The harsh incident at Dir ez-Zor illustrates once again the bitter truth: with all due respect to aggressive speeches at the UN, Russia only understands brute physical force
While Israel was all caught up a few weeks ago in the incident where an Iranian drone was intercepted when it penetrated into Israeli territory and with a wide scale retaliation that followed the downing of an Israeli jet, a no less significant incident occurred the day before in Syria that could affect the future of the entire Middle East.
On the night of February 8, American forces identified the movement of units of the Assad army towards the Deir ez-Zor area, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a body composed of Arabs and Kurds supported by the United States. The area in question is located on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, and includes a number of oil fields that the regime forces apparently desired.
The Syrian soldiers, together with what was later discovered to be a number of Russian units, moved in a clear offensive order of battle, including artillery and tanks. In November, Russian engineering units built a bridge over the Euphrates in the same area. When the incident was reported, it did not attract attention. In retrospect though, it may have been part of the preparations for the attack.
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, Commander, U.S. Air Forces Central Command, Southwest Asia said that his forces had contacted the Russians and informed them of the advancement of the forces supporting the Assad regime, which was in contrast to their agreement. The Russians replied that there were no Russian soldiers there.
Once the Americans had verification, as far as they were concerned, that there were no Russian forces on the ground, the battle began. Or, rather more precisely – the massacre. Fighter jets and combat helicopters, Reaper assault UMV’s and precision artillery simply crushed the advancing force on his heavy equipment without leaving them any chances.
The US Air Force even operated one of its most powerful tools: the AC-130 assault aircraft, which is actually a Hercules armed with long-range cannons and equipped with the best electronic warfare systems. Survivors of the incident indicated that the wireless communications of the attacked force was completely disrupted and they couldn’t even call for evacuation of the wounded.
After the smoke of the bombs and missiles dispersed, initial reports began to arrive that those who had been killed in the attack were in fact units of Russian mercenaries in the service of Assad. Various estimates spoke of the number of deaths ranging from several dozen to several hundred, while the Russian Foreign Ministry admitted the deaths of only five Russian citizens.
Many details are still not entirely clear about the bloody battle, but what is clear is that this event – which was actually the first direct confrontation between American and Russian forces since the Cold War – has enormous significance both internationally and for Russia internally.
Disrespect for the Americans
Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer believes that the reason the Russian force was destroyed lies in the lack of its professionalism, or more precisely in its ignorance of the concept of American battle management. According to this military expert, the Russians chose to move under cover of darkness in the hope that the Kurdish and American forces would not be able to respond appropriately and would not be able to coordinate a response with the US Central Command.
This assumption is very much in line with the Russian battle management approach that requires avoiding nighttime battles and minimizes the autonomy of the commander in the field, such that every major move must be coordinated with the central command. The Russian intelligence services are also full of disdain for the Americans and are completely ignorant of the combat doctrine developed by the US military.
All of this had direct affect on the difficult outcome of the battle for them. The Russian force in Syria simply did not know that the commander running the battle in the field was commander of the US Special Forces, who was on site and not somewhere in the Pentagon. That same commander has the authority to use various forces and call for massive air support that can easily determine the outcome of any fight.
The overwhelming American victory also proved once again the technical superiority of the US military, equipped with the most advanced technological devices and capable of managing without difficulty a night campaign. The projection of the Russian self-perception on the enemy, excessive boasting of its own capabilities and disrespect for American power, were fatal for the Russian forces in the simplest sense of the word, and the number of casualties further adds to humiliation.
The most puzzling thing about this whole story, which of course has received much attention in the media, is the thunderous silence of both the Russians and the Americans. The silence is even more puzzling when we recall how in much less significant cases in the past, the Kremlin would make “We will turn America-to-Dust” threats, but now that a Russian unit is completely destroyed without a scratch to an American soldier, there is only silence.
There are several explanations that can be provided for the official Russian silence as well as the American one. Both sides apparently prefer not to focus on the incident because neither side really wanted it. Unlike previous confrontations, there was indeed a serious failure in communictions. Thus, both the Russians and Americans have an interest in lowering the flames and calming the spirits.
The Russian government launched a campaign to divert public attention away from what had happened. Officially, the media is not forbidden to deal with this issue, but with the exception of the Foreign Ministry’s announcement of the deaths of five citizens, the Russian authorities are silent.
For the Russians the situation does indeed look very bad from any possible angle. The glorious-in-its-own-eyes Russian army was incapable of returning even a single barrage of fire, and if no one knew of the approaching American planes, it is a sign that something in the Russian intelligence and communication systems is very flawed.
On the other hand, if the Russian command was aware of the situation on the ground, then it in actuality, consciously and with horrid cynicism, sacrificed the force that was destroyed. It may also very well be that the Russian indifference shows that there is in fact no unified Russian interest in Syria, such that this unfortunate country also serves as an arena for power games between different oligarchs. Needless to say, neither of these versions presents Moscow in a flattering way.
In the absence of documents and official records, it will be very difficult to nearly impossible to determine with certainty the identity of the fallen Russians in Syria. The information currently available is based mainly on reports and rumors. The vast majority of the reports indicate that the force that was wiped out was not of the regular Russian army but part of a private military company called “Wagner”.
This fact creates another problem for Russians, because Russian law – unlike the American – does not recognize the existence of private military companies. Therefore, all the wounded rescued from the inferno in Syria, though hospitalized in military hospitals, were done so in secret because Russian doctors are obligated to report to the authorities every case of hospitalization due to firearms.
While Russian law does not permit the use of private military force, these companies do in fact exist and operate around the world. Most of the fighters in “Wagner” fought in the past in the Ukraine alongside the Russian forces. After several years of incessant fighting though, in Moscow they realized that nationalist mercenaries could be very dangerous when they returned home because they thought Putin had betrayed them.
They were then offered to fight in Syria in exchange for profits from the oil fields. According to this version, the Russian command simply did not mind getting rid of such a dangerous element, and if true, indicates the degree of cynicism of the Russian regime.
The second version, which does not necessarily contradict the first, states that these mercenaries operated under the command of Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch close to Putin, who apparently has business interests in Syria related to the same oil field in Deir ez-Zor. In other words, Prigozhin conducts private business with Assad.
This all paints a very scary picture: since private military companies have no legal status, the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian army take no responsibility for what these are doing on the ground. Moreover, the Russian Ministry of Defense is frankly denying any association with them, stating that their activities are indeed not coordinated with the army.
The goals of the Russian army are quite clear – preserving Assad’s survival and maintaining Syria’s division into spheres of influence. Russia though, has no desire to keep Assad’s wish to recapture all of Syria – it is simply impossible.
If however, oligarchs close to Putin have the ability to conduct an independent business policy in Syria and not geopolitical, there are troubling conclusions. First of all, uncoordinated military action with official Russian forces could drag Russia into situations that are undesirable for it.
Second, this very possibility proves that Russia, far from being the orderly and respectable autocracy it tries to present itself as, is more a Byzantine court where there is a mixture between private business and politics and it is hard to understand exactly who decides what. As proof of the seriousness of this version, it can be noted that many nationalist websites in Russia accuse Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and the military of betrayal and conspiracy against Russia.
Walking a Tight Rope
The exact association of the Russian fighters and the internal struggles in Russia do not detract from any of the operative conclusions that all sides must draw.
These lines are being written while Assad’s murderers, with generous Russian and Iranian assistance, continue to commit war crimes in Ghouta, where the bombings have so far claimed the lives of 500 civilians.
On the other hand, the American attack and the Russian inability to respond to it symbolize the coming end of the Kremlin’s hybrid wars. Such war by means of proxies may be useful against helpless people such as in the Ukraine, but it is a burden rather than an asset when the “green and polite people” (a nickname for the Russian soldiers in Crimea), are confronted with a formidable force capable of returning fire.
It now seems clear that Russia has always preferred to walk a tight rope and to stretch borders rather than conduct direct war. When there is a danger of a real conflagration like in Deir ez-Zor, it prefers not to take a risk and is willing even to sacrifice its citizens.
American determination in Syria can deter the Russians, and this policy can manifest itself not in direct confrontation necessarily. The United States can arrange more extensive aid of more advanced weapons to Syrian rebels, who will be able to fight more effectively against the Assad army, which at the moment enjoys complete aerial superiority. This worked in Afghanistan and could work in Syria as well.
The tragic story of Syria illustrates once again the bitter truth: With all due respect to Nikki Haley’s aggressive speeches at the UN, Russia understands and considers only brute physical force, so the Americans therefore have no choice but to use it. The harsh incident in Dir ez-Zor is proof that it is possible.
*(Translated from Mida.org.il Hebrew)
Alex Grinberg is a Middle East Researcher, specializing in Iranian religious thought and works as geo-political analyst in a risk assessment company.
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