Mercenary Groups in Syria: Formation Mechanisms and Operation Motifs

The importance of this study stems from the fact that it sheds light on the utilization of mercenaries in the form of organized militias. This phenomenon is typical of armed conflicts in general and particularly in Syria where these groups were formed upon formal approval of the existing political system and they target its people.

This study also investigates the formation mechanism of these groups, their types and the motives of their militants through the following headlines:

  • Definition of Mercenary Groups and Formation Mechanisms
  • States’ Motifs to from Mercenary Groups
  • Military, sectarian, national and Ideological mercenary groups in Syria
  • Necessity for Russian Mercenary Groups in Syria


The Syrian Revolution, which started beginning of 2011, clearly identified its objectives and envisioned its course among Syrians expressing a social, political and economic instability. They hopped revolutionary motion both existing and potential problems that might arise as a result of Assad’s Regime procedures to motivate contradictions of identity at an early stage of the Revolution which announced its clear principles i.e. toppling Assad’s Regime and abiding with national unity and establishing a society based on equality, justice and dignity, releasing liberty, fighting corruption that dominates structure of State institutions.

Violent repressive procedures like arbitrary arrest, torture, killing, kidnapping and raids taken by Assad’s Regime pushed people to take arms and defend themselves. This was the nucleus for the formation of Free Syrian Army at a later stage. It was associated with the defection of conscripts and officers of the Syrian Army. Those defectors formed battalions and these battalions were considered as an extension of the peaceful Revolution due to their national and social solidarity. They defied sectarian and ethnic splits. Free Syrian Army was initially formed for the protection of civilians from the suppression of the Regime security and military forces. This new army emphasized the solidarity and pursued for the objective of the Syrian Revolution.

However, the Regime worked hard to militarize the Revolution and politically intrigued to enhance foreign intervention so as to be able to play the game making use of imbalanced powers. This led to more complications and interrelations between the Revolution on the one hand and Regional and International complications on the other hand which affected the peaceful mobility in general and the objectives of the Revolution in particular.

Militarization of the Revolution led to many military and political practices like foreign intervention that helped in changing the course of the Revolution based on power imbalance and causing the complications of the revolutionary changes. This was clearly noticed in the recent agreements in Northern and Southern parts of Syria. Militarization of the Revolution has made it Ideology-bound and spectra-segregated. The use of mercenary militias also helped in reinforcing military domination on the ground.

Syrian Army couldn’t suppress the Syrian Revolution because of the structural weakness of this army and the expansion of conflict and internal problems that are due to its deeply-rooted corruption and non-belonging.

All these facts pushed Assad’s Regime to form mercenary militias like public committees and what is called “Shabehas[1]”. The regime made use of sectarian lining up and money temptation as in the case of (Al Wadi Militias led by Besher Yazaji in Homs and Hadar brigade of Durzis in Suweida). Having seen this, Iran hurried to form its own sectarian Militias and deploy them throughout the country. Iran had two main objectives: First, it wanted to weaken the Syrian Military Institution to be able to influence the official decision of the Syrian Regime. Second, Iran wanted to provoke sectarian lining-up. The use of mercenary militias continued by the Regime’s allies like some militias of Arab Parties. Each entity had a different aim. Russian mercenaries were targeted in the Northeast of Syria by International Coalition.

  • Definition of Mercenary Groups and mechanism of formation

In 1977, Protocol number one attached to Geneva 4 Conventions, article 47 defined Mercenaries as any person who:

  • is specially mobilized locally or abroad to fight in an armed conflict;
  • really participates in hostilities;
  • is motivated by personal motives or benefits and is paid by parties that are involved in the conflict or their agents for an amount of money that is much bigger than militants with similar positions in the local army;
  • is not a national of any of the conflicting parties or a citizen of any territory dominated by any of these parties;
  • is not a member of the armed forces of any of the conflicting parties;
  • is not formally delegated by any country that is not involved in the conflict as a staff member of the armed forces.

All the above-mentioned conditions should be there to consider a militant as a mercenary. Mercenaries are those who are recruited to fight for another state than theirs. They do so for personal gains that have nothing to do with any humanitarian, moral or political interests.

Formation of Mercenaries Groups depends on the following issues:

  • Formation of mercenaries depends on ideological basis and mobilization that are based on sectarianism or politics parties like in the Syrian case where Shi’as have lined up with Assad’s Regime. The majority of these sectarian mercenaries came following a mobilization propaganda of the Sectarian mobilizers using religious forums that support fighting for Assad in Syria. Mosques, Husseini’s[2], satellite channels, newspapers and magazines have all been used for this propaganda. Social media like Facebook, Tweeter and forums have also been used. All these means of mobilization depended on direct call for fighting through brochures, songs and photos of fighting scenes. Some photos showed Zainab, a religious figure for Shi’as, with a red flag. Besides, Bashar Assad depended on Arab fighters from Arab countries depending on some nationalist parties like Syrian Social Nationalist Party which exists in both Lebanon and Syria.
  • Money temptation and exploitation of social and economic status pushed many Afghans for example to join in the fight as they suffered from unemployment. They were tantalized with a chance to stay in Iran as a transition to emigrating to Europe in the end. Some of them were indulged in drug trafficking at the border with Iran. Others get down to the Iranian labor market despite all difficulties that illegal emigrants usually face.

Iran was more interested in those mercenaries and their need for jobs and managed to mobilize many of them for the fight for Assad in Syria. Their religious sensitivity was provoked simultaneously with money temptation. An Afghani fighter usually gets 350 – 500$ a month in addition to permanent residency in Iran when he returns. They have got some privileges that are not allotted to Iranian fighters. When these unidentified foreign mercenaries are killed, they never cost the Iranian Government any financial duties like nationals. Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented many cases in which Assad’s Regime has mobilized criminals who are sentenced to death and other detainees and sent them to frontlines with promises to set them free when they finish fighting.

Magum, a Russian retired brigadier, stated that salaries provided by Shivika, a group of Russian Mercenaries, mounts up to 80000$ a month. This makes it able to send 1000 fighter a month

  • Psychology of mercenaries:

Working as a mercenary can attract those aspiring to get a wealth, or those with criminal tendencies like former militants and security staff. Such people usually come from ousted social classes or opportunists or desperate people that are easy to influence and persuade with doctrines that meet the requirements of the recruiter.

  • Motives of States that form Mercenary Groups

In accordance with their strategies for attaining their interest and expanding their domination, some states resort to military solutions to carry out heir plans depending on Mercenaries Groups, recently called Security Companies. These strategies aim at attaining two goals:

  • Internal goals: Putin’s dependence on foreign mercenaries in Syria, for example, is intended to help him rebuff internal opposition especially after he declared his intention to apply to Russian presidential election in 2018. Having statistics of those killed in Syria would help the opposition in Russia raise their voice. Moreover, Russian mercenaries fighting in Syria are not officially admitted by the Russian Government although these military operations are carried out in collaboration with Russian officers working Syria. Some other mercenaries are recruited by other countries like United Arab Emirates as sentry workers or internal security guards for oil facilities, sky scrapers and for emergency deployment in time of crisis.
  • External goals:

Countries are keen on preserving their economic interests outside their countries. Russian mercenaries, for instance, undertook the responsibility of protecting gas and oil wills that were liberated from ISIS in Syria. Euro-Police are doing their illegal activities under the title of Wagner. Syrian Oil Company signed a 48- page contract with the Russians which implies that the Russian Oil Company would take 25% of oil and gas of the restored wills. Russian Mercenaries played a key role in attaining Putin’s goals when he came to power in 1999. They contributed to reinforcement of Russian position on the International arena as a power that can never be ignored. Similarly, mercenaries recruited by United Arab Emirates helped UAE authorities in military tasks in Yemen.

Usually governments recruit mercenaries just to escape any legal consequences. For example, Russian law doesn’t allow military contractors to work abroad, but it allows special forces for the protection of facilities, individual and means of transport. Russian Criminal Law doesn’t allow any private military companies that can be involved in military operations or mercenary activities. Western countries accuse Moscow of arming and funding opposition militants in Ukraine and Moscow says that any Russian mercenary is there as an individual. The existence of mercenaries impairs peoples seeking freedom or fighting against foreign occupation or tyrants. In the meanwhile, these countries are facing problems with ability to control these mercenaries and coordinating their activities with formal armed forces. This is the reason behind many assassination cases of leaders of Mercenary Groups.

  • Mercenary Groups in Syria
  • Mercenaries motivated by ideology, money or sectarianism like Iranians and Afghans:

The formation of Mercenary Groups and militias by Assad’s Regime led to the destruction of social structure of Syria. He started to establish public Shabehas groups and “National” Defense Forces, and later encouraged some other groups to be attached to security branches. This opened the door for Iranian Militias, some Arab Parties and Russian Mercenaries to send their militants to Syria. Consequently, Assad’s Regime desperately attempted to keep a stronghold of this mixture.

In terms of motivation Mercenary Militias can be divided into three parts:

Militia No Militia No Militia No
Immam Ali Brigade 29 Al Kuds Corps 15 Lebanese Hezbullah 1
Haydar Al Karar Batalions 30 Asa’eb Ahal Al Hak 16 Al Redah Brigade 2
Nujaba’a Hezbullah Movement 31 Sader Militias 17 Iraqi Hezbullah 3
Talae’ Al Kharasani divisions 32 Kafeel Zainab Brigade 18 Zu Al Fakar Brigade 4
Al Ma’soum Brigade 33 Asadulah Al Ghaleb Brigade 19 Baker Al Sadre- Bader Military Wing 5
Al Hassan Mujtaba Brigade 34 Al Mua’amal Brigade 20 Al Wa’ad Al Sadek 6
Emergent raids Regiment 35 Al Abbas Batalion 21 Immediate intervention Regiment 7
Sefeen Battalions 36 Imam Husein Brigade 22 Al Zahra’a Batalion 8
Ammar Ben Yaser Brigade 37 Zainabyoun Brigade 23 Kamar Bani Hashem Batalion 9
Lutef Brigade 38 Shaheed Al Mehrab Batalion of Bubul in Syria 24 Afghan Fatemyoun Brigade 10
Al Da’wa Party of Nouri Al Malki 39 The Promised day Brigade from Iraq 25 Sayed Alk Shuha’da’a Batalions 11
Hurras Al Akeeda of Iraq 40 Wali Al Amer Corps 26 Afghan Baket Al Laah brigade 12
Ibdal Movement 41 Al Hamd Brigade of Iraq 27 Sa’da Brigade of Yemen 13
Abu Al Fadel Abbas 28 Iraqi Mahdi Army 14

It is worth mentioning that when Afghans are captured by Syrian Rebels, Assad’s Regime never pays any ransom or sets prisoners in return. When he contacted a high-ranking Officer of the Syrian Army named Suhail Al Hassan about six Afghans captured by Rebels, one of the leaders of rebels, who led the negotiations with the Regime, said that the Officer had told him to do whatever he liked with the six prisoners and that he could kill them if he liked.

  • Some mercenaries came to Syria out of ideological or nationalistic backgrounds, like those militias of Arab Parties though their participation was symbolic and not that effective. This deficiency was due to lack of coordination as A’asem Kanso, a Lebanese parliament member of Ba’ath Party, said.
Militia No Militia No Militia No
 Al Jaleel Palestinian Forces 11 Arab Nationalistic guards of Egypt 6 Arabi Tawheed Party – Wea’am Wahab 1
Arabic Democratic Party – Refa’at Eid 12 Arabi trend of Shaker Berjawi 7 Al Ba’ath Pary – Asenm Kansou 2
Labour Association of Zaher Khateeb in Lebanon 13 Syrian Nationalistic Social Party of Lebanon 8 Amal Movement of Lebanon 3
Public Front for liberating Iskandaroun – Ali Kayali 14 Defense Divisions of Mustafa Hamdan – Lebanon 9 Arabic Nationalistic Party – Lebanon 4
Public Liberation Front – Ahmad Jebreel 15 Al Kuds Palestinian Brigade in Aleppo 10 Public Struggle Front of Syrian Palestinians 5

Mercenaries motivated by money like Russian mercenaries as shown in the table below:

Militia No Militia No Militia No
Nuran Russian Group 3 Wagner Group that matches Black Water of the United States of America 2 Slovenia Corps- established by Russian Retired Officers 1

Most of the Russian mercenaries are nationalistic extremists who used to demand punishing all former Islamic Republics of the Soviet Union in the North of Caucasus. These republics are suffering the lack of social aids provided by the Russian Government. Nationalistic extremists say that they don’t want Chechenia Jihadists to come back home. They should be killed in Syria. Another objective is to restore the Russian role as a supper power and put an end to one polarity World.

In addition to fighting in Syria for commercial reasons like black lily to be taken to Greece, or ghazals hunters, some mercenary groups have committed many massacres especially sectarian massacres. Syrian Network for Human Rights documented 1147 Syrians who have been killed by these sectarian mercenaries ever since they started fighting for Assad’s Regime in 2015.

  • Section No 1 of Article 359 of the Russian Criminal Law says that if any person supports or funds or trains or uses mercenaries in an armed conflict or military action will be sentenced to 4-8 years imprisonment. Section 3 of the same article also says that any mercenary taking part in armed conflict or military actions will be sentenced to 3-7 years imprisonment. But, in November 2016, a new degree was issued to allow foreigners to serve in the so-called fighting terrorism missions or peace keeping forces without the need for ratification by the Russian Parliament.

Russia made amendments to military service law end of last year. This amendment gave a chance for military experts to sign short-term contracts with Russian Ministry of Defense to help in reinforcing Russian military presence in Syria. Following the American air strikes that targeted Russian militias on 7th February 2018, the discussion of this issue popped out to the scene. Russia usually uses these groups for high risk offensive operations like the attack on Palmyra, or to reinforce Russia influence and national interests without formal direct participation of the Russian Government. This helped Russia feel proud of not having many casualties or deaths among its troops compared with the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to blackout its role in Syria. Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that it hadn’t known about those mercenaries and their activities. This policy was dictated by high officials in the Kremlin when Ministry of Defense talked about Russian mercenaries in Eastern Syria and its plan to capture Syrian natural resources.

The following Mercenary Groups are the most prominent Russian ones:

  • Wagner Group is a military establishment founded by Demetry Autkin. Demetry Autkin is a Ukrainian former security officer who worked for Soviet Military Intelligence. He fought with Ukrainian separatists in Eastern Ukraine in 2014. His establishment was named Wagner and Yevgini Pregozhin, a businessman related to Kremlin, is the most important supporter and funder of Wagner. He is known as Putin’s cook. He is the godfather of electronic falsehood firehose.

As private military companies are not allowed in Russia, Wagner was registered in Argentina. It has about 2000 fighters working in Syria. This is equal to half of the Russian forces in Syria.

Those mercenaries were trained in a training camp in Krasnodar South of Russia. This training center is owned by Russian Ministry of Defense.

Russian mercenaries continue their training in Syria under supervision of Russian Officers and each mercenary is paid 5000$. They are equipped with armored vehicles and advanced missiles. Nearly all mercenaries had been staff members of Russian ground forces, navy, air defense and special forces.

In 2016 Yevgini Pregozhin established another Mercenary Group named Euro-police. The main task of this group is to fight in Syria for oil wills in favor of Assad’s Regime.

Apart from those mercenaries who were killed on 7 February 2017 by US air strikes, 32 mercenaries of Euro-police were killed and some other 80 were seriously injured during the fight in Syria. On 30th of June 2017, some Wagner mercenaries appeared in a video while torturing a Syrian young man. In that video, Russian music and language were clearly spotted. A strip on the arm of one mercenary saying: “I just want to hurt you very very much” was seen in the video. This group actively participated in military operations in Palmyra and removing mines in Aleppo and battles in Eastern parts of Syria.

  • Slovenian Corps:

It is a security firm established by retired Russian and Ukrainian officers. It provides security services to embassies, diplomatic missions, airports, seaports and private companies. They are usually assigned quality military operations like fast raids. In Syria, they have been deployed around airports and military bases due to the nature of their tasks like making scenarios for high risk areas, planning, removal of mines, data collection and intelligence operations.

  • Turan Mercenary Group:

It is a Russian Mercenary Group that was revealed by one the mercenaries fighting in Syria when he spoke about Wagner and Turan Mercenary Groups. These two groups have no formal connection with the Russian military institutions despite the need for coordination to carry out Putin’s plans in Syria. The mercenary added that the goal of coming to Syria was getting money. When they were mobilized, mercenaries were told that they were going to protect telecommunication companies, checkpoints, oil cranes and reconstruct factories. So, they were surprised when they were assigned raid tasks with battalion which has two branches, one in Syria and one in Iraq.


As Assad’s forces were ordered to suppress a public Revolution, they became weaker and weaker and consequently they needed the intervention of their allies. In order to mitigate the losses of formal military forces, mercenaries were recruited. These Mercenary Groups developed into security firms that have been granted more dominance and authority for decision making and policies of the hosting country. Bashar Assad issued degree No 55 on 8th of August 2013 to award licenses to security firms. It was a clear step that integrated these mercenaries in Assad’s Army and Shabehas. This opened the door for more violations and crimes that will negatively affect the social coherene of Syrian society.

[1] Civilians taking arms to fight with Bashar Assad against demonstrators and Syrian rebels

[2] Mosques of Shia of Iran, Lebanon and Iraq

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