Relations between the Russian mercenaries in Syria — it is thought there are more than 2,000 of them — and the government in Moscow have been tense for some time. The fighters claim they are being used as cannon fodder, are being kept quiet and are poorly paid. For them to now accuse the Kremlin of trying to cover up the fact that Russians were killed — by the Americans, of all people — hits President Vladimir Putin’s government in a weak spot: its credibility.
The Russian foreign ministry described the Russian casualties as “Russian citizens who went to Syria of their own accord for various reasons”. Some were also from other ex-Soviet republics.
The statement did not specify the numbers of dead or wounded, but spoke of “several dozen” casualties, and said the wounded were being treated now in hospitals in Russia.
Independent media have found evidence of Russian mercenaries fighting for the Syrian government side.
Russia’s official military role mainly takes the form of air strikes, helping President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
The US military said US air strikes were launched on 7 February against an attacking force of about 500 fighters, about 100 of whom were killed.
[February 14 U.S. kills Russians – who pays Russians? ]
A US jet operating in Syria destroyed a Russian-made T-72 battle tank near Al Tabiyeh, Syria on February 10, a Pentagon spokesperson confirmed. in the three-hour battle, during which the United States called on Apache helicopters, AC-130 gunships and F-15 fighter jets to repel the assailants, U.S. military officials said. More than 200 contract soldiers, mostly Russians fighting on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, died in a failed attack on a base held by U.S. and mainly Kurdish forces in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region, two of the Russians said. The U.S. official put the death toll at about 100, with 200 to 300 injured. It’s not clear who was paying the Russian contingent, whether it was Russia directly, Syria, Iran or a third party. Reports in Russian media have said Wagner — a shadowy organization known as Russia’s answer to Blackwater, now called Academi — was hired by Assad or his allies to guard Syrian energy assets in exchange for oil concessions.
According to documents seen by the AP and Fontaka, Evro Polis has signed a contract with Syria’s state-owned General Petroleum Corp. for 25 percent of the proceeds from all the oil and natural-gas fields it captures from ISIS. Evro Polis is reportedly Wagner’s commercial front in Syria. It is owned by Putin’s “favorite chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose companies have extensive contracts to provide food for everyone from the Russian defense ministry to most of Moscow’s public schools. Most famously, Prigozhin set up a “Kremlin troll factory” in St. Petersburg to influence public opinion in the West by peddling conspiracy theories and disinformation on social-media platforms.
Defence Secretary Jim Mattis insisted that despite the media reports he did not have information that “Russian contractors” were among the casualties,
“I can’t give you anything on that, we have not received that word at Central Command or the Pentagon,” he said.
[March 212 2012 Damascus fighting near homes of powerful figures, Mezzeh, Harasta and Irbin ]
Syrian government forces used tanks and helicopters against insurgents in several suburbs of Damascus Wednesday, anti-government activists said. Helicopters flew above as artillery and gunfire was heard in the suburbs of Harasta and Irbin.
[March 19, 2012]Residents and activists in the heart of a heavily guarded and wealthy district of Damascus said it was extraordinary to see such clashes in a well-defended area of Damascus so close to crucial security installations and the homes of powerful figures.
“It’s the first time something happened so close and so loud,” said a businesswoman, reached by telephone, who lives a short drive from the center of the fighting and who declined to give her name. “We stayed awake and couldn’t sleep till around 5 a.m.”
The fighting started around 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. with several explosions, activists and residents said, followed by automatic-weapons fire and helicopters circling with searchlights, in a wealthy area of the city’s Mezzeh district that is home to business people, United Nations offices and diplomatic residences. Smoke was seen rising near an upscale supermarket and the high-rise Tala Tower. Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group based in London, said its informants reported that at least 18 members of the security forces were killed in the clashes.
Mezzeh is a sprawling area on the western edge of Damascus, one of the first city panoramas that greets visitors arriving on the Damascus-Beirut highway named for Hafez al-Assad, the president’s father who ruled for 30 years.
The West Villas section of Mezzeh, where the nighttime fighting took place, is a neighborhood of stand-alone houses across the highway from a military airport. It is home to wealthy Syrians of a mix of ethnic backgrounds and political persuasions, many of whom live cosmopolitan lives and have a foothold abroad, in the form of business or dual citizenship.
To its north is Mezzeh 86, a less wealthy area home to many Alawites, members of the security forces, and, some residents say, the shabiha, a term for pro-government gangs that have been unleashed against the government’s opponents. Activists with the Local Coordinating Committees, a coalition of Syria-based groups, reported that large numbers of security vehicles and shabiha were deployed there by midday on Monday.