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Assad’s Army and Intelligence Services: Feudalization or Structurization?

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Authors: Anton Mardasov* & Kirill Semenov

2017 marked a turning point in the Syrian conflict. With the full support of Russia and Iran, the Bashar al-Assad regime was able to neutralize the “domestic threat” completely. Throughout 2017, Damascus used the situation to carry out “outlying” operations, manipulating the ceasefire agreements and other accords reached as part of the Astana Peace Process. As soon as a relative calm would settle in a given “de-escalation zone” [in the opinion of the present authors, quotation marks are necessary in this case, as they indicate the real nature of these four zones], the regime would start transferring the available forces to other areas. First to eastern Syria in order to break the blockade of Deir ez-Zor and establish control over adjacent areas, which undoubtedly accelerated the downfall of the “Caliphate,” then to Idlib Governorate. And then, taking advantage of the agreements reached between Russia and Turkey on the division of spheres of influence in this “de-escalation zone,” to East Ghouta. Now Damascus has the initiative in terms of launching an offensive and a significant advantage over opposition groups.

The State of Affairs

As early as the beginning of 2017, the Syrian opposition demonstrated its ability to consolidate efforts and respond to the regime’s offensive manoeuvres. One such example is the way it managed to reduce “tension” in East Ghouta by carrying out distracting operations of its own in Daraa and Hama. However, the Syrian opposition became irreversibly fragmented after the process to form the de-escalation zones began, accompanied by the establishment of an external protectorate over these zones. As a result, most of the opposition factions in Greater Idlib now operate exclusively in the interests of Turkey, and the Amman Agreement between Jordan, Russia and the United States regarding the southwest de-escalation zone has succeeded in taking the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front out of the game. External actors have played a decisive role in the outcome of the confrontation between Damascus and the internal opposition, cutting off aid to opposition factions and effectively splitting them into isolated fragments.

That being said, until February 2018 (when the Russia–Turkey agreement made it possible to wrap up the active operation in Idlib and focus forces on East Ghouta), all the efforts of the elite units of the 4th Armoured Division, as well as the Syrian Republican Guard and other regular units of the Syrian Arab Army, to repel opposition forces in East Ghouta’s Jobar and Ayn Tarma ended with the withdrawal of government-sponsored troops after significant losses. The operation in Harasta ended with the encirclement of a Republican Guard battalion and the deaths of five colonels and brigadier generals. The same thing happened during an operation in Daraa in the south of the country.

Despite the active support of the Russian Aerospace Forces, the Syrian Special Forces and the Shiite “Expeditionary Corps” led by Lebanon’s Hezbollah and various Iraqi factions, the government forces still suffered significant strikes from the heavily outnumbered Islamic State. One such event took place in Homs and Deir ez-Zor in September–October 2017, when Islamic State units managed to cut off almost all the supply routes to pro-Assad troops operating along the Euphrates. The only thing that prevented the terrorists from building on their successes was the lack of numbers on the part of Islamic State (very few detachments are left) and the haphazard band-aid approach adopted by Russian specialists on the issue.

Thus, Damascus’ victories over its opponents can, for the most part, be put down to favourable circumstances and external support, rather than to the regime’s strengthening of its forces or increasing its combat effectiveness, despite the great efforts Russia has expended to train Syria’s military personnel and provide its regular units with up-to-date military technology.

Counting on the fact that these manipulations have successfully paralyzed the opposition to the point that pro-government forces will now be able to deal with current challenges does not eliminate the need to have a national military structure – without the growing Shiite International.

Fragmentation

At present, the armed forces that Bashar al-Assad relies on continue to be an assortment of groupings, all of which depend on Damascus to varying degrees. There is no unity within the army in terms of readiness to unquestioningly carry out the directives of its leadership. There is a complicated system of approvals for the use of “elite” sections of the Syrian Arab Army in specific operations. This even applies to its most elite components: the 4th Armoured Division, the Syrian Republican Guard, Suheil al-Hassan’s “Tiger Forces” and individual units of other sections – for example, the “Deir Al-Qalamoun” unit of the 3rd Armoured Division and the “Saif Al-Mahdi” unit of the 4th Armoured Division, among others. At the same time, the combat effectiveness of the Syrian Arab Army’s combat manoeuvre units leaves much to be desired, and attempts are made to avoid moving them to regions far away from their areas of permanent deployment.

Various paramilitary groupings that do not answer directly to the Syrian Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the state security organs continue to play an important role, including the so-called National Defence Forces, the Local Defence Forces, foreign (primarily Shiite) groups, and other units created by them in Syrian territory, made up of Syrian nationals. There are at least twice as many fighters in the irregular army formations as in the Syrian Arab Army itself.

The Syrian crisis has made it possible for political institutions to acquire their own military formations. The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party still has active squadrons, some of which are part of the 5th Corps. Eagles of the Whirlwind is the military wing of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. And the Syrian Resistance is a left-wing paramilitary group led by Mihrac Ural, who is considered a terrorist in Turkey.

The formation of various paramilitary structures – military wings of mafia-like clans, private military companies, regional and tribal militias and militarized political organizations – has undermined the stability of the regime. These forces do not simply support Damascus. From the very beginning, they have attempted take root in government institutions and/or take control of various sources of income. It is no secret that various Shabiha detachments currently operating under the aegis of the National Defence Forces control the checkpoints, which in practice means that they have access to corrupt schemes, including the opportunity to send radical opposition fighters into the Turkish zones of influence. A number of figures associated with the pro-Iranian Syrian group Liwa al-Baqir (the Baqir Brigade, part of the Local Defence Forces) have their own fleet of minibuses and continue to operate transport businesses.

Given that Damascus is in dire need of local groupings in order to maintain stability and security, these militias will probably continue to exist after victory is declared. All the more given that all armed militia groups were legalized in 2013 and given permission to carry out their “activities” by the Ministry of Interior.

The incorporation of the National and Local Defence Forces into state structures was predetermined by the fact that both the Syrian special services and the army were unprepared for an uprising, and the vacuum thus created was filled by paramilitary groups. Iran also took advantage of this by helping set up various paramilitary structures and thus establishing a multi-echeloned presence in Syria.

Integration

Worthy of separate note is the Fifth Corps of Volunteers, an autonomous military structure that was created with the direct participation of Russian military advisers. According to some reports, the corps itself is also led by Russian generals. The corps can hardly be regarded as a regular military formation. It consists of various subdivisions made up of volunteers and is financed by a number of non-government sources. It also contains certain pro-government Syrian forces that existed before the corps was set up, including those financed by private individuals (the “Sea Commandos”) or set up with the participation of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah (Liwa Dir’ al-Watan). At the same time, the inclusion of defectors and objectors from among the Sunni population in the Fifth Corps was apparently supposed to break the stereotype about the sectarian foundation of the pro-government forces and the auxiliary nature of the Sunnis’ participation in the war. However, the experiment has yet to bear fruit. The most combat-ready units of the Fifth Corps – the so-called ISIS Hunters – are again “sectarian militias” (as far as Syria’s Sunni majority is concerned). Such groups are made up primarily of Syrian Christians and Alawites (for example, the aforementioned “Sea Commandos”) or Shiites (Liwa Dir’ al-Watan, with the participation of Lebanese fighters). Work of this kind is likely to continue: according to some reports, work on the establishment of a 6th Corps is already under way.

Sooner or later the Syrian armed forces will surely face the challenge of transition to a peaceful life. In this context, it is important to understand what will happen to the large number of paramilitary formations and militias. The Iraqi leadership is attempting to solve this very same problem at home, having initiated a procedure to integrate soldiers of the militia group “Khashd ash-Shaabi” into the country’s armed forces. The experience gained during the creation of the 5th Corps, as well as its predecessor (the 4th Corps) can be used to help integrate certain paramilitary structures into the Syrian Arab Army and the Ministry of Interior.

It is also possible at the initial stage to revive the three corps of the Syrian Arab Army that formally existed before, turning them into territorial commands. All the regular and paramilitary units could be placed under their control on a territorial basis, thus becoming parts of the regular forces, identified by numbers instead of names. This is a necessary step, because many of these structures simply refuse to dissolve themselves, as in the case in Iraq. However, their existence should be legalized and their activities brought into line with military regulations.

Another problem is how to overcome the increasingly “sectarian” nature of military forces in Syria. All or most of the combat-ready units are made up primarily of national and religious minorities. Sunnis play a secondary role, mainly serving in auxiliary, “second echelon” groupings. Attracting Sunnis who have fought or lived in opposition territories, earning their trust and ensuring that they carry out their duties in a diligent manner will also be a key issue.

A Necessary but Unrealistic Scenario

If we distance ourselves from the propaganda and frankly dilettantish stereotypes about the Syrian opposition, then the best option for establishing an ethnic and confessional balance would be to unite the opposition groups and pro-government forces into a single structure. This is the kind of renewal of the armed forces that the UN documents envision. It is hardly possible, for example, to incorporate the insurgent factions that have, with Turkey’s support, united to form the Syrian National Army (SNA, which operates exclusively in Northern Aleppo) into existing Syrian Arab Army units and divisions. The leadership of the opposition factions will not agree to this, bearing in mind what happened in Tajikistan (where the opposition was liquidated after its divisions were incorporated into government units). One possibility is to form about five to seven separate corps and divisional units from opposition forces and establish a single military council involving the Syrian National Army and the Syrian Arab Army.

However, neither Damascus nor Tehran, nor indeed Moscow, is interested in such a scenario. Although it is far easier for the Russian side to play along with the Syrian regime, which seeks to eliminate the Syrian opposition once and for all by military means, that goal would serve only to strengthen the positions of Iran and Syria. Moscow has had a significantly more difficult time than expected positioning itself as a moderator in the conflict and maintaining effective working relations with the opposition groups that participated in the Astana Peace Process and signed agreements with the Russian military in Cairo and Geneva. Integrating the opposition into military and political structures that are aligned with the current regime could serve as a natural counterweight to the influence of Iran and preserve a certain balance of power that is beneficial to Moscow. The big question now is: to what extent will Moscow be able to maintain control over its “client,” given that Tehran is clearly benefitting from the situation?

Reform of the Military Intelligence Services

Against the backdrop of the Islamic State’s transition to clandestine activities in Iraq and Syria (which is common for the group) and various other challenges, the role of the Syrian intelligence services is acquiring greater significance. Their activities today little resemble the standards adopted in the sphere. Opportunities to carry out covert intelligence work have been greatly reduced, and the grassroots tools of state governance have been destroyed. The Syrian intelligence services were not even able to prevent terrorist attacks on the National Security Council building.

At present, the Syrian intelligence services do not seem to have an analogue anywhere in the Middle East. Four independent security structures operate within the Syrian Arab Army. These structures are divided into “military,” which includes military intelligence and aerial reconnaissance (Air Force reconnaissance) and “political” (civilian units formally subordinate to the Interior Ministry), which includes the main security department and the department for managing political security. All of these structures answer directly to the president. However, the system of intelligence services in Syria reflects the complexity of relations and confrontations among various groups of influence in the country’s ruling elite. The system is constructed in such a way that the individual intelligence services effectively work against each other, which makes it impossible for any single “branch” to become significantly stronger than the others.

Air Force reconnaissance was conceived as the intelligence structure “closest” to the heart of former president Hafez al-Assad, who was a fighter pilot himself. As a result, it effectively turned into an independent state security agency, with its own external intelligence and counterintelligence divisions, and even a department for combatting anti-government activities. During the Civil War, the Air Force reconnaissance formed an entire “pleiad” of special forces units to carry out operations using heavy machinery. The other three “branches” took similar steps in order to prevent any one of the intelligence agencies from becoming significantly stronger than the rest.

It would appear that the simplest solution for transforming the Syrian intelligence services with the goal of optimizing their activities would, first of all, be to merge Air Force reconnaissance and military intelligence into a single organ of the General Staff of the Syrian Arab Army, and strip these structures of the ability to carry out political investigations. As for the political security structures, it would be practical for one of them to focus exclusively on external intelligence activities, while the second could be engaged in counterintelligence and anti-terror activities. In other words, Syrian intelligence services would be brought up to global standards.

It is also imperative to create border security forces to control Syria’s eastern frontiers first and foremost, but also the entire border, as a kind of unified system with its own social and infrastructural characteristics. While Hafez al-Assad paid special attention to the country’s tribes, granting their leaders various privileges and taking their views into consideration in political life, his son Bashar all but forgot about them, which combined with drought in the regions and the misallocation of resources created the conditions for social upheaval. The years spent under the control of radical groups transformed the tribal social fabric even more. At present, the regime relies primarily on the Suqur al-Furat militia, which contains members of the Al-Shaitat tribe, to carry out its activities in the eastern part of the country. The tribe attempted a revolt against the Islamic State rule in 2014 but was defeated in a gruesome fashion. Damascus used this as a pretext to organize a military training programme for the tribe’s members and announced an amnesty for them.

If Damascus is unable to hold a constructive dialogue with the Sunni tribes, then there is a risk that the Islamic State will emerge once again in one form or another as a result of the joint efforts of independent Sunni groups and radicals (operatives, preachers, etc.), who will be able to remain in the country. It is all the more important to deal with the cadres who are familiar with the local terrain in the east of the country could help prevent smuggling, with which both Damascus and Baghdad have well-documented issues.

*Anton Mardasov, Military Observer Head of the Department of Middle Eastern Conflicts at the Institute of Innovative Development

First published in our partner RIAC

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Evolutions of Strategic Intelligence

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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What is strategic intelligence currently used for? First and foremost, for correctly orienting the long sequence of decision makers’ interpretations.

Secondly, for acting as automatic or non-automatic selector of relevant or non-relevant facts and news for those who have access to the intelligence system.

 Finally, for correctly connecting intelligence data with the rest of open source news and the various perceptions on a topic.

 Intelligence is never just a sequence of data collection. Certainly data is needed to qualify, think, imagine or refuse any Intelligence Service’s operation. What is really needed, however, is never mere data, but the indication of how the opponent secretly thinks and, therefore, what he/she selects as primary concept and, more generally, how the enemy hierarchizes and interprets his/her notions.

 The Strategic Intelligence System (SIS) produces the information needed by the most important decision-makers.

 Therefore, it must be simple, immediate and clear -considering that very rarely decision-makers have already experience of Intelligence Service -but also new, fresh, reasonable and, above all, capable of being even counterfactual, where needed.

 If, as often happens today, even in Italy, the Intelligence Service produces models that confirm the ideas of the most superficial politicians, it is not good.

 Not even for the insubstantial careers of the fools who always say yes.

 In other words, an analysis that is not obvious, not always inferable from the most well-known facts, not childish and in any case not taken for granted.

Vaste programme, as De Gaulle said when he was proposed the abolition of idiots.

 There is, on the one hand, the childish and very “American” fascination for new technologies, which are undoubtedly extraordinary.

 Technologies which, like Artificial Intelligence, can expand, automate and make the collection and processing of intelligence data even more refined. But technologies which, each time, must be adapted to a context in which also the enemy uses AI.

 Sure, but it is anyway necessary to deal with staff suitable for analysing the data sequence of an AI system and understanding how it relates to the opponent’s decision-making, whether it has to do with AI networks or not.

 Either there are technology experts who understand nothing about intelligence, or there are intelligence experts who know nothing about AI technology.

 What if the enemy produced – as has already happened – fragments of voluntarily manipulated information so as to later put out of phase the AI machines that interpret government’s choices from outside?

 What if decision-making totally hid its operating mechanisms, thus artfully eliminating any signal capable of bringing the analytical system into its decision-making mechanism? It takes so little, indeed.

Hence we need to see how and to what extent the Artificial Intelligence subsets, cloud computing, machine learning, problem solving and robotics are really useful for intelligence operations.

 In the U.S. tradition – very much linked to the “machine” myth – AI allows to automate and simplify (and here there is already a danger) data collection and, in particular, the synthesis between geospatial, Signal, HUMINT and even open source data collection.

That is all well and good, but how can we avoid the opponent knowingly “dirtying” the data sequence or developing and processing models in which the various sources contrast dangerously with each other?

 Either you give contradictory news, or you put a useful source in a bad light, or you create a “narrative” that you are working for Good and Democracy, and here the Western idiots will not be able to say anything.

 Probably, you shall also go back to the old traditional methods: someone who infiltrates into the enemy’s ruling classes, becomes credible and then changes the enemy’s decision-making process in our favour. Or informs us of how it really goes.

 In the case of Geointelligence, AI can collect sensor data very well, often very quickly. So far, all is well, but the truth lies in the brain that evaluates, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

 AI is also useful in computer vision and sometimes very useful also for electronic intelligence (ELINT), especially for translation between different languages. But, certainly, this is not the whole intelligence process. We are always talking about hardware, not about conceptual software.

 This is what I could call “Descartes’ complex”, i.e. the typical idea of the old Western scientific mentality that we always need to see facts and then find the automatic mechanism of a phenomenon.

 This is a completely wrong criterion.

In Intelligence Services’ operations the “facts” are usually not seen, if all goes well, and never have a univocal and certain “mechanism”.

Otherwise it would not be an Intelligence Service’s operation, but a simple police action or a completely public and official operation.

 The mythical rationalism of the United States and of other similar countries always tends to “automate” intelligence. Hence the more the data collection of an Intelligence Service is automated, the more predictable and useless it is. Predictable especially by the Enemy.

We always need to use “lateral thinking” and serendipity. “Lateral thinking”, based on the observations made by Maltese psychologist De Bono, uses lateral observation points to solve a problem, without using the most obvious and visible “sequential” logic accepted by everybody.

 You do not dig a mine in the wrong place, but in the right one.

Nevertheless, the thinking that De Bono calls “vertical” always digs in the same place, and the human mind which, like all the other organs, does not want to work too much, is attracted by the most probable, obvious and “visible” solution, i.e. what it defines as “natural”.

 Serendipity is the possibility of making accidental discoveries. Indeed, it is never by chance, but it shows the imaginative and necessary potential of those who discover a phenomenon, but who know above all how to use accidental or apparently trivial information.

It is another essential characteristic in intelligence analysis.

Furthermore, some countries think that HUMINT, i.e. intelligence from human sources, can be strengthened by AI systems that collect and select the “sources” always according to predefined patterns.

 Whatever is predefined must never be used in an intelligence Service, unless there are temporary guarantees. This is the Number 1 Rule. Instead of the standardization of analysis techniques, the opposite must be done in a world where “third” countries acquire powers that were unimaginable until a few years ago.

Therefore, the predefined mechanism is a severe mistake: the “sources” are trained to avoid precisely these systems.

 As was also the case at the time of the Cold War, when many Soviet undercover agents infiltrated in the Western Intelligence Services were even trained to succeed without problems in the analysis with the polygraph, the so-called “lie detector”, and also created a credible, but completely imaginary and in any case unverifiable, personal story.

They indeed used serendipity and lateral thinking. The others, with their naive positivism, let themselves be fooled.

 The real problem is therefore the analysis of strategic surprise: September 11 is a case in point, but surprises can be either “widespread” or “specific”.

 If you donot know how to analyse surprise, it is difficult that you can really do intelligence.

From what does strategic surprise stem anyway? From the fact that you, the victim, do not know how the strategic formula of the opponent (or friend, which is the same) is composed.

 If the United States had not well understood the role played in Saudi Arabia by Prince Turki, Director General of the Saudi intelligence agency from 1973 to 2001, resigning the position only 10 days before the “9/11 attacks”, probably it would have understood that a change was taking place in relations between the Arab-Islamic world and the West.

Moreover, on a private level –  which in the U.S. world is always equated to the public one – there was IBM’s near bankruptcy. It was bailed out – with difficulty – with very quick operations connected to confidential information.

 Well, but this is not always the case.

Indeed, the intelligence system is not a “support” to managers’ decisions, but it is its essence, regardless of what the aforementioned managers may think.

 There are new tasks and functions to be evaluated such as the greater perception State managers (except the Italian ones) have of the strategic importance of their choices.

 There is also the study of global trends, a naive construction which, however, serves to outline the potential of a country’s development lines.

 Moreover, in the U.S. tradition, adverse transactions have only recently been correctly reported: in the past, financial transactions, the unforeseen and clearly hostile industrial acquisitions – in short, everything in business – used to take place in the global market and therefore were fine and went very well.

There is also the adverse “line” of U.S. intelligence against the policies of central banks and large E.U. and Asian financial companies to leave the dollar area, often as quickly as possible.

This is currently a central theme of the U.S. and neighbouring countries’ counter-espionage.

 Therefore, two new classes of intelligence are being developed, namely financial intelligence (FININT) and market intelligence (MARKINT).

 FININT resulted from the experience gained by governments in studying some agencies in the evaluation and continuation of money laundering, tax evasion and terror financing.

 But there is the danger that often completely incompetent leaders base their choices not only on classified information, but also on what they themselves believe to be the direct perception of facts.

 Bravo! Let us recall the analysis made by the U.S. Intelligence Services in January 2019, when they reported to President Trump that Iran was not developing a military nuclear project, and the President told them to “go back to school” and that they were “passive and naive”.

 We are coming to the “decline of truth” and the rise of what is currently called “narrative” or storytelling.

 Intelligence has always defined itself as “truth to power”.

Certainly there was the neopositivist, naive and often completely silly myth of creating stable and unquestionable truths, as if the Other did not know them, thus forging stable and effective mechanisms for analysing the “enemy”, as if the enemy did not know it.

 Probably something changes with non-State actors, but Western intelligence interprets these structures as if they were quasi-States. This is not the case, of course.

 Rather, they are ideologically cohesive groups that present themselves as States because they represent territories, albeit only with violence.

 Hence, at least for the time being, strategic intelligence will be put aside by technological development, which will largely occupy only tactical intelligence. In the very short term, there will also be the necessary training – in one way or another – of the elected politicians, which shall learn – for better or for worse – how to do it.

 Then there will be the ability of the automated structures to select the malware, the distorted information, the news capable of putting its own algorithm out of phase.

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Chinese Private Security Companies Along the BRI: An Emerging Threat?

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When documenting China’s security footprint abroad, the PLA and the PLAN often get the spotlight. But under the hood, a relatively newer force is entering many conflicts ridden zones along China’s land based and maritime Silk Roads. These are up and coming Private Security Companies (PSCs) that are seeking to expand out of domestic Chinese markets and capitalize on growing Chinese businesses throughout the BRI. As the BRI continues to expand into countries with a weak state and ongoing conflicts, BRI businesses need security and protection. On the maritime front, increasing worries about sea piracy have created a demand for armed escorts for merchant ships. As was the case in Pakistan, on ground local government forces have repeatedly failed at providing adequate protection. This is where Chinese PSCs come in. With foreign forces failing to secure BRI projects, businesses are approaching Chinese companies. China’s entry into the international Private Military and Security Company (PMSC) market marks a significant departure in a space that continues to be dominated by American and British contractors. These westerns PMSCs have had decades to develop in the international sphere. During this tenurethey havealso managed to create a whirlwind of criticism around the field. It is in this space that Chinese PSCs, one of Asia’s strongest powers,are trying to leave a mark. Thus, it will be valuable to assess their scope, what they might evolve into, and their connection to the Chinese state. 

The Current International Chinese PSCLandscape

Chinese Private Security Companies are a relatively new entry on the international scene. Beginning in the early 2010s, violent incidences – including abductions, killings, brawls, piracy, etc. – involving Chinese individuals in countries such as South Sudan, Pakistan, and Mali experienced an uptick causing concern in Beijing. The wake-up call came in 2010 when separatists from the Baloch Liberation Army in Pakistan attacked the Zaver Palace Continental Hotel situated near the Gwardar port hoping to target Chinese investors.In 2014 ten Chinese individuals working on a Cameroonian construction site run by a state owned company were kidnapped. In 2015, Chinese citizens were kidnapped again in Nigeria and several more died in a car bomb explosion in Somalia. Beijing has responded to these concerns through two step, first by deploying the PLA and the PLAN where possible and secondly by allowing domestic security organizations to go abroad. Allowing PSCs to operate instead of PLAN can actually be the better choice in some situations. China is acutely aware of rising international fears around the potential of a hegemonic China, especially among developing nations. In other cases, using military resources would simply be excessive. In such situations, PSCs can provide a viable middle ground alternative.

Currently there are thousands of Chinese PSCs operational within the country which are providing risk assessment services, surveillance equipment, private security, etc. Much of these functions transfer on to international operations as well. As the domestic market saturatessome companies are looking abroad to expand their business. Consequently, the international footprint of Chinese PSCs is expanding. According to work done by Tsinghua University, Beijing, the top 10 PSCs in China with an international footprint are:

  1. G4S
  2. Control Risks
  3. Beijing Dewei Security Service
  4. ZhongguoAnbao China Security Industry
  5. HuaxinZhongan (Beijing) Security Service (HXZA)
  6. Shanghai Zhongchenwei Security Service Group
  7. Beijing DingtaiAnyuan Guard & Technology Research Institute
  8. ShengzhenZhongzhouTewei Security Consultant
  9. Beijing Guanan Security & Technology
  10. Shandong Huawei Security Group

These companies represent a very minor fraction out of a range of domestic PSCs. The reason for the small footprint abroad is manifold. Legally the Chinese government poses several restrictions on domestic PSCs that make it harder to operate abroad. The 1996 “Law of the PRC on Control of Guns” states that only the PLA, the police, and the militia can legally possess weapons andthose who possess arms overseas may face imprisonment for their crime.  This is clearly a significant hurdle for PSCs that wish to operate in conflict prone areas. In a 2010 law passed by the Ministry of Commerce concerning the operation of PSCs, the government added several strict criteria for firms looking to operate abroad. These included providing security training to their employees before sending them abroad, set up security management systems and mechanisms for emergency response. Providing security systems and training to employees of firms going abroad provides one avenue for PSCs to enter the international market. While the 2010 lawopens up some paths for PSCs looking to expand, these existing regulations still prove to be a major hurdle for all but a few PSCs. Most do not have the resources to fulfill these basic requirements and cannot afford to set up bases abroad. These concerns are reflected by the Wu Guohua, Executive chairman of the “Overseas Security Guardians” which operates Zhong Jun Jun Hong Security Group. He states that while since 2011 companies, small and large, have jumped at the chance to expand abroad, many smaller companies don’t have the resources to negotiate with foreign governments or local forces, educate their personnel thoroughly on local laws to the same level that bigger companies can. Additionally, major companies that do operate abroad, like the HuaxinZhongan Security Service (HXZA) and the Zhong Jun Jun Hong, also boast a range of international certifications to bolster their bid internationally. Many other security organizations are unable to acquire them. Thus, regulatory requirements in the future must reign in these elements and bring smaller companies into the fold as well.

Scope of Current PSC Tasks

Considering that Chinese PSCs are not permitted to carry arms abroad, PSCs often diverge into a range of other security services that do not require its personnel to be armed. These include training personnel, providing logistical assistance, serving as guards in factories, etc., and collaborating with armed local officials for providing protection to Chinese citizens abroad. The only service where Chinese PSCs have been allowed to use arms has been while escorting Chinese vessels through water bodies like the Gulf of Aden or the straits of Malacca. Maritime escorting is a rising field for many PSCs. Most major PSCs provide multiple, if not all, of these services. One of the largest is HuaxinZhongan(HXZA) Security Service that provides all of these above-mentioned services. HXZAis also recognized for their ability to communicate and cooperate with local authorities and PSCs for support. Another major PSC is the Overseas security Guardians Association, which is part of the Zhongjun Junhong group that operations other domestic security subsidiaries. The association is perhaps the most explicit in its connection to the BRI. The organization aims at “safeguarding the promotion of national ’one belt, one road’ strategy” and “building the great wall of steel” to guard the “overseas economic development and the safety of oversea China-invested enterprises and compatriots”.

Maritime escorting is slowly growing as a prominent service amongst organizations. This usually involves PSCs providing protection to merchant ships or fishing vessels in piracy prone areas of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. While the affair is expensive, PSCs can find a relative niche for themselves in the work that sets them apart from the PLAN which frequently serves this purpose. In the Sohu Military Observer, Mr. Wu wrote that using PSCs for escorting services is often more cost effective then a PLAN deployment and PSCs tend to be better matched in force as well. The scale of piracy is also smaller than one would expect. Most piracy operations are not large scale and involve the use of small and fast boats, and light weapons. This strength of force can be proportionally dealt with by well-armed PSCs without the need for large scale investment of troops or equipment from the navy. Additionally, PLAN deployments carry the risk of sending a political statement, whether that was intended or not. Here too the commitments to bolstering the BRI arein both practice and rhetoric. In 2015, HXZA made headlines for escorting a Chinese sailor, Zhai Mo, who was took a 10,000 Nautical Mile journey retracing the ancient Maritime Silk Road.

These modes of engagement however are still limited due to few key restrains. Firstly, the inability of PSCs to use arms restricts their independent operations. Many organizations continue to provide logistical services. Like stated earlier many smaller companies do not have the connections to work with local PSCs or authorities to find local forces that can help provide the muscle. HXZA is one of the few companies that has been authorized to carry arms abroad. This also puts PSC employees into severe danger themselves. In Juba, the capital of South Sudan, Chinese security forces from DeWei Security Services found themselves stuck in an active shooting incident that was occurring between local warring factions. Unarmed and underprepared, the security workers and the employees of its client that it was sent to rescue were trapped in an insecure building awaiting government forces to evacuate them. Secondly, PSC operatives often have limited foreign language abilities, be that inEnglish or the native language in the area of deployment. This creates a barrier between locals and the PSC which makes collaboration even harder. In many BRI locations, local population are distrustful if not outright hostile to Chinese presence as demonstrated above. Lingual barriers can add on to this sense of division between locals and the Chinese guests in addition to posing obvious administrative difficulties.

PSCs and The Chinese State

For the longest time, the Chinese state and the domestic legal framework was not friendly to the establishment of Chinese PSCs abroad. However, over the past decade the ice has started to melt as ministries have eased legal restrictions and HXZA operatives were even allowed to carry arms. Chinese firms will perhaps slowly but surely continue to expand into these new markets. Increasing foot print of Chinese agencies that are actively engaged in security operations, risk assessment, provision of security equipment (as in the case of HXZA) etc., brings with it concerns about their connection to the Chinese state and if they can be fully autonomous in their operations. Many Chinese businesses, such as Huawei, have been subject to these fears thus is it logical to worry if PSCs will function as an extension of the PLA or even the Chinese state. The evidence insupport for this is currently weak. PSCs are still mostly engaged in services like anti-piracy operations, resolving kidnapping incidents, guarding Chinese citizens and infrastructure abroad, etc. This relatively narrow range of services is still quite niche and Chinese PSCs are yet to go fully mainstream. Additionally, while some successful PSCs may have connections with their domestic state clients, it may not necessarily translate into serving as an arm of the state abroad. Thus, today the verifiable connections between PSCs and the state are quite limited.

Perhaps as the industry grows and come of its own, the Chinese state will take greater cognizance of its potential uses for state aims. It is not entirely novel for PSCs or PMCs to take government provided tenders. Afterall, the precedent for this was already set by western PMSCs who provide their own government forces, or even foreign governments, with logistical services among other facilities. Thus, it would not be wise to erase the possibility of state influence altogether either. There are few possible avenues for state influence toseep in through. First, Private Security Companies in china often hire ex-PLA and ex-PAP (People’s Armed Police) officers into their ranks. Many higher-ranking positions within PSCs are also occupied by ex-military or former public security personnel. Second, there are reports that Chinese officials are actively pressuring Chinese enterprises abroad to hire PSCs of Chinese origin. 

Conclusion

The Chinese Private Security industry is still as its initial stages. However, it is likely that it will stay given government pressure over overseas enterprises and enthusiasm by Chinese PSCs to establish operations overseas despite the dangers. Little work has been done to study the nature of Chinese PSCs in depth, but as they grow in number and prominence it will become increasingly important to understand their ins and outs and monitor their relationship with the Chinese state. It will also be interesting to consider how, if at all, the role of the PLA might change given the emergence of these new security actors. Granted the PLA will be the most immediate and the strongest projection of Chinese national power, however this poignant power projection is not always desirable. In such scenarios PSCs may become a viable replacement in low intensity missions. Before any of this can happen however, the Chinese government would have to loosen regulation on PSC activities and develop a framework for their operation. For now, prospects are relatively limited, and existing organizations are acting in conjunction with local authorities and companies. However, the international PMSC industry is already under heavy scrutiny for acting eerily like modern mercenaries for hire. The same could happen for Chinese companies as well.

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Tackling the Illicit Drug Trade: Perspectives From Russia

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The Afghan drug trade supplying the Russian market has fuelled conflict, corruption, and instability in the region, provided financial support to terrorist organisations and led to a devastating addiction and HIV epidemic in Russia. How can this fight be won? While strengthening cooperation with its Central Asian neighbours will be crucial to stemming the flow of drugs, Russia needs to complement law enforcement with a softer approach for the demand side of the drug trade at home.

“The Afghan drug threat is one of the worst problems for Russia’s national security,” said Alexei Rogov, deputy director of the new challenges and threats department of the Russian foreign ministry on November 26, 2019. He thus effectively captured Russia’s persistent drug problem since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Accounting for one-fifth of the world’s opium market estimated at USD 65 billion, Russia is the world’s largest heroin consumer, all of it flowing from Afghanistan through Central Asia.

The Afghan drug trade supplying the Russian market has fuelled conflict, corruption, and instability in the region, provided financial support to terrorist organisations and led to a devastating addiction and HIV epidemic in Russia. Russia has around four to six million drug addicts and a drug-related mortality rate of 10.2 per 100 000 persons. This far surpasses the rate of its European neighbours. The UK, despite being Europe’s largest cocaine consumer, has a drug-related mortality rate of 3.7 per 100 000 persons. With a death toll of around 30 000 per year, it is no wonder Russia has marked the drug trade as a major national security threat.

How can this fight be won? The words of Alexei Rogov perfectly illustrate Russia’s heavily securitised approach to the problem. Russia’s response has focused primarily on the security aspect of the drug trade, such as policing and border control. While regional cooperation is crucial to stemming the flow of drugs, initiatives between Russia and its Central Asian neighbours are short-term and poorly coordinated. Regional organisations’ anti-drug potential could be further exploited, as could cooperation with the EU, which is also affected by the Afghan drug trade. At home, the high mortality rates are explained by the draconian legislation on drug consumption and the lack of comprehensive drug policies. Faced with increasing drug-related mortality, complementing law enforcement and regional initiatives with a softer approach at home is the next logical step.

A Threat to National and Human Security: Developments and Continuities in the Afghan Drug Trade

Drug trafficking in Russia is far from being a recent problem. The drastic rise of organised crime in the tumultuous years that followed the fall of the USSR, as well as the newly opened and poorly controlled borders with former Soviet states, has facilitated the transnational smuggling of opium produced in Afghanistan (which accounts for 90 per cent of the world’s heroin output). Travelling through the Northern route, the drugs are smuggled to Russia through Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. While Afghanistan might be the Colombia of Central Asia, the Central Asian drug market presents different characteristics from its well-known Latin American counterpart. It is not organised in mega-cartels with the power of a small state, but in smaller more disparate criminal groups. These groups can extend their influence in the region more thanks to poor border security, lack of transnational cooperation, and rampant corruption among law enforcement and local officials than to their own strengths and ingenuity.

Pointing fingers at borders and even at the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which saw Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan integrated into a free trade zone with Russia in 2015, is highly misleading. While greater connectivity and opened borders make the region an ideal transit route for illicit trade, it is complicity and impunity that explain why less than 5 per cent of the drugs passing through Tajikistan are seized. The widespread corruption and poverty that lead many to resort to drug trafficking are the root causes of the drug trade in Central Asia.

Regarding Afghanistan, the ongoing conflict (2001-2020) and political instability make it a breeding ground for drug trafficking. The drug trade has led to many disagreements between the U.S. and Russia, with the two parties failing to reach a coherent anti-drug strategy. The possibility of a NATO-Russia cooperation was briefly evoked but has been eliminated by U.S. withdrawal from the country following the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement signed on February 29, 2020. This recent development will risk affecting the anti-drug fight. With 61 per cent of the Afghan population deriving its income from agriculture, the impossibility of cultivating traditional crops amidst conflict, and a new power vacuum, Russia will need to step up to make sure drug production does not explode. Moreover, Afghanistan’s new dabble into the mass production of synthetic drugs, notably methamphetamines, which is cheaper than heroin, is increasingly worrying. A booming market largely driven by the rise of the Russian Hydra darknet, the quantities of synthetic drugs seized by Russian authorities have multiplied by twenty over the 2008-2018 period.

Given the growing availability and affordability of drugs on the Russian market, the security dimension of the Central Asian drug trade naturally dominates the drug discourse and, to some extent, justifies Russia’s militarised approach. With a 7 644 km-long shared border with Kazakhstan and hundreds of tonnes of drugs flowing in each year, drug trafficking has severe implications beyond the social costs of addiction and directly threatens Russia’s security. This is all the more worrying considering that Islamic terrorist groups like the Taliban use the drug trade to finance their operations. The crime and terrorism nexus operating in the region thus makes Central Asia a priority for Russian policy.

The War on Drugs at the Regional Level: Results and Future Perspectives

A relentlessly creative and adaptable market, with a myriad of new ways to conceal and smuggle narcotics every year, the illicit drug trade is truly a transnational problem and requires intense cooperation between the affected states. However, the anti-drug potential of regional organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Sino-Russian led security alliance, or the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), is not fully exploited and is limited in terms of capacity and political will.

Russia has been promoting collective security with its Central Asian neighbours through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Created in 2001 and composed of eight member-states (India, Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), it plays a major role in stemming the Afghan drug trade. The SCO’s 2018-2023 anti-drug strategy marks the creation of an effective anti-drug mechanism within the organisation. The SCO often collaborates with the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a military alliance between six former Soviet states (Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), and the Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Centre for combating the illicit trafficking of narcotics (CARICC).

Most of Russia’s effort in the region has focused on strengthening the governments in place, such as investing in the state structure or their military. Russia has maintained a steady military presence in the region, one likely to increase after U.S. withdrawal. However, regional cooperation has mainly focused on short-termed joint operations and border security, such as operation spider web in July 2019, which led to the seizure of 6 422 kg of narcotic drugs and 3 241 arrests. The porous borders, explained in part by the geographical difficulty of border control in such mountainous terrain, the lack of training and equipment of security forces are certainly worth paying attention to, but they are also short-term solutions to a much more endemic problem. 6 422 kg might seem like a big win, but it is nothing compared to the hundreds of tonnes of heroin crossing the border each year. This purely militarised and short-term response, both from Russia’s part and in its engagement with its neighbours, is necessary but insufficient. Fighting the illicit drug trade will require a long-term strategy and a much greater political will to tackle its systemic causes. At the moment, the drug trade is 30 per cent of Tajikistan’s GDP, with an increasing amount of people turning to drug trafficking to survive. Fighting corruption, implementing institutional reforms and providing economic benefits to the region are as crucial as border policing.

In light of this, international assistance could prove useful, notably from the EU. While Central Asia is not a priority for Brussels, there is still a strong case for cooperation here. Afghan heroin and meth production is not only Russia’s problem. The drug trade in Central Asia might not be a security issue for Europe in the way it is for Russia, but opium trafficking along the Northern and the Balkan route also reaches Europe and the black sea route via Turkey is rapidly emerging as a prominent smuggling corridor. In July 2019, Ukraine intercepted 930 kg of Afghan heroin destined for Western Europe. Europe’s role in Central Asia is limited compared to Russia’s, and its focus on democracy promotion tends to clash with Russia’s priority of supporting the regimes in place to strengthen their capacity to fight the drug trade. But overcoming those differences and finding ground for cooperation would be a positive step towards fighting the drug trade.

The War at Home: the Grim Reality of Drug Addiction in Russia

Draconian legislation criminalising drug use has characterised Russia’s domestic war on drugs for the past three decades. While the dominance of the security discourse in Russia’s anti-drug strategy is somewhat justified, tackling the illicit drug trade purely from a national security perspective does not diminish the social threat posed by drug consumption. Drug use is a pervasive domestic issue, but it has yet to become a policy issue. Underdeveloped drug policies and politicians’ refusal to address it largely explain the high mortality rate.

With 100 000 jailed in 2018 (one in three convicts), Russia has the highest number of people per capita imprisoned for drug crimes in Europe, most of them convicted under Article 228 of the Russian penal code which treats drug possession as a criminal offence. Such harsh legislation not only leads to more risky forms of drug use (the use of dirty needles for drug injection has directly contributed to the HIV epidemic currently affecting 1.16 million people in Russia, one of the fastest-growing HIV rates in the world), but prevents access to treatment. With such large fines and lengthy prison sentences, (for possession of 2.5 grams of meth, users can go to jail for up to ten years) as well as the social taboo around drugs and HIV, users do not seek treatment and are further marginalised.

This addiction and HIV crisis in Russia is largely homegrown and will reach endemic levels in the next few years if it continues to be swept under the rug. The peculiarity and pervasiveness of the drug trade is its creation of a steady base of consumers and addicts. Criminalisation has not and will not diminish the demand for drugs, hence the need to work on demand much as supply reduction. While the legalisation of soft drugs is unlikely to appear as a convincing solution anytime soon in Russia, a softer approach to drug use is needed. At the moment, no long-term treatment or harm reductions services are available, and opioid substitution therapy remains forbidden.

Conclusion

Drug trafficking is a complex issue that must be fought on multiple fronts. Russia’s drug policy needs to involve a wider concept of security that not only encompasses the threat to national security, but also the human and social threat of drugs. Intense cooperation with Central Asia and Afghanistan through the SCO and CSTO is essential, as is strict border policing and law enforcement. Nonetheless, this no-tolerance policy for the supply side of the drug trade needs to be complemented with a softer approach for the demand side at home. To dwell on the social and economic consequences of drug use would be a truism, and Russia has every interest in decreasing the influence of drug trafficking on its population’s health and security. Developing more robust social policies seems at the moment more feasible than tackling the systemic causes of the drug trade in Central Asia. The latter will require a solid long-term strategy that goes beyond anti-drug operations and border control. Russia must step up its fight both at home and abroad.

From our partner RIAC

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