Wagner negotiating Syria deal to create biggest fighting force in the world days before failed coup
Thursday 29 June 2023, 10:29pm
ITV News can reveal that officials in Damascus were ready to agree to increase the number of Wagner fighters in Syria by more than tenfold, Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo reports
Representatives of Wagner Group were negotiating a lucrative deal with President Bashar al-Assad to make Syria its biggest base, just days before its troops attempted to stage a coup in Moscow.
Officials in Damascus were ready to agree to increase the number of Wagner fighters in Syria by more than tenfold – seeing the move as a route to strengthening ties with the Kremlin – but were blindsided by events in Russia last week.
The Assad regime is considering whether there is a way to keep the multi-million-dollar contracts with Yevgeny Prigozhin’s companies, while not risking the direct military support Damascus receives from Moscow.
The current arrangements, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars per month, allow the paramilitary chief to exploit some of Syria’s natural resources.
Putin says Wagner group were ‘taking revenge for failures at the front’
Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin meet in Moscow last March.
ITV News can reveal that less than a fortnight before the Russian rebellion was launched, Prigozhin’s representatives in Syria discussed a new deal to significantly expand its foothold in the country.
The regime was represented at the talks by Yasser Ibrahim, a senior political figure described as ‘al-Assad’s henchman’ alongside officials from the presidential palace.
A source close to the negotiations has told ITV News that under the plans, Wagner would have recruited tens of thousands more troops in Syria, taking its presence from around 4,000 fighters today to as many as 70,000 in the next few months.
Several foreign diplomatic sources said they were familiar with some aspects of the discussions.
In its negotiations with Wagner Group over the last few weeks, the Assad regime insisted that 50% of the new fighting force would have to remain within Syria so they could be deployed to hotspots in the northwest of the country.
Other troops would be free to be sent to Ukraine, Mali, or Central African Republic.
It was assumed during the discussions, which continued through most of June, that the Wagner fighters would still work hand-in-hand with the Russian air force, as they have done since 2015 in Syria.
But the dispute between the two groups’ commanders in chief have made an expansion of that arrangement impossible.
Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War eight years ago helped tip the balance in favour of al-Assad, ensuring he was not toppled despite Western demands.
Wagner fighters arrived on the battlefield shortly afterwards. Syria’s Armed Forces continue to rely heavily on support from the mercenaries as well as Russia’s army and air force.
Just this week, Russia launched an airstrike in a busy market in Idlib, the strategic rebel-held town, killing at least nine people.
The groundwork for the new Wagner deal was laid during a visit to the Kremlin by al-Assad in March.
Constrained by the impact of conflict, an economic crisis, and a massive earthquake a few weeks earlier, the Syrian president was one of few leaders facing even bigger crises at home than his host