Last week, the headquarters of a U.S. proxy at Syria–the Syrian Democratic Forces–and their American advisers came under attack with a large Syrian regime force 8 km east of their agreed-upon Euphrates River de-confliction line near Deir al-Zour.
In “self-defense,” the U.S. launched a large scale artillery and air assault to repel the attackers. Using F-15s, F-22s, AC-130 gunships, Apache helicopters, MQ-9 unmanned drones, and artillery, U.S. forces killed an estimated 100 attackers, according to several Russian media reports, and ruined many tanks and artillery pieces. Among the reported deaths, according to a Pentagon official, were Syrian Arab Army soldiers forged at the “ISIS Hunters” unit, in addition to Russian mercenaries operating for Wagner, a private military company beneath the command-and-control of the Russian Ministry of Defense that’s been tasked with re-taking oilfields from ISIS.
Originally, Moscow denied any connection. “The explanations for the episode were reconnaissance and research actions by Syrian militia not coordinating with the control of the Russian operations team,” Interfax mentioned the Russian defense ministry.
But similar to the Kremlin’s refusal of Russian military soldiers or unique operators being deployed in Ukraine, this narrative is rapidly eroding against a tide of social networking and even pro-Kremlin press claims naming the names of their slain mercenaries and giving details of their funerals from St. Petersburg.
If confirmed, this could be the first time that U.S. forces straight engaged and murdered Russian combatants at Syria, albeit not the first time that CIA-armed compels have done so, as The Daily Beast has previously reported.
Moreover, the scuttlebutt one of Russian adventurers has swirled with advice of those killed and injured in battle. The dilemma is that many of the claims being made provide exceptionally different casualty figures.
Curiously, the story of the Wagner losses has not appeared at all on Fontanka, the independent St. Petersburg website that initially broke the story of the private military company’s setup to Syria in 2013. (After Fontanka journalist Denis Korotokov published a set of articles on Wagner at 2017, he had been accused on anonymous sites of “betraying the motherland,” having ties with ISIS, also assisting Ukrainian intelligence. Then he began to get violent threats.)
Independent war authors such as Necro_mancer66 on Twitter as well as the Conflict Intelligence Team, which usually report war deaths in Syria unacknowledged from the Russian defense ministry, have been only cautiously reporting human deaths they’ve found on social networking. (They’re so far around eight.) This time, the story has been promoted largely by pro-Kremlin Russian nationalists, which should make us somewhat careful of what conclusions to draw.
For instance, Igor Girkin, referred to by his nom de guerre of Col. Igor Strelkov, a former Russian intelligence operative who controlled separatist forces in east Ukraine until he had been sidelined by rivals, took to the social-media stage Vkontakte to claim that no normal Russian forces were in the area, but that “2 tactical divisions of Wagner” “were struck by strikes against American aviation. One is practically totally destroyed, and the moment is smashed 'to smithereens. ”’ Strelkov, who’s located in Moscow, estimated that as many as “100” Wagner mercenaries were murdered. And while he inadvertently furnished the first actual evidence that pro-Russian separatists downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 at 2014, after they mistook the commercial airliner for a Ukrainian military cargo plane, he cannot be counted as a credible source.
Because of this, we suspect that the Vzglyad article is disinformation intended to embarrass the Russian government for failing to defend its assets in the field, if not cajole it into retaliating against the U.S.
Privately owned pro-Kremlin news site Vzglyad, made by leading pro-Kremlin social-media propagandist Konstantin Rykov has printed purportedly decoded Russian mercenaries chatting with one another from voice tapes which seemed on the Russian-language Telegram channel “WarGonzo” shortly after the firefight with the SDF and U.S. warplanes. Four distinct voices put the total amount of mercenaries dead at over 200, but even they disagree regarding the exact details and figures; with some asserting that entire companies were “ruined,” and that American flags had been draped over the vanquished Russian trenches, which might surely incite an incensed response back in Russia. Because of this, we suspect that the Vzglyad article is disinformation intended to embarrass the Russian government for failing to defend its assets in the field, if not cajole it into retaliating against the U.S.
Now, Bloomberg News seemed to corroborate the Vzglyad allegations, reporting that “[m]ore than 200 mercenaries, mostly Russians” were murdered in the event, citing an unnamed U.S. official and “three Russians acquainted with the matter.”
Up to now, Moscow has not even acknowledged one reduction, not as responded in kind to the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. Rather, a Russian defense official couched the official response in more broadly anti-American conditions: that the attack “demonstrated that the genuine goal of continuation of the existence of USA forces on Syrian territory isn’t a struggle with the international terrorist band ISIS, but a catch and hold of economic assets under its management that belong only to the Syrian Arab Republic.”
When pressed documented Wagner casualties from the Syrian desert, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied: “These reports require verification.” He additionally explained, “Let us be clear, there’s a reasonable amount of our compatriots from a variety of countries across the world.”
Officially, private military organizations are prohibited in Russia. However, you would not know it if you listened to Vladimir Putin. In April 2012, Putin voiced his fascination in PMCs–known as Chastnye Voenniye Companiye (ChVK)–and their potential utility as “an instrument in the pursuit of national interests with no direct involvement of the state,” ongoing, “I feel that it should be considered, thought” Despite his support, and a few attempts in the State Duma to draft laws in support of their mercenaries, PMCs remain outlawed, leaving them in a precarious place and reliant upon their utility to the Russian country.
PMCs have the same appeal to Putin that all proxies, mercenaries, or contractors must all countries: deniability and cheap. They are expendable, easily written off as patriotic “volunteers” rather than state actors, whose passing needn’t be counted as wartime losses, and whose potentially deadly behavior reduces the risk of escalation with the enemy. Dead mercenaries avoid the undesirable press and focus that includes young army conscripts returning residence in zinc-lined coffins.
The very first installation of Russian PMCs in Syria was more Keystone Kops than Spetsnaz. First emerging in 2013, the Slavonic Corps has been formed as an offshoot of the Hong Kong-based Moran Security Group. From the get-go, their intervention has been marked with confusion, poor coordination, and obsolete equipment. First tasked with seizing back regime oil fields, the Slavonic Corps’ mission quickly turned into a rout as they were outmatched in both amounts and gear by anti-Assad opposition forces.
The embarrassment did not end there. In their return to Russia, the ex-members of the Slavonic Corps were detained by the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service, and many were charged with violating Article 348 of the Russian Criminal Code, banning mercenary support.
And while Russia’s first usage of PMCs was an unalloyed victory, the Kremlin’s desire for soldiers of fortune has only increased in the years since. The next opportunity came with all the conflict in Ukraine, also Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and incitement of rebellion at the Donbas. Using proxies and PMCs came to form a fundamental element of Russia’s “hybrid war” strategy.
To be able to support Russia’s actions in Ukraine, a veteran of the Slavonic Corps and former Spetsnaz officer has been chosen. Lt. Col. Dmitry Utkin, who until 2013 had been an officer at the 2nd Spetsnaz Brigade of Russian military intelligence (GRU), known as that new band “Wagner” in honor of Hitler’s favorite composer. Apparently, along with being a veteran of both the Slavonic Corps and Spetsnaz, Utkin has an affinity for the “aesthetics and ideology of the Third Reich,” which makes him not only a neo-Nazi but that oh-so-perfect embodiment of Putinist disinformation attempts: a combatant ostensibly deployed into a neighboring state to prevent a “fascist junta,” as the Kremlin routinely known as the government in Kiev, by exterminating ethnic Russians.
However, this outing turned out to be far more favorable than the maiden foray into Syria. Among the combination of rogues, Mafiosi, and killers that made up Russia’s rebel army in Eastern Ukraine, Utkin and Wagner provided Russia with a competent and loyal unit able to do its bidding (such as, reportedly, removing those more feral rebel commanders who had outlived their usefulness).
An essential feature of Russia’s support of the Assad regime is to stabilize it. Spetsnaz advisers provide critical reconnaissance to Russia’s atmosphere contingent and support Syrian government offensives. Russian officers help organize, train, and deploy the numerous militias which make up most of the regime’s fighting force, together with advising the regime’s larger military and strategic planning. For the most part, Russia has been effective in preventing getting its “official” forces sucked into direct ground combat. Getting directly involved in on-the-ground fighting would damage the Kremlin’s narrative that they’re there as “peacekeepers” and, lately, that the battle part of their mission has ended.
But Syrian forces are not able on their own to acquire vital objectives that are critical to maintain the Assad regime, and the storyline that they’re fighting–and winning–the war against ISIS. To get around these problems, Russia has turned to Wagner. Critical from the offensive to retake Palmyra, Wagner and its Russian mercenaries have become an increasingly significant element of Russia’s attempts in Syria. They permit Russia to deploy competent and professional forces having the expertise and training to seize strategic goals with no potential blowback of casualties. Mercenaries get no state funeral and aren’t officially reported, permitting Russia to maintain the faade of winding down its involvement.
Since Assad’s position has solidified, Russia’s focus has focused around regaining assets which will enable the regime to effectively encourage itself –and pay for the continuing supplies and weaponry. According to documents seen from the AP and Fontaka, Evro Polis has signed a contract with Syria’s state-owned General Petroleum Corp. for 25 percent of their proceeds from all of the oil and natural-gas fields it captures from ISIS. Peskov’s “compatriots” around the world should all be so lucky.
While at first the arrangement seems like other source rights for mercenary prices of yesteryear, the possession and structure of Evro Polis provides even greater insight into the workings and connections between economics, favors, and power in Russia. Evro Polis is reportedly Wagner’s commercial front in Syria. It’s possessed by Putin’s “favored chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose companies have extensive contracts to provide food for everyone from the Russian defense ministry to most of Moscow’s public colleges. Most famously, Prigozhin set up a “Kremlin troll factory” from St. Petersburg to affect public opinion in the West by peddling conspiracy theories and disinformation on social-media platforms.
Not only an arrangement to incentivize Wagner’s continued involvement in Syria, the Evro-General Petroleum bargain is also an incentive for maintaining mercenaries on board for prospective Russian adventures overseas. And given the tensions between Moscow and Damascus owing to latter’s reliance on Russian loans and oil shipments to keep the lights and the Allied war machine humming, the Kremlin has every motive to coax its team of expendables into assisting Assad regain control of his captured hydrocarbon business, be it out of ISIS or an emerging U.S. protectorate in eastern Syria, which has demonstrated every intention of not handing major oil fields back to the regime.
Because of this, last week’s events look more a prelude than an anomaly in what has been a war of proliferating sideshow struggles. As long as Putin has Wagner to provoke or skirmish against the Allied Democratic Forces, he can attack U.S. allies without officially attacking them and risk retaliation from the Pentagon, while insisting that the Russian military was nowhere close to the scene of their offense.