Periodic media attention has focused on private military security companies in the past couple of years. Erik Prince has occasionally popped up from his underground warren to pitch his latest self-serving scheme to enrich himself. For instance, Prince and others offered to turn the war in Afghanistan over to private contractors. They also pushed a plan to establish a private global intelligence network answerable only to the CIA director and the president. Meanwhile, Russian companies like Wagner has been doing Putin’s fighting in Syria.
In the tradition of not seeing the forest for the trees, observers have neglected to notice a more disturbing reality. Significant amounts of present and future military combat operations have been outsourced to the private sector with little, if any, government control.
Consider what has been reported recently. The Trump administration is seeking to assemble an Arab force to replace the U.S. military contingent in Syria and help stabilize the northeastern part of the country. The Wall Street Journal reported that the idea “caught the attention of Erik Prince, the private businessman who founded Blackwater USA and who has helped the U.A.E. and Somalia set up private security forces.” Prince said, “that he has been informally contacted by Arab officials about the prospect of building a force in Syria but that he was waiting to see what Mr. Trump would do.”
Although Russian contractors from the Wagner Group, founded by Dmitriy Valeryevich Utkin, took heavy casualties back in early February when attacking an installation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), they are still in Syria. Moreover, Russian fighters are still going there. Reportedly Russia illegally uses Georgian airspace to transport troops between Syrian and Russian territory via charter flights.
Reuters reports that the flights in and out of Rostov, in southern Russia, are operated by Cham Wings, a Syrian airline hit with U.S. sanctions in 2016 for allegedly transporting pro-Assad fighters to Syria. The flights go into either Damascus or Latakia, a Syrian city where Russia has a military base. Between January 5, 2017 and March 11, 2018, Cham Wings aircraft made 51 round trips, each time using Airbus A320 jets that can carry up to 180 passengers. Russia has 2,000 to 3,000 contractors fighting in Syria, according to one source interviewed by Reuters. They are described as troops and officers, not security contractors and supervisors.
Wagner’s main tasks are reportedly to take part in the toughest assaults, coordinating and incorporating into Syrian units. It is also responsible for the reconquest and protection of deposits and facilities for the extraction of energy resources, on behalf of Russian companies. One observer characterizes Wagner not just as a regular private military company (PMC) but “more a hybrid reality than a PMC; a private special force that performs military tasks on Kremlin orders and FSB oversight.”
Such a task is far different from the primarily protective security that U.S. contractors have traditionally provided.
Over 4,000 private security contractors currently work for the Pentagon in Iraq and Syria, of which almost 2,000 are armed, according to the most recent quarterly report by the Department of Defense. Only 416 are American citizens; the rest are third country nationals. Of course, other U.S. agencies employ contractors in the same area, although the DoD report does not break them out. But it’s a safe bet that at least a couple of thousand are working for the State Department.
Still, the number of armed private contractors currently working under U.S. government contract in the Middle East is small and primarily defensive in nature.
But if Arab governments contract Erik Prince to help build a force to replace American forces in Syria, that situation could quickly change.
If this were a heavyweight fight, the judges would be scoring it for Wagner. By now, Wagner is an experienced, blooded, militarily well-equipped military force. It is hard to overestimate the advantages that organizational cohesion and combat experience bring to a force. The Wagner contractors are also motivated to try and get some payback for the casualties it took in February. Since it has close ties to Vladimir Putin and the Russian military, Wagner might be able to get significant Russian support in future combat operations.
In the other corner, Prince would have to assemble and organize an actual combat force. In this regard he has almost no experience. In the past, in Iraq and Afghanistan, he organized private security forces. They used small arms, and even had some limited air cover in the form of Little Bird helicopters. But it didn’t amount to much more than that.
Given enough time, Prince might be able to put together something resembling an actual private military force. Nearly a decade ago, he assembled a private military force for the United Arab Emirates. But that was only a battalion-sized unit, used primarily for internal defense.
Since that time, the UAE has since become more aggressive in its foreign policy, for instance in Yemen where in 2015 it reportedly contracted Academi, the most recent incarnation of Blackwater, to deploy 450 Colombian, Panamanian, Salvadoran and Chilean mercenaries. So, the UAE, and other deep-pocketed states such as Saudi Arabia, might well cut blank checks for a private Arab force in Syria organized, trained, and supplied by Erik Prince. Or they could turn to another U.S, businessmen, such as Stephen Feinberg, CEO of Cerberus Capital Management and the parent company of Dyncorp, a major national security contractor. On May 11 President Trump named him to head the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. Feinberg was also allied with Prince last year in their effort to replace U.S. troops in Afghanistan with private contractors.
Or Arab states might turn to Elliott B. Broidy, an American venture capitalist and Republican fundraiser, who has not been shy about advertising his access to President Trump. Broidy owns the private security company Circinus, which provides services to the United States and other governments. The company has hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts with the UAE.
What happens if Wagner contractors in support of Syrian forces engage the Arab force that Prince or others have put together? If the Syrian air force tries to aid them by bombing the Arab force, will U.S. forces be ordered to engage? If so, what will the Russians do?
It is ludicrous to expect Prince, Feinberg, or Broidy to ask such questions, let alone answer them. But somebody needs to do so, before a future Arab contractor force makes an already hot war incendiary.
David Isenberg is an independent researcher and writer on U.S. military, foreign policy, and national and international security issues. He a senior analyst with the online geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and is a U.S. Navy veteran. He is the author of Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq. His blog, The PMSC Observer, focuses on private military and security contracting, a subject he has testified on to Congress.