Infamous Private Paramilitary Firm Blackwater Planning Comeback. First Stop: Syria

Erik Prince, ex-Navy SEAL and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is offering Trump a way to both safeguard allies and pull troops out of the Mideast. Will he agree?

Iraqi and foreign mercenary members of a private security company, stand on the rooftop of a house in Baghdad, 18 September,  2007.
AFP PHOTO/PATRICK BAZ

The controversial security contractor Blackwater is back in the headlines now that its founder – billionaire and former Navy SEAL Erik Prince – has made the case that the United States should replace its small footprint of 2,000 troops in Syria with mercenaries.

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Prince’s pitch on Fox Business comes after U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprise pullout announcement in December left Washington’s allies – the Syrian Kurdish forces that fought ISIS – fearing for their security in the face of threats from Turkey.

Blackwater, which was renamed, sold and began operating in 2011 as Virginia-based Academi, was mired in controversy after it was banned from Iraq after some of its people opened fire on civilians at a busy traffic circle.

>> Trump's Syria pullout hurts Bolton's and Pompeo's diplomatic credibility | Analysis

Prince, however, is eyeing a major comeback by offering Trump a way to both safeguard U.S. allies in Syria while pulling out U.S. troops – a promise from his 2016 presidential campaign made all the more relevant by U.S. soldiers being killed by an ISIS bomb in Syria this week.

“If  there is not some kind of robust capability to defend from a ground invasion from the very conventional power that the Iranians and the Syrians have, our allies there will be smashed,” Prince told Fox Business this week.

Prince, the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, previously pushed for the Trump administration to privatize the war in Afghanistan, which is currently in its 18th year. In a May 2017 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Prince pitched for replacing troops in Afghanistan with private military contractors that would report to a special “viceroy” for the war who would report directly to the president.

Last month, Trump also vowed to draw down the 7,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

“American history is filled with public and private partnerships, of places that the private sector can fill those gaps, where a very expensive military probably shouldn’t be,” Prince added on Fox.

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, explained in Forbes in August the logic behind Prince’s original Afghanistan pitch: “Prince proposes a way for the U.S. to achieve its goals, by reducing the conflict’s visibility and allowing the long-term commitment that might be needed to strengthen the Afghan forces and wear down the Taliban.”

As Cancian put it, “This was the U.S. strategy in Colombia, long-term support for the local forces conducted almost entirely through contractors.”

Putin’s private army

During his annual news conference last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that Russian private military contractors from the company the Wagner Group had the right to work and pursue their interests anywhere in the world as long as they did not break Russian law.

The  Kremlin had long denied suggestions that Russian contractors were operating clandestinely in Syria – going to great lengths to conceal their activity and hiding official death tolls coming out of the war-torn country.

Officially, private military companies are illegal in Russia. However, Putin himself voiced support for them before; in April 2012, he suggested the need for “an instrument in the pursuit of national interests without the direct participation of the state.” As he put it, “I believe that it should be considered, thought over.”

The St. Petersburg-based website Fontanka reported that about 3,000 Russians under contract to the Wagner Group have fought in Syria since 2015 – around the time Russia intervened on behalf of the Assad regime, a move that helped turn the war’s tide in Assad’s favor.

It’s worth remembering that U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation heard evidence that Prince traveled to the remote Seychelles to try to establish a back channel between Trump and Russia. In June, Prince said he cooperated with Mueller’s probe, but claimed that communication with a Putin-linked official was just an “incidental”’ meeting – denying any attempt to backchannel between Trump and the Kremlin.

‘We are coming’

Blackwater USA published a full-page ad in the recent print issue of Recoil Magazine – a “firearms lifestyle magazine” – with three very clear words: “We are coming.”

According to The Military Times, which was denied further comment by Prince’s PR team, “The Recoil ad suggests Blackwater is making a resurgence on its own, but it was not clear in what form.”

Many observers also noted that the ad follows the resignation of U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the planned replacement of Gen. Joseph Dunford as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both voiced opposition to privatizing the war in Afghanistan.

Around the same time, Blackwater was back in the headlines for other reasons as well. Last month in Washington, a 35-year-old former Blackwater security guard was found guilty of first-degree murder for shooting a civilian at a crowded traffic circle in Baghdad in 2007, an incident that drew worldwide condemnation.

Nicholas Slatten was convicted of killing Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia’y, one of 14 civilians slain when Blackwater guards opened fire in Nisur Square on September 16, 2007, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia said in a statement.

Iraq banned Blackwater from operating in the country in 2009 as a result of the incident, which also sparked debate over the role of private security contractors working for the U.S. government in war zones.

The original push for privatizing the U.S. military came from then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The Guardian noted in 2004 that “a 2002 memo from the secretary of the army, Thomas White, suggests that as much as a third of its budget is going on private contractors, while army numbers are falling – the rationale is to save money on permanent soldiers by using temporary ones.”

With the resurgence of Bush-era officials to the fore in the United States – from the award winning Dick Cheney bio-pic “Vice” to a reassessment of George W. Bush’s legacy – Prince and Blackwater are joining in.

As Noah Kirsch wrote in April in Forbes, referring to Prince’s imminent return, the Blackwater founder “had already laid out his grand strategy and provided a window into his temperament, one that mixes a belief in destiny, rooted in religion.”

As Kirsch quoted Prince, “‘My favorite miracle in the Bible is when Christ is on the Sea of Galilee and there’s an enormous storm,’ Prince says, ‘and they’re in the boat and they’re at risk of being drowned.’ He pauses. ‘He says, ‘Peace, be still.’ And the sea calms. Fantastic.’”