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Five Years After a Disastrous Syria Battle, Wagner Group Is More Dangerous Than Ever

Russian Military Soldiers. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Russian Military Soldiers. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Five years ago, U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) and Wagner Mercenaries in northern Syria fought the bloodiest engagement between American and Russian troops since the end of the First World War. In a stunning display of American firepower, U.S. air and artillery strikes decimated an entire column of Syrian troops and Russian mercenaries, killing at least 300 without losing a single American. While the Battle of Khasham was at the time equally impressive for Washington and embarrassing for Moscow, it served as a teachable moment for the Kremlin.

Instead of being deterred by its stunning defeat, Wagner has only grown stronger and more dangerous, operating far beyond the borders of the Syrian desert as a transnational criminal and terrorist organization. Rather than showing the incompetence of Russia’s warfighting capabilities, the Syria debacle shows the west that Moscow can learn from its mistakes and become more of a geopolitical threat because of it. As the Ukraine War turns one-year-old, the ghosts of Khasham live on as Wagner shows no signs of stopping its brutal onslaught.

According to reporting by The New York Times, the Battle of Khasham began as a convoy consisting of 27 vehicles and 500 Russian and Syrian troops advanced towards an American outpost at the Conoco gas plant near the northern Syrian city of Deir ez-Zour. Despite an agreed to de-confliction line, the Wagner-led force crossed the boundary, bombarding the outpost with tank, mortar, and artillery fire. As the enemy advanced, the Americans responded with waves of air strikes as B-52 bombers, AC-130 gunships. F-15E Strike Fighters, and attack helicopters pummeled the column. The engagement, lasting over three hours, ended with 40 U.S. SOF annihilating most of the attackers, leaving at least 300 dead on the battlefield.

Wagner’s Syrian debacle has been used to denigrate the Russian army and mercenary capabilities in the battle zone. Audio recordings of survivors went viral as they graphically recounted how the Americans “tore [them] to pieces for sure, put [them] through hell.” Four years later, U.S. Central Command commander General Kenneth McKenzie used Khasham as an example of how “any mercenary force will have a qualitative disadvantage” against the U.S. However, Wagner’s expansion and endurance demonstrates that Syria became a teachable moment for the organization as they grow in power.

Broadening its reach outside of the Middle East, Wagner has shown itself to be a threat to transnational security. In Ukraine, Wagner had fought a low-intensity conflict against Kyiv since the 2014 Crimean annexation and war in the Donbas before joining the Russian onslaught of February last year. Now a veteran paramilitary force with nearly a decade of combat experience, Wagner mercenaries are waging a brutal campaign in eastern Ukraine, employing the only tactics that are “effective for the poorly trained mobilized troops” of the regular Russian army according to a Ukrainian report obtained by CNN.

The Khasham debacle has not demonstrated the mercenary group’s “qualitative disadvantage” nor their incompetence in battle. Wagner personnel have played a critical role in capturing Soledar, providing the Russians a steppingstone to encircle the strategic city of Bakhmut. Additionally, over 50,000 mercenaries are now actively fighting in Ukraine, dwarfing the initial 5,000 that were operating in the country before the war began.   

Nor has the ghost of Khasham inhibited Wagner’s global reach, indicating that the battle has done little to deter the private military company’s transnational aggression. Rather, the Wagner Group and its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin pivoted their strategy of destabilizing the international order by filling power vacuums where the U.S. and its allies lack a stable presence.

According to cables obtained by Politico, Wagner mercenaries are extending their networks in Africa and Europe as a tool to “fight anti-Putin sentiment and defend government mining interests.” Since 2017, Prigozhin deployed fighters to Mali, Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan, Libya, Burkina Faso, and half a dozen countries across the African continent. Meanwhile, France is proceeding with its withdrawal from Burkina Faso after completing its troop removal from Mali last August while U.S. operators are spread thin across 22 African countries fighting a losing battle against extremists.

Wagner’s terror campaigns in Africa have only escalated as the West withdrew from the continent. Human rights experts found widespread evidence of “horrific executions, mass graves, acts of torture, rape and sexual violence, pillaging, arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances” committed by Wagner in Mali while its fighters indiscriminately murdered CAR civilians in over 180 instances, accounting for most of its military operations in the country since 2020. Furthermore, Wagner’s war crimes and brutal strategy of supporting dictatorships in exchange for precious natural resources such as gold and oil have only turned Africa into a hub for international terrorism. Burkina Faso and Mali, were the fourth and seventh countries most impact by violent extremism in 2022 according to the Global Terrorism Index, vindicating many European diplomats claims that Wagner “totally ineffective” approach make it a “destabilizing” force in the region.

Wagner’s role as a transnational criminal and terrorist organization shows no signs of stopping in the wake of their disastrous Syria performance five years ago. Instead, the mercenaries brutal onslaught has gone global in more than 27 countries across four continents. Additionally, Prigozhin’s growing political influence has some in the Kremlin even trying to reign in his power because they “fear him.” Just last week Moscow stripped Prigozhin’s ability to recruit convicts for his mercenary army as he courts Putin’s favor after Wagner achieved Russia’s first major victory in months at Soledar. As one Kremlin insider told the Guardian, “People from the FSB [Federal Security Service] are furious about him and see him as a threat to the constitutional order. He has this big military group not controlled by the state, and after the war they will want their rewards, including political rewards.”

Since publicly admitting both the existence and his founding role in the Wagner Group last September, Prigozhin’s profile has only grown, being bold enough to criticize the Russian Army General Staff for their handling of the war and making a rumored alliance with the pro-war Fair Russia political party. While his ambitions remain unclear, the fact remains that a brutal warlord with a massive private military is worryingly close to the levers of power in Moscow and is likely to remain as the war continues.

But what can the United States do against Prigozhin and his mercenary army? The Treasury Department recently designated the Wagner Group as a “transnational criminal organization,” but sanctions alone won’t stop its terror campaign in Ukraine and Africa. The answer may lie in the Battle of Khasham where aerial supremacy and technological superiority allowed an outnumbered and outgunned American outpost to destroy an entire Wagner column. Giving Ukraine the modern aircraft it needs to secure its airspace may be the only kinetic way of stemming the Russian onslaught. Instead, President Biden declined Zelensky’s request for F-16s, demonstrating that the administration is still stuck in this never-ending loop of refusing and then eventually acquiescing to Kyiv’s needs once the battlefield situation necessitates it.

Incremental support and feet-dragging will only harm the Ukraine war effort. Since the war began, the west has taken Putin’s “red line” threats seriously only to eventually yield to battlefield realities. Whether it was Javelin missiles or Abrams tanks, Putin threatened escalation against the U.S. and NATO with nothing coming out of it. This song and dance should end, and the United States should give the tools Ukraine needs without hesitation. President Biden promised he would stand with the Ukrainian people against Russian aggression and lead the NATO coalition in the “defense of democracy.” By releasing the F-16s, Biden can make good on his word.

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Kyle Sajoyan is a research assistant at Yorktown Institute focusing on strategic sealift capabilities and the decline of American naval power. This first appeared in RealClearDefense. 

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Kyle Sajoyan is a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.