Jad Yateem: Mapping Post- Prigozhin’s Wagner: Special Focus on Syria

Jad Yateem: After August 23, 2023, a significant question emerged: Can Wagner continue to operate and survive in the absence of Yevgeny Prigozhin?

It was another alleged death of an oligarch from Putin’s inner circle, and these were many since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. It occurred precisely two months after a rebellion when Wagner advanced toward Moscow, posing a direct threat to the president’s position. This timing was also just 24 hours after Putin’s Chef and the Head of Wagner PMC made his last appearance in Africa, displaying confidence in his role as a key player in Russia’s military strategy.

Several factors had contributed to his inevitable fate, with the mutiny on June 23, 2023, standing out prominently. The motivation behind this act against his longtime friend stemmed from Prigozhin’s significant role following the Russian army’s failure to swiftly capture and occupy Kiev within two weeks, unlike the situation in Georgia in 2008. 

Wagner’s pivotal role in reclaiming Bakhmut served as a turning point in the escalating internal conflict between Wagner and the Russian Ministry of Defense.

Just as some described his mutiny as potentially “staged” to allow Putin to expose disloyal army generals, there remains skepticism surrounding Prigozhin’s death, particularly due to the absence of any filmed evidence of his corpse. Nonetheless, many well-informed sources familiar with Russia consider this fatal outcome was much expected.

In both cases, Prigozhin is no longer in the picture. While Wagner remains active in various battlefields, changes in the chain of command and mission objectives are anticipated in the near future.

In this article, we will endeavor to outline Wagner’s chain of command following the demise of its leader, with a particular focus on its activities in Syria.

Wagner: New Chain of Command 

Prigozhin’s death on the 23rd of August 2023, reshaped Wagner Group’s chain of command, though changes started after the mutiny of 23 June 2023.

Ukraine: MoD is Commanding Wagner

All Wagner factions in Ukraine and Russia are now under the direct control of the Ministry of Defense in Moscow. That was the case since the mutiny. 

Some mercenaries accepting Russian MoD contracts, were deployed for the time being, to two positions near Kyiv and inside the Belarusian border area with Poland. Where, Wagner Group is not currently involved in any military engagements. 

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Africa: Unofficial Russian Command

After the coup in Niger, it seems that Russia is gaining more popularity and influence on the ground. But, actually, it’s Wagner that represents Russian boots on the ground. The paramilitary group is well established in Libya, Sudan (Darfour), and Central African Republic. 

Wagner is extending Russian influence and funding its activities by taking percentages from oil and gold extracted under its protection in the African republics. For the new African leaders, especially in Burkina Faso and Mali, the price paid in exchange for Wagner’s help is more fair than that taken by the old colonialists. 

Wagner’s activities in the African continent stayed under Prigozhin’s command after the mutiny. But after his assassination, there will be a shift in the command for one of Putin’s trusted officers. This will not include signing official contracts with Russian MoD.  

Syria: Status-quo… Same Missions

War in Ukraine had an impact on Russian military activities in Syria. When the invasion didn’t hit its targets in the first two weeks, Russian military activities, especially air force engagement, decreased. 

Shortly, Russia started transferring Syrian fighters from the “25th Special Missions Division (formerly “Tiger Forces”)”, led by Russia’s man in Syria, General Suhail Al-Hassan, to Ukraine. 

This movement only had a limited effect on Russian engagement in Syria. Especially, nothing major was going on the ground. 

But what about the impact of Wagner’s mutiny on Russia’s influence and operations in Syria? 

Wagner serves two missions in Syria: a combatant and a guardian. 

Many media outlets claimed that, following the rebellion, many Wagner commanders and Syrian-related figures were arrested. And many withdrawals took place. None of this news is true.

To start with, with the combatant mission: The core of the Wagner group is engaged in direct combat in Syria, and was almost transferred to Ukraine, 7 months after the invasion. 

In September 2023, Russia withdrew all Wagner fighters from several fighting positions in Al-Raqqa and Al-Hasakeh Syrian provinces, towards the Russian base in Hmeimim and then to Ukraine.

About 140 Wagner fighters were withdrawn from the Al-Mabakir base in Tall Tamr countryside, (North of Al-Hasakeh), the “93rd Brigade (North of Al-Raqqa), and the school of the village of Al-Tarifawi, (Northeast of Al-Raqqa), towards the Hmeimim base. 

After that, Wagner fighters were transferred to Ukraine through Al-Qamishli Airport via an ‘Ilyushin cargo plane.

Those Wagner fighters were replaced by fighters from the Pro-Russia ‘Al-Qatirji’ Syrian militia.

After this redeployment of the Wagner Group, the two main remaining combatant positions for this group are Minaq Airport in Tall Rifat, alongside with Russian Military Police, and Palmyra Military Airport. 

The main mission that Wagner is serving now is guarding the Phosphate mines, oil and gas fields in Syria. 

In fact, Wagner is securing extraction and exporting done by the company owned by Prigozhin and acts as a front for Wagner, Evropolis.

Evropolis, which also owned Mercury and Vilada companies, had a contract with Syria’s state-owned General Petroleum Corp in 2018. 

At the end of 2019, Evropolis obtained oil exploration contracts in Syria through a presidential decree. The company was to receive 25% of the profits of the oil fields that were recovered from ISIS, by Wagner Group and its Syrian arm “ISIS Hunters”. 

Under the guardian mission, the Wagner group is now deployed in:

1-    One site in Homs-Palmyra countryside: 

–       Khneifis: Phosphate mine

2-    Four sites in Latakia and Jableh countryside

–       Ayn al-Tineh: Phosphate mine

–       Mahalibeh Castle: Phosphate mine

–       Hamam El Qarahleh: Phosphate mine

–       Ain Lilon: Phosphate mine

3-    Several Oil and Gas fields were liberated from ISIS (by Wagner) in the Qalamoun area, to the north of Damascus, in particular in As Sawwanah area. 

After the rebellion on June 23rd, and the assassination of Prigozhin two months later, Wagner is still accomplishing its guardian missions in Syria. The company is still gaining tens of millions of USD every month ($20 million per month during 2018, according to a ”Novaya Gazeta” report).

On the other side, concerning Wagner’s combatant missions, none of Wagner’s Commanders were arrested. 

Even, Wagner fighters who were withdrawn from Minaq Airport after the rebellion, were sent back. 

Wagner’s command and control HQ is based in Hmeimim Russian base, and thus all Wagner’s high-ranking officers were already based there. It is still operating the same way. 

Even Syrian partners, on top of them, “Assayyad (Hunter) Company” owned by Fawwaz Mikhael Jerjes, and responsible for recruiting Syrians for Wagner, is still operating.  

Wagner: A More Obedient Version

While Wagner is keeping its crucial role to serve Russia’s interests in Ukraine, and gaining a more important role in Africa, it is questionable if this will continue the same way when Prigozhin was still alive. 

But, calmly, Putin is transferring Wagner to align with Russia’s interests and plans, and it doesn’t seem that he will get rid of this efficient paramilitary group.

In Syria, The only minimal change is that new combatant missions are frozen. 

Unless Evropolis will start withdrawing from Syria and losing work, Wagner will be still operating there under the direct command of the Russian army in Hmeimim.