the border areas or in the city,” said Munya, who later became a security consultant while vowing to never to let his community and family become victims. “All life is precious and must be protected.”