Beirut, Lebanon – At least 26 Syrian regime forces and nine Russian fighters were killed in an Islamic State group attack earlier this week in Syria’s eastern desert, a monitor said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the jihadists had targeted a group of Syrian and allied Russian fighters near the town of Mayadeen in Deir Ezzor province on Wednesday.
The Russian military is backing Syria’s army with air strikes and troops, but there are also widespread reports of private Russian mercenaries on the ground.
The defence ministry in Moscow said Sunday four Russian servicemen had been killed in clashes with militants in Deir Ezzor. It did not give a date or precise location, but the Observatory said it was the same incident as the Islamic State attack near Mayadeen.
It said two more Russian soldiers died later in a Russian military hospital following the fighting. Three other troops were wounded. The ministry said the fighting lasted around an hour and left 43 militants dead.
Russia’s Wagner mercenaries
The Russian defence ministry does not usually comment about the mercenaries in Syria who are employed directly by the Syrian regime but secretly managed by a Russian spy agency.
Wagner PMC (Private Military Company), hit the headlines because of a clash last February that resulted in dozens of Russian casualties. There were conflicting reports about the number of casualties . As many as 300 were killed according to the New York Times
In June 2017 the US Treasury added Wagner PMC to a long list of Russian individuals and entities subject to sanctions because of their involvement in the Ukraine conflict.
The PMC “has recruited and sent soldiers to fight alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine”, the US Treasury said.
The US also identified Dmitry Utkin as Wagner’s “founder and leader” and placed him on the list.
Russian media reports, quoting anonymous military sources, reveal that Utkin earlier served in a special forces brigade of Russian military intelligence, the GRU. Then in 2013 he went to Syria with a group of fighters recruited by a company called “Slav Corps”, reports say.
The GRU secretly oversees Wagner, according to security sources quoted by Russian RBC news. Russia’s official military deployment in Syria began in September 2015; it has mostly taken the form of air strikes, sometimes hitting civilian areas hard.
Wagner is estimated to have about 2,500 men in Syria.
Every PMC member serving in Syria is reportedly earning about $5,300 a month.