After Russian private paramilitary company liquidated, it now raises concerns about fate of its fighters in Syria, Libya, and Sudan
Following the failed coup attempt on June 24, the Russian private paramilitary company Wagner Group was liquidated in the country, raising concerns about the fate of its military presence in Arab nations.
The company, which operates in Syria, Libya, and, to a lesser extent, Sudan, has been involved in these civil war-torn countries in a variety of ways since the Arab Spring began in 2010, including training, fighting, and maintaining military equipment.
Russia has not yet decided what will happen to the company’s operations in these three Arab countries. It is unclear whether Wagner Group will be terminated or continues to operate from Belarus, which is acting as a middleman.
However, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on June 28 that African leaders should make their own decisions about whether to continue working with Wagner Group.
This statement implies that the group will continue to operate in Arab countries without Russian protection, but will be vulnerable to threats of arrest or bombing by an unidentified aircraft.
On June 24, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Russian private security firm Wagner, led an armed rebellion against Moscow, which ended when Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko intervened.
Wagner Group, which began operations in Syria in 2015, has deployed in Damascus, Latakia, northern Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Tedmur, Deir ez-Zor, Hasakah, and Qamishli.
The security company, which has a 2,000-strong presence in this country, has recruited 3,000 Syrian nationals with salaries ranging from $1,200 to $4,000.
The American Wall Street Journal reported that Wagner Group fighters, who operate largely independently in Syria, were ordered on June 27, three days after its “rebellion,” to report to Tartus, an air base run by the Russian Defense Ministry.
Sky News Arabia, citing a senior US Defense Department official, also reported that Russian military intelligence arrested several “Wagner” commanders serving in Syria.
However, the initial dispute began in February 2018, when the Wagner Group’s fighters were targeted by US forces as they approached an oil field in Deir ez-Zor, resulting in a silent standoff between the company and the Russian military.
At the time, the paramilitary group accused the Russian military of failing to provide air cover for the nearly 300 fighters killed in the Deir ez-Zor attack. The Russian military, on the other hand, argued that the group acted without coordination and ignored the Russian-American agreement in Syria.
Libya is the second most important Arab country where Wagner Group is deployed, with between 1,500 and 2,000 fighters, though dozens of them have withdrawn from the war in Ukraine, according to the Italian news agency Nova.
Fighters from the group are stationed at military air bases in the country’s east, south, and central regions, including Jufra Air Base, Kartabiye Air Base, and Sirte Port. Unlike in other countries where Wagner Group operates, its fighters in Libya use Russian MiG-29 multi-purpose aircraft and Sukhoi-24 attack aircraft, as well as military helicopters and medium-range Pantsir air defense systems.
Wagner Group was directly involved in the attack on the capital Tripoli in 2019-2020 by Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the armed forces in eastern Libya, and provided support in areas such as maintenance of military equipment and military consultancy prior to the strike.
But a few days after the group’s “rebellion,” the Al-Hadim military airbase in eastern Libya was attacked with a drone.
Although no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, some forces, including the Russian military, do not want the Wagner Group’s influence in Libya to grow.
The Wagner Group’s rebellion against Moscow means that no country can control this private paramilitary group. In fact, when it serves its interests, this out-of-control group can even attempt to overthrow regimes that are its allies.
Besides, without official Russian cover, Wagner Group fighters are vulnerable to attacks by AFRICOM, the US military command in Africa that wants to limit the groups’ influence in Africa.
Washington and other Western countries accused the Wagner Group of using Libya to support the Chadian armed opposition’s attack and advance toward the capital N’Djamena in April 2021. The group denied the allegations.
Wagner Group’s presence in Sudan dates back to the time of President Omar al-Bashir, who was deposed in a coup in 2019.
In fact, in December 2017, Bashir deployed private Russian paramilitary in the country to support the army and security forces in exchange for a gold mining concession agreement with the Wagner Group “M Invest” company.
The Bashir administration needed Wagner Group’s support against a military coup or a public outcry due to the economic problems experienced in the country, due to the fact that South Sudan had gained its independence in 2011 and dominates approximately 75 percent of the oil fields in Sudan.
The group’s presence did not prevent the Bashir administration from falling, but the company continues to operate gold mining operations in Mount Amir and other parts of the country’s Darfur state.
The Wagner Group also coordinated with Mohammad Hamdan Dagalu, commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) after Bashir, to maintain his presence in gold mining activities in Sudan.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Sudan government has the authority to use Wagner Group’s elements. The group’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin also offered to mediate between the Sudanese army and the RSF, which began clashes on April 15.
Wagner Group is also accused by Western media of supplying various weapons, including anti-aircraft guns, to the RSF. It is even claimed that RSF used anti-aircraft guns obtained from the Russian private paramilitary group to shoot down several Sudanese army helicopters and warplanes.
Wagner Group and Libyan Khalifa Haftar both deny supporting the RSF. However, the Sudan Arab Experts Center report confirms that Wagner Group provided anti-aircraft weapons to the RSF with the assistance of Haftar.
By maintaining its presence in Sudan, the group can also coordinate military operations in the neighboring Central African Republic and Libya.
Wagner Group had the opportunity to besiege the regime of General Muhammed Idris Debi Itno, who took power in Chad on April 20, 2021, after his father’s death with his presence in Sudan, determined that Chad’s eastern border from Sudan, its northern border from Libya, and southern border from the Central African Republic.
After the fighting in Libya and Syria has subsided, the Wagner Group is expected to increase its military presence in Sudan. The group is expected to seek greater interests by sending more weapons and fighters to support one of the Sudanese sides.