Ironically in the very week when amendments to the Russian Criminal Code stiffened the penalties for citizens in “illegal armed units” fighting abroad in a clear move against jihadists heading for Syria to join the rebels, it emerged that Russian mercenaries were working for the Assad regime.
The changes to Article 208 of the Criminal Code, on “The Organization of, or Participation in, Illegal Armed Units,” stipulates a new maximum prison term of six years. It reflects an awareness that jihadists from the turbulent North Caucasus are fighting alongside the rebels. According to Sergei Smirnov, first deputy director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), there are currently 300-400 Russian citizens participating in the rebellion, whom Moscow habitually calls “mercenaries” even though they appear driven by religious fervor rather than profit.
Since October, though, serious reports from rebel sources have been circulating alleging the presence of Russian mercenaries supporting the Syrian government. The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), an Al-Qaeda affiliate, claimed to have killed several when it attacked a convoy of reinforcements heading to Al-Sukhnah in eastern Syria. They further released documents, pictures and a video they claimed were captured show a killed mercenary, one Aleksei Malyuta.
An investigation by the St Petersburg newspaper Fontanka—which has since been translated into English by The Interpreter—proved on the one hand that Malyuta was alive and well, but on the other that a private military company (PMC) called the Slavonic Corps had indeed been engaged to provide armed support. The claim was that they were purely providing guard services to free up regime troops, but given the relative quality of veteran Russian mercenaries (the Corps boasts of hiring men with “experience of work in Iraq, Afghanistan, Eastern Africa, Tajikistan, Northern Caucasus, Serbia etc”) with the demoralized and under-trained Syrian regulars, this would hardly seem especially cost-effective.
Russia is already relaxing its controls on corporate security forces and deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin has floated the notion of state-supported PMCs that could act as additional tools of the Kremlin. Although the details of the nature and ownership of the Slavonic Corps is unclear (there is a Slavonic Corps, a Slavonic Corps Ltd registered in Hong Kong, and the Moran Security Group that appears to have contracted them), its own website specifically notes that it obtains government clearance before undertaking operations and Moran is run by a former KGB and FSB officer. In short, it is difficult to sustain any notion that at the very least the Russian government did not give this its blessing.
This comes in the context of a range of covert and semi-covert forms of support being extended to Damascus, from banking services to weapons and everything in between. Russian military technicians appear to be working in Syria’s air defense system, GRU military intelligence are helping their Syrian counterparts and the Foreign Intelligence Service’s Zaslon special forces are reportedly there if need be to protect Moscow’s interests. However, at a time when the Kremlin may be looking to introduce a little plausible deniability into the scale of its support for Assad, mercenaries may prove an increasingly appealing alternative.