The Spoils, and Profits, of Conflict

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An oil field near Homs, Syria, in February. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

According to Russian news outlets, the Syrian government has contracted with private Russian companies that have Kremlin connections to carry out security operations for the Assad regime in Syria in exchange for a share of oil, gas and mineral production in territory won back from rebels. Mercenaries and private contractors are nothing new in Middle Eastern conflicts, unfortunately, but sending private security services to fight for spoils on foreign land adds an insidious dimension to an already ugly conflict.

The deals are shadowy and secretive. According to the enterprising Russian news site Fontanka, one company, Evro Polis, working with a private security group called Wagner — which is suspected of operating in eastern Ukraine and whose founder is under United States sanctions — stands to get a 25 percent share of oil and natural gas produced on territory it recaptures from the Islamic State. Evro Polis was registered only a year ago and is part of a network of companies owned by Evgeniy Prigozhin, a Kremlin caterer close to President Vladimir Putin. Another Russian company, Stroytransgaz, got rights to mine phosphate in central Syria in exchange for guarding the area. The company’s owner is also under United States sanctions.

When Fontanka questioned the Ministry of Energy, the response was that the deals are “corporate secrets.” But when Fontanka asked a private security consultant about these kinds of deals, the consultant expressed no surprise. “War is business,” he was quoted as saying.

Indeed, mercenaries have always been around, and private military contractors have played a major role with United States forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, guarding installations and officials, training local army and police officers and providing other services. In one notorious episode, several employees of Blackwater, a private military firm now called Academi, were accused of killing 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.

It might also be expected that Russia, which has supported the Syrian regime from the outset of the civil war over the protests of the United States and the European Union, would play a role in restoring oil production and mining on former battlegrounds. (The United States and the E.U. have barred the import of Syrian oil since 2011.) It is also a way for Russia to expand its presence in Syria, where it is competing with Iran for postwar influence.

But the Evro Polis deal goes beyond the notion of outsourcing security or reconstruction in hot spots. Pushing back the Islamic State and denying it access to oil may be in everyone’s interest, but turning the fight into a private scramble for profit is a dangerous and ignoble gambit.

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