A very interesting – and potentially disturbing – development in Syria deserves attention.
U.S. forces killed scores of Russian contract soldiers in Syria last week in what may be the deadliest clash between citizens of the former foes since the Cold War, according to a U.S. official and three Russians familiar with the matter.
More than 200 mercenaries, mostly Russians fighting on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, died in a failed attack on a base and refinery held by U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region, two of the Russians said. The U.S. official put the death toll at about 100, with 200 to 300 injured.
The Russian assault may have been a rogue operation, underscoring the complexity of a conflict that started as a domestic crackdown only to morph into a proxy war involving Islamic extremists, stateless Kurds and regional powers Iran, Turkey and now Israel. Russia’s military said it had nothing to do with the attack and the U.S. military accepted the claim. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the whole thing “perplexing,” but provided no further details.
“Coalition officials were in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the thwarted, unprovoked attack,” U.S. Colonel Thomas F. Veale, a military spokesman, said in a statement. “Russian officials assured coalition officials they would not engage coalition forces in the vicinity.”
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It’s not clear who was paying the soldiers of fortune, whether it was Russia directly, its allies in the war, Syria and Iran, or a third party.
There’s more at the link.
This raises a number of perplexing questions and issues, including (but not limited to) the following.
- No Russian “mercenary” would dare to serve in Syria without Russian government permission – not if he wants to go back to Russia, that is. Therefore, those who attacked the US position were almost certainly in Syria with Russian knowledge and approval – so why did they (apparently) act without that approval in this case?
- Russia would not want open conflict with the US. To a certain extent, neither would Syria. However, Iran – the “power behind the throne” in Syria, and the source of most of that nation’s funding to continue the war – most certainly would want to embarrass the USA by defeating its forces or its proxies in open conflict. Was Iran therefore paying the Russian mercenaries, openly or covertly? Were they doing what Iran wanted on the basis that “he who pays the piper calls the tune”? That’s probably got Russia even more worried than the USA, right now.
- This wasn’t a minor, bush-league attack. According to the article, the mercenaries attacked in a “battalion-sized formation supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars”. That’s a formal military assault, not a guerrilla-type ambush or sabotage attack. Where did all that equipment come from, and who trained the attackers to use it? The Russians have supplied almost all Syria’s weapons, but probably under strict conditions. I doubt very much whether those conditions included allowing them to be used to attack US forces! Again, was Iran behind this, and did Iran supply the heavy weapons that were used?
- To make matters even more complicated, Islamic extremists from former Soviet republics such as Chechnya, Dagestan and others have been active in the ranks of ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria and Iraq. Were the Russian “mercenaries” involved in this attack drawn from among their ranks? Was this, in fact, an Islamist fundamentalist assault on US forces, rather than a Syrian- or Iranian-sponsored operation? The Syrian government has denounced the retaliatory strikes that killed so many of the mercenaries, so it doesn’t sound like it; but there are wheels within wheels all over the Middle East, and “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is more than just a proverb there. If one or more groups of extremist terrorists decided to support the Syrian government against other terrorists they deemed less extreme, or less dedicated, or less Islamic, almost anything might be possible.
It’s a tangled web over there, and I’m glad I’m not the one having to make sense of it all . . .