Over the weekend, U.S. airstrikes decimated an attack by a battalion-sized force of fighters loyal to President Bashar Assad supported by tanks and rocket launchers. The pro-Assad forces attacked a coalition U.S. Special Operations, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) base with about 500 pro-Assad troops in eastern Syria.
While the numbers are still unclear, several of the dead were Russian military contractors. Reports are varying from just a handful to as many as 200. The Russian Ministry of Defense doesn’t report contractor deaths and it is a way to keep their “official” casualties down. Especially with President Putin running for re-election soon.
What began as just a series of protests against Assad in 2011, has turned into an international conflict and is now an international quagmire. The Iranians and Russians are supporting Assad as they both try to increase their influence and possibly reap the spoils of the oil fields.
The United States was there at first, simply to rid the country of Islamic State terrorists, but their ties to the Kurds, and deciding to remain in place to counter Iranian influence, and keep Syrian neighbor’s borders secure is a long-term commitment, with a very indistinct end-game plan that sets up US troops for attack. This incident on Saturday may have been the first case of US troops coming under attack, but it most assuredly won’t be the last. The Syrians, Iranians, and Russians all want the U.S. out.
Now Turkey is involved. The U.S. staunch ally for years is attacking Kurdish troops working with U.S. SOF troops in Afrin. The Turkish military launched an offensive against the Kurds who they consider terrorists and now, they too will come in close proximity to U.S. forces.
And if things couldn’t possibly get any worse, Israel, the wildcard in any Middle East conversation is involved. The Iranians launched a drone against Israel and the Israelis responded in true form. After they shot down the drone, they launched a massive attack at a Syrian complex as they are worried, legitimately so about their security.
Make no mistake about any of this. Last week’s attack was a test. And our Special Operators passed. Now we’re going to need our politicians in Washington to pass theirs. Because this is just the first round. Also, don’t be under illusions about these “Russian contractors” possibly going off half-cocked. A “rogue operation?” Please.
These Russian contractors conducted that mission with full knowledge of the Russian MOD and no doubt with President Putin himself. Why? Because unlike the American group that they’re most compared to, Blackwater, headed by Erik Prince, These Russian work for the shadowy Wagner Group which is in essence, just a very thin, deniable extension of the Russian MOD. These Wagner Group contractors have already fought in the Crimea as well as Ukraine.
The Wagner group was founded by retired Lt. Col. Dmitry Utkin, who came into U.S. radar in June after the government watchdogs said the company had recruited former soldiers to join the separatists fighting in Ukraine. Utkin is a close friend of and was photographed a year ago at a Kremlin banquet thrown by Putin to honor military veterans.
So the idea of the Wagner Group leading a force of Syrian with up to 200 former members of the Russian military on a rogue operation? It is ludicrous to even contemplate. A mistake in their navigation perhaps? Nyet again. These troops had to cross a river to get in contact with the SDF and the U.S. operators. As per the agreed upon procedures earlier, the U.S. called the Russians and told them about the incursion. The Russian knew their troops were there and didn’t care. Once they got within about 5 miles of the U.S. coalition base as they advanced on oil fields in the eastern Deir el-Zour province, U.S. aircraft struck them hard.
U.S. commanders on the hotline called the Russians to report that they were hitting the attackers. The Russians continued to play dumb because to actively respond would be to admit their guilt in this farce.
The Russians insisted they would not respond to the attack on the hotline and assured the U.S. that no Russian troops were involved. Putin and the Russian MOD gambled with the lives of their contractors as pawns and left them out in the wind. Officially they claimed that just 25 Syrians were wounded in the attack.
Not so coincidentally, the Iranians launched a drone towards Israel. After the Israelis shot it down, they launched a huge raid at a military complex where the Syrians were stockpiling chemical weapons as well as a command and control unit that Iran was manning.
We don’t know what the end game was for the Syrians and Russians, other than to maybe give the Americans a bloody nose big enough for the in-fighting Congress to call for all of our troops to withdraw while seizing the oil fields in the Deir el-Zour area. Truth be told, the Russians probably didn’t care about the Iranians being hit as they are an unnecessary third party that Putin and Moscow don’t want muddying up their plans for Syria in the first place.
Neither the Americans or Russians were commenting on anything to do with Russians being killed in the attack on the American base. Russian media watchdogs are the ones claiming the higher casualty rates but the Russians were caught red-faced and red-handed on this one and paid the price. The worst they can do right now is to play politics. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday that “Americans have taken dangerous unilateral steps.” He never mentioned the U.S. airstrikes but Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, wouldn’t comment on the reports either, saying they needed to be verified.
The Americans are playing it close to the vest as well. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said they had no verification of any Russian casualties, nor Russian involvement.
Putin has to keep this entire fiasco low key for the time being. He is facing a re-election bid on March 18. But this won’t be the last time U.S. troops are in harm’s way in Syria. The Russians, Syrians, Iranians, and/or Turks all want the United States out. This civil war has turned into a powder keg and the politicians need to get it diffused before it blows up in everyone’s faces.