A war on contract: The Syrian war and the soldiers of fortune

Syria’s civil war has become the single most important conflict in modern day history. After seven years of prolonged fighting and bloody civil confrontation, major involvement on behalf of foreign powers brought a dramatic change into the course of the war. What started as a series of civil protest against the rule of Bashar al Assad has transformed into a messy multilateral “royal rumble”, which now involves the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey, France, Great Britain and Israel and indirectly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, North Korea, China and a handful of other foreign participants. The price is no longer the political future of the Syrian people, but rather the redistribution of Syria’s natural resources, strategic ports and airports and the right to oversee the future infrastructural projects that will dramatically reshape the country.

The constant draining of local manpower in terms of emigration, internal displacement and death, has brought forth the need of guns for hire in order to keep the war effort alive. The same goes for any other social and economic activity which is in any degree related to the ongoing conflict. Thus, the war in Syria is no longer a purely civil conflict, but has become a full-scale mercenary war, probably the biggest since the Thirty Year’s war (1618-1648), three and a half centuries ago.

A Russian soldier guards as a military helicopter flies over Palmyra, Syria. (AP)

Many political analyzers have tried to establish a straight forward connection between the Thirty Years’ war and the Syrian conflict, using sectarian strife, tremendous civilian casualties and the prolonged duration as points of comparison. In reality any scholar who is remotely familiar with the story of the Thirty Years’ war should know that they are quite different in so many ways. In fact, the only thing they do share in common, apart form the scale of foreign involvement, is the extensive usage of mercenaries on the battlefields and in the logistics sector. Understanding the nature of XVII century warfare can help appreciate the similarities between the structure of early modern mercenary units and contemporary guns for hire in Syria.

The sinews of war

According to an ancient axiom, formulated by Cicero, ‘the sinews of war are infinite money’. With dwindling manpower potential and the inability of local players to reach any conceivable end-game result, the importance of funds over raw supplies, human resources and territorial gains has become apparent in Syria. While in the first years of the conflict local rebel factions, Islamist militias and the Government were able to somehow come up with the necessary means to support their war effort, in the long run it has been foreign financial aid that has been keeping local forces afloat. Iran has invested tremendously in repeated revival of the Assad regime, according to some estimates the sum goes near to 16 000 000 000 $ on an yearly basis, without considering many ‘under the table’ expenses, regarding Iranian proxy militias and material support for Hezbollah. Russia too has provided vast flows of cash and material aid, with daily expenditure amounting to no less than 7 000 000 $ in 2016 and probably reaching 10 000 000 $ in 2017. The US has spent even more in the context of its war on ISIS in Syria and Iraq – 10 000 000 $ a day were spent in 2016, and for the budget of 2017, 13 000 000 000$ were supposed to cover the yearly expenses on the operations in the Middle East, while the daily expenditure in the war against ISIS rose to 12.5 mln. $.

Turkish army tanks and troops gather near Hassa, in Hatay province, for push into Syria (AFP)

There are no certain figures on the Turkish involvement, but it is worth noting, that the country’s military budget was expanded by 50% in 2017 in comparison to the previous year – from 7.9 bln $ to 11 bln $. This significant increase matches Ankara’s growing participation in ground ops in northern Syria, around Afrin, Al Bab and in securing the rebel-held areas in Idlib. While these figures are interesting in their own right, it is important to know that a considerable part of those funds are spent on private contractors rather than regular forces. Recent info updates from USA show that it supports no less than 5 500 contractors on the ground, compared to some 2 000 soldiers and spacial ops units. Russia maintains a force of 4 500 troops in Syria, along some 2-3 000 military police and no less than 3 000 mercenary troops, mainly from the so-called PMC “Wagner”. While regular troops earn around 1 500$ a month, mercenaries receive at least three times that sum. Additional funds are allocated for Wagner training in Russian military facilities. Apart from the soldiers of fortune in Syria, the US also supports a vast network of contractors – both military and military-related in Iraq – probably no few than 7 500. Iran has so far been the major mercenary patron in the conflict. Tehran is paying from its own pocket for the maintenance and development of dozens of Shi’ite and Sunni militias. Their numbers are hard to estimate, with figures raging from 60 000 to 120 000 depending on the sources. While their salaries are nowhere near US or Russian guns for hire, the sheer size of the Iranian proxy contingent is sufficient to demonstrate the scale of Tehran’s financial involvement.

The local mercenary companies

Local forces have slowly transformed the chaotic initial ethos of the Syrian civil war into a hierarchical structure that runs from the bottom ( local military groups) right up to the regional level units at the top of the food chain. Small-scale units, formed on the principle of families, clans and tribes are hard to define as a classic example of “mercenaries”. These units are usually formed to protect their property and to drive away intruders from other settlements or tribes. What usually goes bellow the radar of researchers and analyzers is the fact that the Syrian civil war has got many layers and the rebel-government conflict is just one of them. Local tribes have been using the war to settle old scores. Local illegal structures have fought each other for influence redistribution and foreign criminals have fought local ones for dominance over smuggling routes. All those layers of conflict have a great influence over the structuring of local forces and are essential for understanding how and why certain groups form or fall apart. Tribal loyalties go hand in hand with religious fraternity and economic interests. Thus, the question of how the smallest level of local forces are formed and maintained can only be answered after studying regional specifics.

Syrian pro-regime forces on the outskirts of Damascus (Photo: STRINGER-AFP-Getty Images)

Smaller, platoon-sized units are quick to understand that their long-term existence can only be guarantied by merging into larger formations. Funds, food and weapons are easier to gain when you have a substantial number of mеn behind your back. That being said, the longer the conflict in Syria goes the smaller the number of tiny military units becomes. With scarce funding and the great probability of being overwhelmed by larger enemy formations, the smaller units of the Syrian war are slowly being consumed by larger alliances or singular militias. In general, the brigade-sized units are the most vital and adaptable factions in the course of the war. They are small enough to be easily supplied and large enough to hold their ground on а local level. That is visible both in the opposition ‘camp’ (for instance the pro-Turkish units in Latakia and Idlib provinces), as well as on pro-government side (the militias which fought in the siege of Aleppo in 2016/17)

The political complication of the Syrian war has led to another tendency, regarding local units – the formation of alliances and joint ‘operation rooms’. This development was greatly influenced by the inflow of foreign cash and weapons after 2014. Just as larger regiment- and brigade-sized units were better able to support themselves in comparison with platoon-sized and company-sized forces, so are bigger military joint forces better in receiving foreign support than smaller ones. Foreign aid comes only after a certain level of trust is secured and that includes proof of operational capability, which is hard to achieve on a smaller-scale level. It is obvious that Iran, the US or Turkey would rather give guns and funds to a unit of 2-3 000 men, rather than a local company-sized force of 100-200 fighters. There are some exceptions from this notion, but they only come to support the general conclusion.

Main pro-government militias

In the past two years, the war in Syria has promoted the formation of larger, division or army-sized contingents and alliances, which are now the major beneficent of foreign aid. Turkey has formed the ‘Euphrates Shield’ alliance of several thousand rebel fighters out of dozens of previous smaller local units who continue to maintain some part of their identity, but in a much more limited manner. The same goes for the so called ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ under the supervision of USA and France and the ‘National Defense Forces’, loyal to Assad and funded by Iran.

The now dissolved Sothern front was among the major „operation rooms“ in the rebel ‘camp’

The story of local Syrian contractors is the tale of growing hardship with regard to obtaining funds, guns and provisions. With the extension of the conflict in both time and territory, it has become harder and harder for small-scale forces to live on their own. Instead, they have become increasingly reliant on funding and support from bigger factions, exchanging their services for daily necessities, munitions and salaries. The larger ones, in turn, have become more and more reliant on even bigger ‘sharks’ in order to maintain their network of subjected small units and their area of influence. Thus in the long term, we are witnessing a process that has unraveled during the Thirty Years’ war – the slow subordination of smaller mercenary units to larger ones and the subordination of larger ones to local warlords. The rise of Syria’s warlords began somewhere around 2013 an reached its zenith in 2016. These local leaders were either the representatives of the Assad regime, or where part of the new rebel military elite, which formed after 2012. There where, of course, the leaders of jihadist and Islamist militias, who also rose in course of the war though a substantial part of those were actually criminals, released from jail by the regime in 2012 and 2013 in order to undermine the revolution from within. These new warlords quickly became the real power brokers in their respective areas of influence. All economic, social and military activities had to be carried out with the warlords’ blessings and thus local military units quickly became subjected to the regional ‘big boss’. These leaders were the ones negotiating with foreign powers or acting as middlemen between the government and the locals. The struggle for overcoming or subjecting the warlords has been an essential element of Russia and Iran’s policy in Syria. While Moscow sees these local leaders as dangerous for the stability of the state and a obstacle in asserting Putin’s will in the country, Iran has been far more willing to involve those figures in its own networks of patronage.

The private armies

While small-scale units, and brigade-sized factions are ultimately doomed to fall under the influence of bigger political players or local alliances, there are several military entities in Syria, that have evolved into more or less self-sufficient structures, which are harder to manipulate from the outside. These units can be labeled private armies, since their size and equipment far surpasses the limited capabilities of local militias. The largest private armies in Syria are without doubt Hezbollah and YPG. Hezbollah has deployed over 12 000 fighters in the apex of its involvement in 2016, and that number still goes over 8 000, even though the organization has suffered considerable casualties during military operations in Deir ez Zor, Aleppo and Damascus. Hezbollah’s presence in Syria has become more and more complicated by the involvement of Russia and in recent days – Israel. This means that the organization must now look up to Iran for support, which will greatly limit its autonomy.

Group of Hezbollah fighters take position in Sujoud village in south Lebanon
Hezbollah troops during ops in Syria

The YPG also reached its zenith in 2016, gathering massive support in the context of its confrontation with the Islamic State. The Kurdish armed force of PKK in Syria has some 50 000 men and women under arms and has struggled far and wide in order to gain a maximal level of self-sufficiency in terms of funds, guns and provisions. Even though the YPG has achieved a remarkable growth in terms of size, armament and territory under its control, it is still vastly dependent on material support and training from the US and France.

Apart from these two examples, there are a few other private armies, which can be noted. In the past year and a half, the IRGC, Iran’s foreign legion, has become more and more involved in Syria. Even though Tehran officially denies any ground participation of its forces, the IRGC has been present in Syria at least since 2015. Its involvement is related not only to the actual participation of Iranian soldiers in the combat activities, but also in serving as a coordination center for Iran’s proxies on the ground. Thus, the IRGC now has a certain level of autonomy and operates only under general direction from the government, while local initiatives are left in the hands of Iranian generals, sent on the ground in Syria and Iraq.

The so-called Hayat Tahrir al Sham – Al Qaeda’s former branch in Syria is by all means another of the major private armies of the Syrian war. Formed as an alliance of radical Islamist militias in the Idlib province, gathered around Al Nusra, the HTS has become the most important power-broker in North-West Syria prior to Turkey’s involvement. Thus far, HTS operates as an independent military authority, which combines religions, social and economic functions along with strategic and tactical tasks. This multitask existence is part of each of the local forces’ nature since most big factions and alliances must also govern the areas of operation given the lack of any meaningful central authority, even in the areas which are under the control of pro-government forces.

The course of the Syrian war leads to a trend, visible in the Thirty Years’ war – the inevitable downfall of private armies. While in the short term these entities can operate on a rather unlimited level, the extension of the conflict and the growing dependance on foreign financial and military aid means that the mercenaries are becoming more and more reliant on state funding, whether coming from the almost bankrupt government in Damascus or from Washington, Ankara, Tehran or Moscow. All of the major foreign players are looking to promote legitimacy in order to achieve political stability in their respective areas of influence. This means that in the long run, all big factions will look for a way to subject and in the end eliminate the mercenary structures.

The foreign mercenaries

While local mercenary forces are becoming extinct, foreign guns for hire are going to play an essential role in the later stages of the Syrian war. We already noted the PMC Wagner who, although a private army, are under strict control on behalf of the Putin administration. Their patron – Yevgeny Prigozhin (called ‘Putin’s Chef’) has helped establish ‘Wagner’ as a state-obedient private company, which, unlike US private contractors, is supposed to become an off the books element of Russia’s army – i.e. – Russia seeks to maintain a much higher level of centralization and subordination with regard to the mercenaries it uses in comparison to the United States. Russia aims to improve and expand its mercenary project, using Syria as a test-drive spot. Wagner has already undertaken contracts in the Central African Republic and Sudan, and there are options for Libya as well. Other military companies like E.N.O.T. And MS Group have already been deployed in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere. In general, Putin looks at the mercenary deployment as yet another tool for expanding political influence.

Russian private military units and their deployment

The USA is also betting on military contractors to carry the burden of military commitment. Its guns for hire in Syria and Iraq are probably three or four times the size of the Russian mercenary contingent and their tasks are quite more diverse in terms of territorial spread and tactical and strategic goals. Washington also supports a large number of contractors, who are not directly linked to actual fighting. Logistics for bot US and allied units has been undertaken by a number of private contractors as well as the technical maintenance of bases and infrastructure. The United States have established a dozen military bases in Syria alone and their construction and support comes form a number of private companies, hired by the US. In the long term, with growing pressure from China in the Far East and Russia in Europe, the US will seek more options to employ mercenaries in the Middle East in order to preserve its regular forces for higher-priority deployments, such as Eastern Europe or the Pacific.

Iran is also expanding its private army of militias in Syria and Iraq. The Hashd al Shaabi in Iraq have grown into a force of at least 100 000 men. Even though their fighting abilities are lagging behind in comparison to regular forces, their sheer number (as in the case of Iranian proxies in Syria)  is again enough to demonstrate the level of influence, which Tehran can exercise. In Syria, the Iranian effort has been supplemented by a massive resettlement policy by the Assad regime, which aims at establishing a considerable number of Shites in Syria, especially in strategic areas around the capital Damascus and the larger cities such as Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Latakia. A lot of the foreign fighters, brought in by Iran from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan have been promised land and citizenship in addition to substantial, by local terms, payment. Thus, Iran aims not only to maintain a considerable number of armed supporters, but also to establish a more permanent presence in Syria, transforming short term mercenaries into long-term military landowners, a modern, abroad version of the Medieval military frontier farmer-soldiers, popular in the Middle East and the Balkans.

The Jihadists

While states are the main employers of hired guns, the jihadist groups in the Middle East have also become involved in the mercenary market. The Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or Daesh, has been a leading example of how a smaller-scale group, initially left unhindered by the government and allowed to infiltrate rebel-held areas, has grown into a local military power, which deploys both its own and hired fighters. During its apex in 2014-2015, ISIS probably had no less than 100 000 men under arms. A substantial part of these were foreigners, mainly from Asia, but also from Europe and Africa. With daily income reaching over 2 000 000$ just from illicit oil trade, ISIS were able to by guns, provisions and men on an unprecedented scale. Given the highly sectarian rhetoric of its followers, it is hard to distinguish mercenaries from acolytes when it comes to the Daesh rank and file. Even so, a substantial part of their fighters were less motivated by religion and more by the fact that ISIS distributed salaries two or three times bigger than does, available to their local opponents in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State was even able to hire private military contractors, who provided training, advice and military expertise to the group. The group also employed hired help with regard to its extensive military industry. On the ground, recruiters were agitating people with technical and scientific skills to join the ISIS weapons manufacturing in exchange for additional food rations, money and security for their families.

The other major jihadist structure in the region – Al Qaeda and its affiliates have operated more or less in the same fashion. The difference comes not so much from the technical aspects of how mercenaries and helpers are recruited, but rather in the level of political and administrative involvement, displayed by Al Qaeda. In Syria, Al Nusra were recruiting smaller local factions and units in its ranks. Later on, HTS continued this practice, growing into a separate employer. Apart from military-related support, the jihadists tend to hire smuggler teams, treasure hunters, human traffickers and drug dealers and use them as tools for economic profit and as a source of additional funding for military operations.

Outside of the military box

Apart from the usual military assistance, mercenaries are also employed for a number of non-combat tasks. As already mentioned, the US is using a number of private contractors in order to maintain its military logistics, but also the bases of operation and the infrastructure. A number of studies and journalist inquiries has revealed that Washington has deployed a large number of media contractors in order to fight the prolonged information war in Syria and Iraq, not only against the jihadist factions, but also against the political opponents – Iran and Russia. On the other side of the scale, Russia and Iran have also spent millions for a media campaign against the US and local rebel factions in Syria. The so-called hybrid war has raged ever since 2010, with Syria providing a sample battleground for opposing media armies and the so-called Internet trolls. Russia alone spent 2.3 million dollars in a single year to pay a certain number of ‘trolls’, not to mention the official media propaganda. The same goes for Iran as well, where the government has been using its funding to support am massive campaign for the popularization of Teheran’s war efforts in Syria and Iraq.

The prospects of a future end of the Syrian war draw even more possible contractors. The upcoming rebuilding of the country will require major investments and the employment of dozens of companies for the reestablishing of infrastructure, the energy sector, agriculture, water support and, of course, oil and gas production. Russia, Iran and the US are already racing to obtain as many oil and gas fields under their influence as possible. Turkey has also deployed its private civil contractors in Idlib to reinvigorate the province and strengthen local support for Ankara. In the future we will see many more building companies, gas and petroleum giants and electric companies flocking toward Syria and Iraq and looking for profitable options for investment and employment of their services. So far, the only major private companies that have greatly benefited from the war in Syria are the arms dealers, with shipments coming from all over the world, North Korea included.


The war in Syria has become a lucrative endeavor for a number of contractors – both military and civil. Stated sponsored or state-hired companies go hand in hand with private enterprises in a complicated pattern of internal and external military, social and economic networks. The long-term development of the Syrian war will inevitably lead to the disappearance of small-scale mercenary and contractor initiatives, leaving only the bigger players on the chess board. As always, state blessing remains a
condicio sine qua non for private contractors. Thus, even at certain points mercenaries and tycoons can act as if independent and unlimited in terms of power and influence, in reality, their options are of limited number, and the time frames for acting unchecked become smaller and smaller as times goes by and the need for resources and funds reaches levels, available only to state-level players. After thirty years of war, the states of Europe were finally able to reign in their mercenary subordinates and place upon them the constrains, on which contemporary political and military establishments are founded. The same will, eventually, happen in Syria. We have already seen the process beginning with certain militias being disbanded in Syria by Iran and the Assad regime. Also, the usage of Russian and Turkish police forces has greatly limited the activities of local militias in both government and rebel-held areas, while the US military are keeping a strict eye over the Kurds. Local players in Syria still have a lot of options in the Middle Eastern Game of Thrones. These options, however, are diminishing on a monthly basis and sooner or later, the fate of the conflict will ultimately and entirely fall in to the hands of states.

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