Authorities in Syria and Russian military commanders took swift measures against local Wagner operatives to prevent an uprising in Russia from spreading to the Middle Eastern nation, six sources familiar with the matter have told Reuters, after mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin ordered his men to march on Moscow last month.
The crackdown included ordering mercenary fighters to sign new contracts with the Russian defence ministry or promptly leave Syria, Syrian officials and other sources based near deployed Russian forces said.
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Damascus did not publicly comment on the June 23-24 Wagner mutiny, in which Prigozhin ordered his men fighting for Russia in Ukraine to march on the Russian capital before a deal brokered by Belarus saw them turn back.
As they watched events unfolding, senior Syrian military and intelligence officials privately voiced concern that the mutiny could disrupt the Russian military presence they had relied on for so long, according to a senior Syrian Republican Guard officer and a Syrian source briefed on developments.
Russia deployed its military forces and, crucially, its airpower to Syria in 2015, helping President Bashar al-Assad beat back rebels intent on toppling him. Wagner has since been involved in combat missions and security for oil installations in Syria, with the first suspected Wagner deaths there reported as early as 2015.
“Assad was counting on strengthening his alliance with Prigozhin and was considering increasing the number of fighters considerably to help him retake western Syria,” Karam Shaar, senior fellow at the New Lines Institute, told Al Jazeera.
Now “he will have to fall back in line with the Kremlin’s position, while in the past he was able to talk to each party separately” with a level of autonomy, Shaar said.
A group of Russian military officers were quickly dispatched to Syria to help take charge of Wagner forces there, according to a regional military source close to Damascus and two Syrian sources with knowledge of the events, who did not provide further details.
About a dozen Wagner officers deployed in Syria’s central province of Homs and other areas were summoned to Russia’s operational base at Hmeimim, in western Latakia province, according to the Republican Guard officer and one of the Syrian sources briefed on the developments. The officer said this occurred “in the early hours of the mutiny”.
Syria’s military intelligence cut landlines and internet links overnight on June 23 from areas where Russian Wagner forces were deployed to prevent them from communicating among themselves, with Wagner in Russia, and even with relatives back home, the three sources said.
By the morning of June 24, Syrian military intelligence and Russian defence officials were coordinating closely to isolate and control Wagner operatives, according to the senior Republican Guard officer, a Syrian security source and two Syrian sources briefed on the developments.
Wagner fighters in Syria were asked to sign new contracts in which they would report directly to Russia’s defence ministry and their pay would be cut, a source with knowledge of Wagner’s deployments and two other sources with knowledge of the events said.
Those who refused the terms were flown out on Russian Ilyushin planes in the following days, two of those sources said. One said they numbered “in the dozens,” surprising Syrian officials who expected more would refuse and head into exile.
Between June 25 and 27, flight-tracking data from Flightradar24 shows at least three trips by a Russian Ilyushin plane between Latakia, Syria and Bamako, the capital of the West African nation of Mali, where Wagner also has operations. Reuters could not establish whether Wagner personnel were on board the flights.
The fate of Wagner assets in Syria remains unclear, including Syrian oilfields under Evro Polis, a company linked to Wagner that Western officials have said profits from those assets. The European Union imposed sanctions on the firm in 2021.
According to Shaar, “What’s going to happen with Wagner’s economic interests in Syria is that the Kremlin – basically Putin – will replace Prigozhin and take over his investments.”
The mercenary group’s presence in Syria is relatively small, at between 250 and 450 personnel, or roughly 10 percent of the estimated Russian military strength, Syrian sources said, according to Reuters. There are no official figures on staffing, which vary over time.
For years, Moscow denied any connection with Wagner, but the group has played a very public role in Russia’s war in Ukraine. Putin said after the mutiny that his government funds the group.
In the wake of the Wagner uprising, Syria’s leadership quickly restated publicly the importance of its military alliance with Russia.
“The Syrian government’s relationship with Russia goes back many decades, all the way to the Soviet 1950s,” Aron Lund, a fellow at Century International, told Al Jazeera.
“Now with the war [in Ukraine], Russia’s direct presence in Syria and the military, diplomatic, and other support it provides for Damascus – all that is invaluable to the Assad regime. Keeping Russia engaged and supportive is an existential issue at this point.”
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s son Hafez, a potential successor to his father, graduated with honours from Moscow State University days after Prigozhin’s mutiny.
On that occasion, Syrian first lady Asmaa al-Assad “took the opportunity to restate Syria’s support for Russia,” Lund said.
“Our Russian friends did not hesitate when they stood with us in our war,” she was quoted by Russian media as saying. “So we did not hesitate, and we won’t hesitate, to stand with them in their war.”