US-Russian clash in Syria?

Unusual details are emerging about the attack last Wednesday in eastern Syria on an outpost of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which also houses US Special Operations Forces.

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – Unusual details are emerging about the attack last Wednesday in eastern Syria on an outpost of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which also houses US Special Operations Forces.

US officials first explained that some 500 “pro-Syrian regime forces,” using Russian-made T-54 and T-72 tanks, attacked a “well-established headquarters” of the SDF in the Middle Euphrates River Valley in Deir al-Zor Governorate, eight kilometers east of the river. The river serves as a deconfliction line between the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS) in eastern Syria and the Russian-led coalition fighting the Syrian opposition to Bashar al-Assad, further west.

Over the week preceding the Feb. 7 attack, the US observed the military build-up and informed Russia of the gathering force, using a hotline intended to prevent conflict between the two powers.

When the SDF post came under fire, the US responded, killing some 100 of the attackers—roughly 1/5 of the enemy force.

Yet, key questions remained after that explanation. Just who were the attackers? Why didn’t Russia stop them, given its close ties with Syria and Iran, the most likely suspects? Did it lack the ability or the will?

Now, it turns out that Russian citizens were part of the attacking force, and a significant number became casualties of the US counter-attack.

“Four Russian nationals, and perhaps dozens more” were killed, the New York Times reported on Tuesday. That opening line seems conservative, as the article itself cited a Syrian military officer saying that some 100 Russians were killed, while a Russian businessman in Syria suggested that the number was even higher. 

The Russians are thought to be private contractors with the “Wagner Group, a paramilitary organization with murky and unconfirmed ties with the Kremlin,” the Times stated. 

“The organization’s leaders have reportedly received awards in the Kremlin,” the paper said, “and its mercenaries are trained at the Russian Defense Ministry’s facilities.” 

Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, commenting on such reports, said only, “We have not received that word at Central Command or the Pentagon.” 

However, there seems to be little doubt that a significant number of Russians died in the US counter-strike, given the multiplicity of accounts, including on social media. 

The real question is whether those Russians were acting on behalf of their government or as private contractors for another party like the Syrian regime. 

An analysis from the highly-regarded Institute for the Study of War (ISW) suggested that Moscow was, indeed, involved. 

“Russia used proxy partners and official messaging to obfuscate its involvement,” ISW said, noting that Moscow had used such “hybrid warfare” techniques in Ukraine. 

According to ISW, private Russian contractors and Lebanese Hezbollah had the primary role in the attack, which was supported by a deliberate act of deception from the Russian military. 

“Russian officers maintained continuous communication with US military officials through the deconfliction hotline,” ISW wrote, “to obfuscate Russia’s direct role in the incident.” 

“Russia both supported the attack and simultaneously gave the impression of genuine efforts to prevent the attack in order to confuse senior US decision-makers,” it said. 

Paul Davis, a retired Army intelligence officer, began his career focused on the Soviet Union. Asked if that analysis made sense, Davis told Kurdistan 24, “Absolutely.” 

The practice of deception is deeply ingrained in Russia military practice, Davis said, going back to the Soviet Union, and Tsarist rule before that. 

Citing the ISW report, the editors of The Washington Post warned that Russia is seeking to drive the US out of Syria, and one of Putin’s tools is “bold duplicity.” 

Moscow denies that any significant number of Russians were killed in the US strike, calling the reports, “distorted data,” while urging the media to ignore the “erroneous information.”

Editing by Nadia Riva