Details Of U.S. Engagement With Russian Mercenaries In Syria Remain Murky

UNDISCLOSED LOCATION, SYRIA (May 15, 2017)— U.S. Marines fortify a machine gun pit around their M777-A2 Howitzer in Syria, May 15, 2017. The unit has been conducting 24-hour all-weather fire support for Coalition’s local partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, as part of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve. CJTF-OIR is the global coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Matthew Callahan)

Last week, the New York Times published an article by Thomas Gibbons-Neff that provided a detailed account of the fighting between U.S-advised Kurdish and Syrian militia forces and Russian mercenaries and Syrian and Arab fighters near the city of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria on 7 February 2018. Gibbons-Neff stated the account was based on newly obtained documents and interviews with U.S. military personnel.

While Gibbons-Neff’s reporting fills in some details about the action, it differs in some respects to previous reporting, particularly a detailed account by Christoph Reuter, based on interviews from participants and witnesses in Syria, published previously in Spiegel Online.

  • According to Gibbons-Neff, the U.S. observed a buildup of combat forces supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad in Deir Ezzor, south of the Euphrates River, which separated them from U.S.-backed Kurdish and Free Syrian militia forces and U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) and U.S. Marine Corps elements providing advice and assistance north of the river.
  • The pro-regime forces included “some Syrian government soldiers and militias, but American military and intelligence officials have said a majority were private Russian paramilitary mercenaries — and most likely a part of the Wagner Group, a company often used by the Kremlin to carry out objectives that officials do not want to be connected to the Russian government.”
  • After obtaining assurances from the Russian military chain-of-command in Syria that the forces were not theirs, Secretary of Defense James Mattis ordered “for the force, then, to be annihilated.”
  • Gibbons-Neff’s account focuses on the fighting that took place on the night of 7-8 February in the vicinity of a U.S. combat outpost located near a Conoco gas plant north of the Euphrates. While the article mentions the presence of allied Kurdish and Syrian militia fighters, it implies that the target of the pro-regime force was the U.S. outpost. It does not specify exactly where the pro-regime forces concentrated or the direction they advanced.
  • This is in contrast to Reuter’s Spiegel Online account, which reported a more complex operation. This included an initial probe across a bridge northwest of the Conoco plant on the morning of 7 February by pro-regime forces that included no Russians, which was repelled by warning shots from American forces.
  • After dark that evening, this pro-regime force attempted to cross the Euphrates again across a bridge to the southeast of the Conoco plant at the same time another pro-regime force advanced along the north bank of the Euphrates toward the U.S./Kurdish/Syrian forces from the town of Tabiya, southeast of the Conoco plant. According to Reuter, U.S. forces engaged both of these pro-regime advances north of the Euphrates.
  • While the Spiegel Online article advanced the claim that Russian mercenary forces were not leading the pro-regime attacks and that the casualties they suffered were due to U.S. collateral fire, Gibbons-Neff’s account makes the case that the Russians comprised at least a substantial part of at least one of the forces advancing on the U.S./Kurdish/Syrian bases and encampments in Deir Ezzor.
  • Based on documents it obtained, the Times asserts that 200-300 “pro-regime” personnel were killed out of an overall force of 500. Gibbons-Neff did not attempt to parse out the Russian share of these, but did mention that accounts in Russian media have risen from four dead as initially reported, to later claims of “perhaps dozens” of killed and wounded. U.S. government sources continue to assert that most of the casualties were Russian.
  • It is this figure of 200-300 killed that I have both found problematic in the past. A total of 200-300 killed and wounded overall seems far more likely, with approximately 100 dead and 100-200 wounded out of the much larger overall force of Russian mercenaries, Syrian government troops, and tribal militia fighters involved in the fighting.

Motivation for the Operation Remains Unclear

While the details of the engagement remain ambiguous, the identity of those responsible for directing the attacks and the motivations for doing so are hazy as well. In late February, CNN and the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence had detected communications between Yevgeny Prigozhin—a Russian businessman with reported ties to President Vladimir Putin, the Ministry of Defense, and Russian mercenaries—and Russian and Syrian officials in the weeks leading up to the attack. One such intercept alleges that Prigozhin informed a Syrian official in January that he had secured permission from an unidentified Russian minister to move forward with a “fast and strong” initiative in Syria in early February.

Prigozhin was one of 13 individuals and three companies indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller on 16 February 2018 for funding and guiding a Russian government effort to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

If the Deir Ezzor operation was indeed a clandestine operation sanctioned by the Russian government, the motivation remains mysterious. Gibbons-Neff’s account implies that the operation was a direct assault on a U.S. military position by a heavily-armed and equipped combat force, an action that all involved surely understood beforehand would provoke a U.S. military reaction. Even if the attack was instead aimed at taking the Conoco gas plant or forcing the Kurdish and Free Syrian forces out of Deir Ezzor, the attackers surely must have known the presence of U.S. military forces would elicit the same response.

Rueter’s account of a more complex operations suggests that the attack was a probe to test the U.S. response to armed action aimed at the U.S.’s Kurdish and Free Syrian proxy forces. If so, it was done very clumsily. The build-up of pro-regime forces telegraphed the effort in advance and the force itself seems to have been tailored for combat rather than reconnaissance. The fact that the U.S. government inquired with the Russian military leadership in Syria in advance about the provenance of the force build-up should have been a warning that any attempt at surprise had been compromised.

Whether the operation was simply intended to obtain a tactical advantage or to probe the resolution of U.S. involvement in Syria, the outcome bears all the hallmarks of a major miscalculation. Russian “hybrid warfare” tactics sustained a decisive reverse, while the effectiveness of U.S. military capabilities received a decided boost. Russian and U.S. forces and their proxies continue to spar using information operations, particularly electronic warfare, but they have not directly engaged each other since. The impact of this may be short-lived however, depending on whether or not U.S. President Donald J. Trump carries through with his intention announced in early April to withdraw U.S. forces from eastern Syria.

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About Shawn Woodford

Shawn Robert Woodford, Ph.D., is a military historian with nearly two decades of research, writing, and analytical experience on operations, strategy, and national security policy. His work has focused on special operations, unconventional and paramilitary warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, naval history, quantitative historical analysis, nineteenth and twentieth century military history, and the history of nuclear weapon development. He has a strong research interest in the relationship between politics and strategy in warfare and the epistemology of wargaming and combat modeling. All views expressed here are his and do not reflect those of any other private or public organization or entity.

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