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
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.
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.
Under pressure, al-Assad agreed to Moscow's request to set up new military bases in Syria.
Publicly he said he would welcome any Russian proposals to set up new facilities and send extra troops to Syria, adding that the focus of his conversations with Putin in Moscow had been on investment projects.
"We believe that if Russia has the desire to expand bases or increase their number, it is a technical or logistical issue," al-Assad told RIA Novosti, the Russian state-owned news agency.
But in private the leaders went much further, shaking hands on a significant deal to make Russia's military presence in Syria permanent.
The Russian embassy in London did not respond to a request for comment.
Wagner's influence in Syria already stretches far beyond its private army - it is only one part of a shadowy network of companies linked to Prigozhin which has gained a huge foothold in the Syrian oil and gas industries in exchange for its presence on the battlefield.
Moscow has sought to expand its reach in the eastern Mediterranean by outsourcing aspects of its foreign policy to private military contractors, which offer plausible deniability for some of its actions.
But even Russia's armies-for-hire have sought to use other organisations to hide their fundraising activities.
The funding of Wagner in Syria is clouded by a range of routes through companies which don't advertise their association with the paramilitary group.
A company called 'Mercury' is one example. A presidential decree signed in December 2019, and seen by ITV News, allowed the company to begin a major drilling and exploration project.
But more than two years later, in June 2022, the company was added to a list of organisations sanctioned by the UK, after its links to the Wagner chief were unearthed.
A notice issued by HM Treasury said: "The company is associated with Yevgeny Prigozhin who is a person who is or has been so involved."
The extent of Prigozhin's involvement in Russia's operations in Syria is demonstrated by his role organising a controversial peace summit in 2018, which can be revealed for the first time.
On behalf of Putin, he helped to plan and secretly attended the conference hosted by Russia in Sochi, the Black Sea resort.
Around 1,500 delegates attended the event, but large numbers of Syrian opposition groups boycotted it following concerns the conference was an attempt to circumvent the United Nations (UN).
Al-Assad attended his first Arab League summit in 13 years in May as part of what is broadly perceived to be a normalisation of relations with some countries.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has formally invited him to attend the UN COP28 climate change conference in Dubai, next November, even though he is still subject to sanctions. It will be his first appearance at an international summit since the start of the civil war.
Al-Assad's family has maintained close ties with Russia. This week al-Assad's eldest son, Hafez al-Assad, graduated from Moscow State University after obtaining a masters degree in mathematics, apparently with "a perfect percentage".
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