Originally Published on The Jamestown Foundation
The advance into the oil and natural gas–rich northeastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and supported by Russian bombing sorties has been heralded by the Kremlin as “a very important strategic victory.” The besieged provincial capital of Deir el-Zour was relieved by September 5. Russian sappers built a 210-meter floating bridge over the Euphrates, and pro-al-Assad forces established a bridgehead on the north side of the river in an apparent attempt to capture oil and natural gas fields before they could be occupied by elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF—a militia alliance, including Arab and Kurdish fighters, backed by the United States). SDF fighters, together with US Special Forces moved into Deir el-Zour province following the left (northern) bank of the Euphrates, while pro-al-Assad forces, supported by the Russians, were moving in the same direction following the right (southern) bank of the river. Clearing out the Islamic State (IS) and taking over the entire province of Deir el-Zour is seen in Moscow as an essential step on the way to full victory—restoring the rule of the al-Assad government over the entire country (see EDM, September 28).
After the initial successes, the push by pro-al-Assad and Russian forces through the Syrian desert into Deir el-Zour ran into serious trouble in late September. IS fighters continue to hold parts of Deir el-Zour city and are resisting attempts by pro-al-Assad forces to expand their zone of control to other parts of the province. Mobile IS attack columns have been harassing the extended supply connection through the desert from Palmira to Deir el-Zour, reportedly inflicting serious casualties (Vz.ru, October 10). Footage of two Russians taken captive during a counteroffensive by IS forces in Deir el-Zour province were posted on the Internet by the terrorist group. The two were identified as contract fighters (“Cossacks”), reportedly employed by the notorious private military company (known in Russia as a Chastnye Voennie Companiy—ChVK) “Vagner,” which has been involved in combat operations in the Donbas region of Ukraine on the side of Moscow-backed rebels and in Syria. Both Russian prisoners were apparently executed by IS fighters (Novaya Gazeta, October 5).
The Russian military boasted that the relentless aerial bombing campaign by the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskye Sily—VKS) “smashed the economic infrastructure of ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—a former name for the Islamic State] in Syria, and the terrorists cannot extract or sell contraband oil,” according to defense ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov. He added, “They [IS] cannot finance the procurement of arms and munitions or the recruitment of fighters; the Syrian army with the help of the VKS will surely smash ISIS in Deir el-Zour” (Militarynews.ru, October 10).
The oil revenues from Deir el-Zour that the VKS reportedly denied the Islamic State could prop up al-Assad’s government and somewhat relieve the financial burden on Moscow and Tehran, which have been sustaining the Syrian regime with money, troops and a constant flow of supplies. It has also been reported that the Russian company Euro Polis signed an agreement with Damascus to help free and guard terrorist-controlled oil and natural gas installations “in exchange for a quarter of future profits.” The al-Assad government apparently also promised to pay in advance Euro Polis’ expenses for freeing the Syrian oil and gas installations. Euro Polis has an office in Damascus and has allegedly solicited the services of ChVK “Vagner.” Euro Polis is supposedly owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman from St. Petersburg and Vladimir Putin’s personal chef (Novaya Gazeta, October 5).
Igor Strelkov (Girkin)—the former commander of pro-Russia rebels in Donbas—posted a report quoting former “colleagues from the Donbas fighting” who are now with ChVK “Vagner” that in the last two weeks up to a hundred Russians have been killed in Syria, mostly in Deir el-Zour. Many more were apparently wounded. Most of the casualties have been mercenaries connected with ChVK “Vagner” (Newsader.com, October 11). Other reports confirm the heavy involvement of ChVK “Vagner” in fighting in Syria as well as the serious Russian losses during the recent IS counteroffensive. On September 23, the commander of the 5th Army in the Eastern Military District, Lieutenant General Valery Asapov, was reportedly killed in Deir el-Zour by mortar fire. The commander of the 61st Marines Brigade of the Northern Fleet, Colonel Velery Fedyanin, was wounded in Syria and later died in a hospital in Moscow (Novaya Gazeta, October 9).
VKS bombers have been flying over 150 attack sorties a day—running at full capacity to suppress IS resistance. On October 10, an Su-24M bomber at Russia’s main Syrian airbase of Hmeimim ran off the runway during takeoff, crashed and exploded. The bomber’s fuel tanks were maximally filled since Deir el-Zour is located at the limit of the Su-24M’s battle range from Hmeimim and the VKS does not have air refueling capabilities over Syria. Two naval bomber pilots perished—the 40th and 41st fatality officially acknowledged by the Russian command in Syria. The Su-24M crash could have been the result of pilot error caused by battle fatigue (Kommersant, October 11).
ChVK “Vagner” fighters call Syria the “Sandbox” (“Pesochnitsa”). They are paid about $2,500 (150,000 rubles) a month. In today’s economically depressed Russia, this is good pay. Salaries for fighting in Donbas are much lower. The wounded may receive a lump sum of up to $15,000, and the families of mercenaries killed in action could be paid $20,000–50,000 depending on rank and the circumstances of death. No medals, state pensions or special entitlements are ever awarded, however—the Kremlin denies any knowledge of or involvement in ChVK “Vagner’s” activities. The equipment and weapons provided to ChVK “Vagner” fighters in Syria are often of dismal quality. The training of ChVK “Vagner” recruits is undertaken on Russian military bases but is not always adequate. The private military company is reportedly paid some $5,000 per month for each fighter it fields in Syria (Moskovsky Komsomolets, October 10).
A desire to grab oil and gas assets, to make money, and help al-Assad win the Syrian civil war while aspiring to rush in before the SDF and US Special Forces enter Deir el-Zour have encouraged the Russian command in Syria to undertake a risky offensive and to deploy not only VKS bombers, but also Russian ground troops—regulars and contract mercenaries. This gamble has apparently led to heavy losses in men and equipment.
About the Author:
Dr. Pavel E. Felgenhauer is a Moscow-based defense analyst and columnist for Novaya Gazeta as well as a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He served as senior research officer in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, from where he received his Ph.D. Dr. Felgenhauer has published widely on Russian foreign and defense policies, military doctrine, arms trade and the military-industrial complex. He comments regularly in local and international media on Russia’s defense-related problems. Dr. Felgenhauer is also a weekly contributor to The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.
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