Tag: Vladimir Putin

Putin’s Mercenaries on Tour: Mapping the Wagner Group’s Global Activities

Key Judgements Since its inception in 2014-2015, the Wagner group has expanded from a frontline contractor in Eastern Ukraine, to spearheading Russia’s foreign policy and private business objectives in Syria,…

Key Judgements

  1. Since its inception in 2014-2015, the Wagner group has expanded from a frontline contractor in Eastern Ukraine, to spearheading Russia’s foreign policy and private business objectives in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, and many other states. As Wagner’s reach is constantly expanding, our mapping project aims to filter through speculation and leverage open-source intelligence (OSINT) to track Wagner’s presence and activity worldwide.
  2. The Wagner group, such as it is, does not exist as a traditional PMC but as an interconnected network of mercenary groups, semi-state forces, and corporations with links to the Kremlin. As a result, Wagner’s activities are very difficult to track and categorize.
  3. If left unchecked, the Wagner group will very likely remain an effective and transient tool of the Russian security apparatus, combining aspects of state forces, private military companies, and paramilitaries. Wagner activities will likely continue to be equally focused on supporting Russian private business interests as foreign policy objectives.

DENIED AND DENIABLE: WAGNER GROUP

“Wagner Group” is an umbrella term that refers to the network of mercenary groups with ties to the Kremlin and controlled by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Wagner Group is used to advance Russia’s foreign policy objectives with a modicum of plausible deniability, as no such group formally exists and is denied by Russian officials. 

Utilized in everything from disinformation to site protection and offensive combat operations, the Wagner Group escapes conventional definitions of Private Military Companies (PMC) and has become increasingly active globally. 

Wagner PMC is known to operate under different names and structures, often related to mining, or military training, further obscuring the group’s activities. Existing literature focuses on the debates over Wagner’s functionality, goals, history, and even its very existence. However, limited attention has been directed towards the breadth of the network’s global activities. Herein we identify the locations of Wagner activity worldwide based on open-source reporting and assess the likelihood that Wagner is indeed active in each country.

A few things to understand before discussing the so-called Wagner group’s activities worldwide:

  • Due to the vague nature of the Wagner network and often imprecise and conflicting online reporting, much of the group’s activity cannot be identified with 100% certainty. Here we have opted to categorize Wagner activity as: Confirmed, Likely, Possible, and Unlikely.
  • It is important to note that beyond PMC Wagner, several other Russian PMCs remain active. It is possible to misidentify these PMCs as Wagner, especially with vague and unverified reports.

ACTIVITY LOG: TRACKING WAGNER’S GLOBAL REACH

Russia/At Home:

Like any PMC or military entity, Wagner trains its contractors before departing on missions. Supported by Russian military and intelligence personnel, Wagner conducts training at two locations attached to the 10th Special Mission Brigade of GRU Spetsnaz in Mol’kino, Krasnodar region, Russia. These facilities feature airborne training and obstacle courses, weapons and munitions storage buildings, and barracks, among others. 

Area view of military facilities near Mol’kino as first identified by CSIS (base imagery: Maxar Technologies)

Presumed Wagner training facility as first identified by CSIS (base image: Maxar Technologies)


Ukraine:

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provided the impetus for the creation of the Wagner group. Wagner mercenaries were instrumental in numerous battles throughout the conflict, notably in Crimea and later the Donbas region. Donbas war veterans formed the foundation of Wagner’s ranks, and the group continues to recruit from Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine.  

Estimates put the number of Wagner operators in Ukraine anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 at their peak, operating in support, intelligence, and direct combat roles. Wagner mercenaries were pivotal in the battles for Luhansk airport and in the seizure of the strategic town of Debaltseve in Donetsk oblast.

Activity Status: Confirmed – Limited continued presence


Syria:

Wagner has been active in the Syrian civil war in support of President Al-Assad’s government since October 2015. Taking part in numerous battles in key roles, Wagner has been able to win a stake in the country’s energy industry for companies linked to Prigozhin and the Kremlin. 

Estimates place the number of Wagner operatives as high as 2000 at different points in the Syrian civil war. Wagner also involved in the training of various Syrian millitias groups loyal to Bashar al-Assad, and Palestinian militias. By 2017, Wagner had already played a key role in recapturing parts of Deir ez-Zor province. In February 2018, Wagner contractors alongside Iranian-backed militias and Syria army units, attempted to capture an oil field from the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Swift U.S. airstrikes obliterated the Wagner attack, resulting in massive casualties for the Russian mercenaries (some estimate over 100 Wagner KIA). 

Wagner maintains a presence at the strategically important Tiyas airfield (T-4) and in central and eastern Syria. In addition to supporting Russian foreign policy goals, Syria served as an important proving ground for the use of Wagner, leading to the PMC’s global deployment. 

Activity Status: Confirmed – Limited continued presence.


Libya:

Numbering in the thousands, Wagner mercenaries have been omnipresent in the Libyan conflict since 2015. Wagner operatives served in critical frontline roles supporting General Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) against the UN-recognized Government of National Accord. 

Wagner contractors trained LNA forces, engaged in combat operations, including the assault on Tripoli, and secured the LNA’s critical infrastructure (oil refineries and the ports of Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi, and Sirte). Wagner is also notorious for executing prisoners and placing mines and booby-traps in civilian areas

Presumed Wagner contractors in Libya

Wagner affiliated personnel also pilot Russian fighter aircraft (e.g. Su-24 “Fencer”) and operate advanced air defense systems (Patnsir S-1/SA-22) on behalf of the LNA. Wagner infantry in Libya are equipped with utility trucks mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles.The east Libyan al-Kahdim airfield is likely Wagner’s headquarters in the country.

US AFRICOM GEOINT shows Wagner aircraft and anti-air systems displayed at Al-Khadim airfield in eastern Libya

USAFRICOM GEOINT shows Wagner infantry near Sirte

The group continues to be engaged in the Libyan Civil War despite ceasefire agreements necessitating the removal of foreign fighters. 

Activity status: Confirmed – Limited continued presence.


Mozambique:

Two years into the bloody ISIS-linked insurgency in Mozambique’s northern region of Cabo Delgado, the government reached an agreement with Wagner to combat the insurgents in exchange for a stake in the country’s natural resource industries. Wagner commenced combat operations in Mozambique in October 2019. After initial success Wagner hit a wall and sustained notable casualties, leading to Wagner deciding to pull out of the agreement. Wagner was later replaced by Dyck Advisory Group (DAG).

Activity status: Confirmed – No longer present.


Central African Republic:

In early 2018 reports highlighted that Russia had sent Wagner trainers to the CAR to assist in the government’s fight against rebel elements. Despite the fact that the Wagner operatives were brought in for training, SOCMINT evidence suggests that the contractors have been involved in combat and human rights abuses. Wagner group affiliates/fronts “Lobaye Invest” and “Sewa Security” have secured a stake in the country’s diamond and gold mining industries in exchange for kinetic services. 

Satellite imagery shows increased use of the group’s reported base of operations, Berengo Palace. Located southwest of the capital of Bangui, satellite imagery highlights increased traffic and what appears to be the use of an airstrip. 

GEOINT: Vagner PMC barracks near Bangui (Analysis by T-Intelligence; imagery courtesy of Planet Inc.)

Operating under the “SEWA Security” banner or with no markings at all, Wagner has also provided VIP protection to CAR President Touadera.

A member of the close protection unit for Central African republic President Touadera, composed by Russian private security company operatives from Sewa Security, are seen in Berengo on August 4, 2018.(Photo by FLORENT VERGNES / AFP via Getty Images)

To learn more about Wagner activities in CAR, read our early report on Wagner’s growing presence, and our analysis of Russia’s troop surge ahead of 2021 CAR presidential elections. 

Activity status: Confirmed – Growing presence.


Sudan:

Reports from 2017 indicate that Wagner mercenaries had been redeployed from Ukraine and Syria to support President Omar al-Bashir’s military with training and aid in suppressing demonstrations. Wagner-affiliated companies “Meroe Gold” and “M Invest” search for gold in the country with permission from al-Bashir’s government. Wagner’s presence in Sudan also reinforces Russia’s geopolitical position with a significant presence along the coast of the Red Sea and provides a supply line to the group’s operations in CAR. The Kremlin confirmed in 2019 that “Russian companies” are training the Sudanese army. 

Activity status: Confirmed – Continued presence.


Madagascar:

Wagner provided security detail to the political strategists hired by Prigozhin to assist the Madagascarian presidential election in 2018. Prigozhin received a contract to run an existing chromite mine in Madagascar in exchange for electoral assistance and interference. In April of the same year, reports suggest that these same Wagner contractors are being used to protect Prigozhin’s exploitation projects. 

Activity status: Confirmed – Very limited continued presence.


Venezuela:

Wagner contractors were brought in to assist embattled President Maduro in the face of political and social opposition in 2019. Reports suggest that Wagner contractors assisted in providing security for Maduro and his administration, as well as local Russian business interests. In 2019 there were reportedly 400 Russian mercenaries in Venezuela. 

Wagner’s tasks beyond simple security roles included recruiting informants and helping to train Maduro-backed militias. Wagner’s presence is heavily tied to Russian geopolitical and economic interests in the country. In 2020, Rosneft, the largest Russian oil company in Venezuela, sold all its assets to an unnamed company owned by the Russian government, further solidifying Moscow’s interests.

Activity status: Confirmed – Limited continued presence.


Nigeria:

Pre-Wagner affiliate Moran Security Group was known to be active in security roles in the shipping industry. Moran contractors were arrested at the port of Lagos in October 2012 for trafficking weapons. However, after Moscow’s involvement, the men were released.  

Moran Security Group created the Slavonic Corps to branch away from its traditional security roles, which later morphed into the first iteration of the Wagner Group. 

Recently reports have emerged that Prigozhin has been spotted in Lagos meeting with the Nigerian government and military officials, including with Nigerian Army Chief of Staff Farouk Yaha, in 2021. Prigozhin’s alleged meeting in Lagos coincides with a Gulfstream G550 flight to Nigera, namely P4-BAR – an aircraft associated with Wagner. 

The meetings are likely connected with the fight against ISIS-affiliate Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. 

Activity status: Possible – Discussions about bringing in the Wagner group appear to be underway, although Nigeria has made noted use of more traditional PMCs.


Chad:

Wagner’s well-documented activity in CAR and Libya has led to speculation that Russian mercenaries have also penetrated neighboring Chad. Further reports suggest that Wagner has assisted in arming and training rebel groups in northern Chad in 2016. Rebel incursions lead to the death of Chadian President Idriss Deby Into.

Wagner-linked activities in Chad will likely intensify due to the group’s heavy presence in Libya and Russia’s growing interest in Africa. 

Activity status: Likely – Contemporary reports of Wagner indirect influence coupled with Russian interest in the region suggest likely further activity in Chad.


Cuba:

Amid the political upheaval in Cuba, OSINT enthusiasts have tracked flights and a freighter previously associated with the Wagner group to the country. Given Moscow’s traditional relationship with Cuba, the state of upheaval, and Wagner’s noted presence in Venezuela, we may see Wagner’s arrival in the coming weeks or months.

Activity status: Likely – Though not currently active, Wagner personnel will likely arrive in the country.


Mali:

While there are unverified reports of Wagner operatives arriving in Mali to fight the ISIS-linked insurgency, recent reports highlight ongoing negotiations for Wagner involvement in Mali. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov further corroborates these reports by stating that Mali’s government has asked for “Russian PMC” assistance – a clear nod to Wagner. 

Activity status: Likely – discussions are ongoing.


United Arab Emirates 

The US intelligence community received reports in the summer of 2020 that provided links between the UAE and Wagner mercenaries active in Libya. As the UAE makes noted use of foreign fighters it is unsurprising to see the UAE turning to foreign mercenaries for foreign policy objectives. This provides an interesting precedent for both the UAE and Wagner.

Activity Status: Likely – Indirectly, evidence suggests the UAE is involved financially with the Wagner network.


Equatorial Guinea:

Sightings of Prigozhin-associated flights and multiple news reports indicate a nascent Wagner presence in the country. Furthermore, a report suggests that some 200 Wagner operatives protect Russian intelligence officials at the Pico Basile Island spy base.

Latest information indicate that Equatorial Guinea had planned to involve Wagner in providing security in the country, but failed to reach a deal as it also wanted possible assistance in a coup against the incumbent President. 

Activity status: Possible – Numerous unverified reports naming Guinea as a state where Wagner has influence. However, the lack of evidence or corroborating reports makes it unclear. 


Nicaragua:

A Russian training center exists in Nicaragua since 2013, hundreds of Russian military personnel were sent to the country for “joint military exercises,” “humanitarian and military operations training,” and “anti-drug trafficking.” However, reports suggest that these “instructors” played a significant role in cracking down on anti-government protests. 

The Russian military personnel are not thought to be affiliated directly with the Wagner group at this time. However, as Russia continues to rely on relationships with Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua for a geopolitical foothold in the region, the Kremlin might insert Wagner in the country, if not already. 

Activity status: Unconfirmed but possible – No explicit link identified, but numerous linkages have been highlighted. Nicaragua’s operational environment is optimal for Wagner activity.


Iraq:

No direct involvement of Wagner or Wagner affiliates has been noted in Iraq at this time. The Wagner group has previously been highly active in eastern Syria near key Iraq border crossings but there is no indication that Wagner undertook operations across the frontier. 

Other Russian PMCs, including the Antiterror-Orel Group and the Moran group, linked to Wagner’s emergence, had previously operated in Iraq.  

Activity status: Unlikely – Wagner might emerge in Iraq if the operational environment becomes more permissive due to a US/NATO withdrawal. 


Nagorno-Karabakh Region (NKR):

Chatter emerged from forums and social media accounts associated with Wagner contractors insinuating that the group was operating in the conflict, these claims were eventually disproven by Bellingcat. 

Displeased with Armenian PM Pashynian, Russia has been unusually detached from the flare-up in NKR, and only stepped in after the formal conclusion of hostilities in December 2020. If secretly deployed, it is possible that Wagner mercenaries only entered NKR as part of Russia’s “peacekeeping force.” 

Activity status: Unknown


Belarus:

In July 2020, before the country’s presidential election, Belarussian authorities arrested 33 Wagner-linked contractors on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks to destabilize the elections. Reports later came to light that the men were members of a PMC lured to Belarus through a joint operation by Ukrainian and US intelligence services intended to arrest members of the Wagner group active in the war in eastern Ukraine – former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko seemingly confirms the information. 

Activity status: Unlikely – Wagner is extremely unlikely to be active in Belarus, more likely to be in transit to Libya, Sudan, CAR or elsewhere.


Tanzania:

Russia and Tanzania signed an agreement in 2016 for joint military training at Russian facilities. While Wagner often fills these roles for the Kremlin, no evidence suggests they are active in Tanzania at this time. Previous activity along Tanzania’s southern border with Mozambique is not thought to have spilled over into the country.

Activity Status: Unlikely – Russian military activity does not always translate to Wagner presence, especially when overt agreements are made between the state. 


South Africa:

There is no evidence to suggest a Wagner presence in South Africa; however Prigozhin-linked political strategists have assisted parties involved in the 2019 presidential election. 

Activity status: Unlikely –The presence of numerous South African-based PMCs means mercenary activity is unlikely. Though Prigozhin-linked political strategists are very likely to maintain a presence.


Inconclusive Reports of Wagner Activity:

The following highlights inconclusive reports of Wagner activity, due to lack of evidence or corroborating reports.

  • Eswatini: Unverified reports suggest Wagner maintains a presence in the country and has trained Ewatini’s troops on new weapons systems.
  • Rwanda: Rwandan troops fought against Rebels in  CAR as part of a bilateral agreement alongside Wagner elements.
  • Yemen: Rumors and social media reports indicate that a “Russian PMC” is active in the Yemeni Civil War. However, there is no credible report naming Wagner. Wagner-trained Sudanese militias have, however, deployed and fought in Yemen. 
  • Zimbabwe: Nondescript reports have claimed that Wagner maintains an office in the country. Additionally, there have been claims that President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s 2018 election campaign was assisted by Russian political advisors associated with Wagner.

END NOTE: This tracker will be periodically updated as new open-source information emerge relating to Wagner activity. 

by Matt Sutherland 

This assessment was made using Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) techniques and resources. Visit Knowmad OSINT to learn more about our online OSINT training. 

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White House cancels CIA Covert Program aiding anti-Assad Syrian Rebels

Situation Report – Starting from the unconfirmed reports that have surfaced today that a month ago, the Trump administration has decided to cancel the CIA covert program through which various Syrian…

Situation Report – Starting from the unconfirmed reports that have surfaced today that a month ago, the Trump administration has decided to cancel the CIA covert program through which various Syrian Rebel groups were provided with weapons, ammo and aid in order to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Reportedly, the decision has been taken after President Donald Trump consulted with National Security Advisor MacMaster and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. The story is taken by the public as another piece of the ‘Russian collusion’ puzzle and creates additional pressure on the White House and the Campaign team that is now under scrutiny for its undeclared discussions with individuals from Russia. However, this memo will express the background and incentives of the covert program in order to clarify the situation from a technical point of view: retrospective summary, consequences/ benefits and it’s overall projection.

The first things which should be clarified through the complex and entangled U.S. covert plans in Syria is that there were three such initiatives, the early one, run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) included the transfer of weapons, ammo and aid to the Rebels fighting Assad, and two sanctioned by the Department of Defense (Pentagon) that foresaw an ambitious  but failed approach of training 5,000 vetted and hand-picked Rebel fighters per year, and the successful revamped version, through which the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were born, set exclusively in combating ISIS, benefiting from U.S. air support . The one reported to have been canceled by the Trump administration is the CIA-sanctioned one.

Summary

The program has been theorized by the Obama Administration in 2013 when aiding Syrian Rebels was a more practical, credible and efficient solution that would be now. The context of 2013-2014 Syria War is fully opposite to today’s situation. Just until mid-2015, the Assad government had yet to receive direct military support from the Kremlin while Iranian aid consisted mostly in weapons, ammo and a small contingency of Shi’a militias from Iraq, leaving the weary Syrian Arab Army opened to defections and an overwhelming assaults of various opposition forces. Following Washington’s policy throughout the Arab Spring and reflecting on its resolve to topple Muammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya through an extensive air campaign, the context was there for a regime change and state building option in Damascus. But as the situation in Syria grew intensively complex and given the commitment of ‘no boots on the ground’ from the Obama administration, the American strategists faced a difficult task ahead. Moreover, the configuration of the combatant forces was largely ambiguous, and their ideologies or allegiance were at least blurred, bringing an additional layer of difficulty in identifying a compatible native force.

In 2013 the White House authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to arm selected Syrian Rebel groups against the forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. The beginnings of the initative four years ago were officially a secret, authorized by President Barack Obama through a “finding” that permitted the C.I.A. to conduct a deniable program through-which opposition fighters received weapons, ammo and aid, fueling the war against Assad while not committing the U.S. politically against a single-handed overthrow of the dictatorial regime. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) identified friendly assets that would act as liaisons for the United States and which received a constant flow of logistics through Turkey and Jordan, both countries that supported such programs and had similar arrangements with own assets themselves. But given the rise of ISIS, that threatened Euro-Atlantic security interests, and the overall polarization of the opposition camp, that left merely a few ‘moderate’ Rebel groups in play in stark contrast to the powerful, well funded and armed Salafists or political islamists, Washington’s priorities changed.

In this context, the Department of Defense was authorized to develop a ‘train and equip’ program that would build a new opposition army from scratch that will focus on combating ISIS and other terrorist groups.

In 2014, Congress for the first time provided the President with authority and funds to overtly train and lethally equip vetted members of the Syrian opposition for select purposes. These objectives include supporting U.S. efforts to combat the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.  The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, P.L. 113-291) and FY2015 Consolidated and Further Continuing Apropriations Act, 2015 (P.L. 113-235) provided that up to $500 million could be transferred from the newly-established Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund (CTPF) to train and equip such native forces. Therefore, the covert program did not just refer to training and aiding indigenous elements, but also to undertake the human resources pre-selected, through a strict screening process that would eventually leave only the most ‘moderate’ fighters, in terms of ideology, to receive Washington’s ‘carepack’. This incentive produced two consequences: the recruitment of a small contingency of rebels, and a time-spawn until the force was operational and battle-ready. The training took place on the territory of two regional allies, Turkey and Jordan, which were also the staging areas of detachement of deployment until these new forces set-up forward operating bases (FOBs) in Syria by themselves.

The plan was to train 5,000 such troops, per year. On June 2015, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s testimony in front of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee expressed that at that time, only 60 Syrian Rebel fighters have been trained. As expressed above, the vetting and screening process makes it extremely difficult to identify compatible peers.

On July 2015, the first batch of Syrian Rebels trained called ‘Division 30’ numbered around 200 fighters of Sunni Turkmen or Arabic background, were deployed over the Turkish border. As soon as they steeped in Syria they were violently ambushed by Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda. As a result, their weapons were stolen, some of them got killed and their field commander was kidnapped. As Asmed Shaheed, an Al-Nusra jihadi that posted a photo with his recently capture M-16, many boasted only about their ‘war spoils’ online. The U.S. air cover failed to protect the Rebels, as a retaliatory strike only came the day after. The operational disaster draw comparison between the ‘Divison 30’ episode the massacre of the ‘Bay of Pigs’, Cuba 1961.

Due to its complete failure and its inefficient spending of 500$ million of the taxpayer’s money, the program was suspended in October 2015. This was also regarded at that time as a sign of weakness towards the recent intervention of Russia’s aerospatial forces and expeditionary units in support of Bashar al-Assad. In reality, the suspension of the program was followed by a rational course of events.

In 2016, the White House asked Congress for an additional ‘train and equip’ program, enforced by the same Department of Defense.“This is part of our adjustments to the train and equip program built on prior lessons learned,” said Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Baghdad. Starting from early 2015, The United States managed to gain a major ally, the ‘Euphrates Volcano’ – a joint war room formed by Kurdish militias as YPG/ YPJ and several Sunni Arab groups in order to coordinate in their fight against ISIS in Tel Abyad after relieving the siege of Kobane. By late-2015, these groups united their efforts in a framework called ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF). Both DoD and the White House believed that this was a group that deserved their support in order to combat ISIS, given their eficiency and numbers, already proven in previous battle in the region, so that in June 2016 the ‘Train and Equip’ Program was rebooted. U.S. Special Operators, present in Syria since 2015, continued their efforts to train and equip them from Jordan and northern Syria. These now embedded forces would also act as a compact outsourced infantry of the Pentagon’s air campaign.

 

Quality-test

Through this US-SDF partnership, ISIS has lost every battle against them in the past 2 years. The terrorist saw their caliphate shrink into a besieged enclave ‘capital’ of Raqqa, and sparsely spread in villages and towns around the Euphrates Valley. This cooperation has also given the US the chance to build military bases in northern Syria, the largest ones being in Sarrin, near Kobani and Rmelah, near Qamishli. But for reasons of operational secrecy, Transylvania Intelligence chose not to disclose their complete locations.

Just to clarify as an end note: the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the entire anti-ISIS effort has nothing to do with the CIA cover program that was canceled.

However, the Rebels have been sequentially losing ground in face of the Loyalist offensives, and became dominated by the Salafist segment, as the ex-al-Nusra, now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Islamic Turkistan Party, Ahrar ah-Sham or Jaysh al-Islam, that have share the Idlib governorate into sectors of influence, setting checkpoints, imposing their own social judiciary based on Sharia Law and even fighting each other – as the current Ahrar vs. HTS clash in east Idlib. Other small pockets of Rebels still survive around Damascus in East Ghouta, Da’ara and Quneitra, but are critically besieged and weakened under a constant rain of barrel bombs and mechanized attacks.

 

The Rebels that Matter:

1. The only part were Rebel fighters that bear a strategic importance to American security interests is the desert area around the tri-border of Syria-Iraq-Jordan, notably around the al-Tanf crossing. The area was seized in March 2017 by Sunni Arab Rebels from the Amman-based Meghawir al-Thawra group, trained, armed and assisted by U.S. forces in camps built in Jordan. The role of this American-Rebel contingency on the border is to block Iran’s geopolitical gamble and deny Tehran a ground supply line for Hezbollah and Shi’a militias operating in Syria. In early June, given the relative cease-fire produced by the Astana Agreements, Loyalist forces spearheaded an operation through the Syrian desert and captured the territory north of al-Tanf, therefor blocking the frontline that the al-Tanf based Rebels had with ISIS, consequently denying their official purpose of their presence. Some strategist could consider that the border territory is now lost to Iran, due to the blockade imposed north of al-Tanf and because the Syrian Democratic Forces firstly need to liberate Raqqa before commencing on the Euphrates Valley and on the border – which could take too long, time in which the Syrians and Iranians could have already secured the frontier. It is also publicly known that President Trump and Putin negotiated a truce, a cease-fire between Loyalist forces and Rebels in that area. Which could equal in an abandonment of support for the al-Tanf contingency, that just months ago, was defended by  bombing the Iraqi Shi’a militias backed by Iran, and that were threatening the local U.S. presence.

A contingent of Sunni Arab Rebels and U.S. forces at the al-Tanf border checkpoint to Iraq.

However, it is not clear whether the southern Rebels are  part of the ‘Train and Equip’-Pentagon sanctioned program, or of the CIA’s covert action?

(a) In the case of the later, and their presence or functionality are affected by the cancellation of the CIA’s covert program, than the White House is making a serious mistake, with potential strategic dangers.

(b) On the other hand, the Jordanian-based Rebels have been used to fight ISIS, notably on the Syrian-Iraqi border and hopefully through Abu Kamal, Mayadin the the Euphrates Valley, and benefited from a close coordination with the U.S. Special Operators. It is highly possible that given the level of support and the stated objectives, these Rebels were trained under the Pentagon-backed ‘Train and Equip’ Program, thus being sheltered from any potential damage that the recent decision could have projected. Whereas the CIA convert operation only provided weapons and ammo to Rebels notably fighting Assad.

2. The Rebels from Quneitra also have a distinctive feature. They act as buffer elements between Israel and Hezbollah, that operates near-by. A defeat for the Rebels based there could trigger an Israeli intervention in the conflict and could upper the demands of Jerusalem for ‘safe-zone’ in the area, similar to what Turkey did in northern Aleppo governorate, even through direct action. A weakening of the Rebels fighting in the area could expose Israel’s Golan Heights to Iran’s proxy’s. However, Israel unveiled it’s massive humanitarian operation, code-named Operation ‘Good Neighbor’ through which the IDF provides health care, food and fuel for the Syrians.

 

Key Judgement:

  • Decision to end CIA covert program was most likely taken from a technical point of view, but could have been capitalized in the Trump-Putin negotiations on Syria in Hamburg.
  • In a stark paradox, the Trump administration campaigned that it will renounce state building and regime change activities. Translated in Syria, this is a result to the fact that since 2013, there is no viable and legitimate alternative to Assad at the moment, nor there is one proposed by the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, not even as an interim figure; and as the Rebels are on the imminent brink of defeat, democratic elections are no longer a viable or possible option.
  • The impact of the decision to cancel the CIA covert program is currently difficult to asses. The framework has been loose in its technicalities and details, dully in order to arm Syrian Rebels wherever and whenever needed. Moreover, given the clandestine and potentially classified nature of the program, it is highly unlikely to perceive the effects on the short-term.
  • Syrian Rebels from Maghawir al-Thawra stationed in al-Tanf to guard the border crossing from Iranian elements and launch an offensive against ISIS, are most probably funded and protected under the Department of Defense framework.
  • Rebel factions from the radical ‘safe haven’ of Idlib, the de facto buffer zone of Quneitra, Da’ara, or the suburbs of Damascus as East Ghouta, could potentially face significant challenges given the cancellation. However, given Israel’s escalation of aid (even publicly) to Syrians (even under the auspice of humanitarian aid) and taking into consideration that most of these Rebel groups have been formed and initially funded by the rich Gulf States, it is also safe to assume that the financial gap could easily be filled by the other external backers.
  • On the other hand, the Rebels based in Jordan have been promoted as being
  • In contrast, the cease-fire in south-western Syria brokered between Trump and Putin is difficult to interpret as a strategic action. One significant fear is that the White House won’t fall for Moscow’s apparently but questionable good-will to appease its concerns in regards to Iranian activities on the border. Notably given the lack of leverage that Russia has above Iran in the first place.
  • Abandoning the support for anti-Assad efforts of the Syrian Rebels could make sense from a technical point of view given the current context, however, it does not hold significant benefits for the U.S., other than facilitating a closer cooperation with the Loyalist Coalition, and implicitly, with Russia.
  • The cancellation of this program also strips the White House from a low-to-medium leverage over the Assad regime, which should have been kept.

Briefing is a short-to-medium assessment that presents a sharp overview of a recently occurring event with the objective of providing timely information with additional comments, rather than a comprehensive in-depth analysis. Such a paper does not regularly exceed 1,100 words. 

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