Death of Military Contractors Illuminates Russia’s War by Proxy in Syria
Officials from the United States and Russia, together with non-governmental sources, all agree on the core narrative: On February 7, 2018, east of the Euphrates River, in the oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour, a battalion-size armed group loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, supported by armor and artillery, moved to take over a dysfunctional oil refinery occupied by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); but this invading force was then decimated by US firepower “in self-defense.” The Euphrates River is more or less the so-called “de-confliction line,” agreed on by US and Russian military chiefs to separate Russian-supported pro-al-Assad forces and the US-backed SDF. On February 7, the pro-al-Assad forces were operating on the wrong (eastern) side of the river and threatened SDF fighters and coalition special forces embedded with them. The Russian Ministry of Defense insisted “no Russian servicemen were involved” and explained the incident as a mistaken move by local pro-al-Assad militias pursuing some Islamic State leftovers. The Russian authorities scolded the pro-al-Assad fighters for failing to notify and vet their move with Russian command in advance; but they simultaneously rebuked US forces for “seeking to grab valuable economic assets instead of fighting ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—the former name of the Islamic State group]” (Interfax, February 8).
Yet, as more evidence trickled in, the narrative presented in Moscow began to shift. According to Kommersant, a large force of several hundred men—pro-al-Assad militias reinforced by fighters from the notorious private military company (in Russian Chastnye Voennie Company—ChVK) “Vagner”—gathered to attack the refinery and possibly take over nearby oil and natural gas fields. The backbone of the force was made up of up to 600 ChVK Vagner Russian contractors armed with tanks and heavy guns, according to an unnamed military source. The attack was not authorized by the Russian command and was planned as a night raid—the Russian-led force opened fire and attempted to swiftly move in, believing the SDF would offer only token resistance and that US forces would not risk aerial attack as the Russians moved in. But the US promptly deployed overwhelming firepower before all of the ChVK Vagner contractors moved out into battle formation. They suffered heavy losses in both men and equipment. The unnamed Kommersant military source told the paper that about 11 Russians were dead (Kommersant, February 14).
Igor Strelkov (Girkin)—the former commander of Russia-backed rebels in Ukraine’s Donbas—was one of the first to post a report, based on information from “reliable sources,” about at least a hundred Russian ChVK Vagner fighters “slaughtered” by the US. Strelkov, like some other radical Russian nationalists, has opposed President Vladimir Putin’s incursion into the Syrian civil war, believing true Russian patriots must fight for Russian interests by defending truly Russian land, like in Donbas. Strelkov called for future potential volunteers “to think twice before enlisting with ChVK Vagner” (Newsru.com, February 9). This is not the first time Strelkov has published reports about heavy Russian casualties in Syria that have quoted former “colleagues from Donbas” who are now with ChVK Vagner (see EDM, October 12, 2017).
Different media outlets have reported widely disparate casualty estimates: Pro-Kremlin sources have tended to downplay the losses, declaring about 10 to 20 Russians dead and up to 50 wounded, while others report casualties in the hundreds. Official sources refuse comment, citing a lack of reliable information. But no one seems to refute the fact of an encounter gone badly wrong or that ChVK Vagner mercenaries were hit by US military fire, that many were killed or wounded, and that heavy equipment was destroyed (Kp.ru, February 13).
The ChVK Vagner force demonstrated rare incompetence by cavaliering into a night assault against a US-backed force, apparently ignorant of the fact that the US military has, for some time, preferred to fight in the dark to utilize night-vision superiority. The experience of fighting in Donbas or against the Syrian opposition and the Islamic State may have provided them with a false sense of security, underestimating what a full-scale US precision firepower attack could bring.
Russian military chiefs, meanwhile, may be somewhat pleased ChVK Vagner receive a licking. The private military company is reportedly financed and sponsored by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman from St. Petersburg known in the Kremlin court as “the cook” because he began his career catering for Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin reportedly has business interests in Syria and is apparently seeking to take over phosphate mining, oil and natural gas deposits. In promoting ChVK Vagner, “the cook” and his private army have reportedly increasingly come into conflict with the Ministry of Defense and Minister Sergei Shoigu (Novaya Gazeta, January 21).
The Russian military command almost certainly knew in advance of ChVK Vagner’s planned move east of the Euphrates. And in Moscow, most assume the “traitorous” Americans were also aware of the imminent attack and, thus, prepared a deadly ambush (Militarynews.ru, February 13). This narrative is supported by the fact that, just hours before the ChVK Vagner force was massacred, a 210-meter bridge over the Euphrates, built last September by Russian sappers (see EDM, September 28, 2017), was washed away by a sudden flash flood. The Russian military accuses the SDF and/or the US of deliberately opening the floodgates at a hydroelectric damn upriver to destroy the bridge. The Pentagon denies this allegation (Interfax, February 9). The collapsing bridge cut off the Vagner-led force on the left bank from supplies, reinforcements and the possibility of an organized retreat.
Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, the top US Air Force general in the Middle East, told journalists the encounter in Deir el-Zour “was not entirely unexpected”: For a week prior to the incident, the US had observed a slow buildup of hostile forces on the Euphrates bridgehead and reportedly contacted the Russian military. According to Harrigian, to repel the attack, multiple precision-fire munitions were released by ground artillery, F-15E fighter jets, MQ-9 drones, B-52 bombers, AC-130 gunships and AH-64 Apache helicopters (RBC, February 14). Some of these formidable assets could have been scrambled at short notice, but the B-52s, based presumably at Diego Garcia island, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, must have been in the air, loaded with ordinance, hours before ChVK Vagner made its move.
No one seems to be telling the whole truth about an encounter in which the US military seemingly knowingly planned and executed an attack on proxy Russian troops, while the Russian military command deliberately turned a blind eye. This dangerous combination of heavy casualties and muddled narratives could potentially escalate into something much worse than war by proxy.
Dr. Pavel E. Felgenhauer is a Moscow-based defense analyst and columnist for Novaya Gazeta as well as a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He served as senior research officer in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, from where he received his Ph.D. Dr. Felgenhauer has published widely on Russian foreign and defense policies, military doctrine, arms trade and the military-industrial complex.
This article appeared originally at The Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor.