Hybrid Warfare is Dangerous

Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

The death by airstrike of a large number of Russian “mercenary troops” allegedly attacking a US backed position in Syria is reminder that hybrid/proxy/low-intensity conflict is not without risk. The New York Times described the scale of the incident. “Aleksandr Ionov, a Russian businessman working in Syria offering security and other services … estimated after conversations with associates in several private military organizations that more than 200 Russians might have been killed. … not all those killed were Russian: Some of the paid fighters came from other countries that were once part of the Soviet Union.”


That is the equivalent of a whole infantry company gone.

The Associated Press explains that “the attack in Deir el-Zour province in northeastern Syria occurred in crowded battle space. … The U.S.-backed forces control areas east of the Euphrates River and most of the oil and gas fields, while government forces are based in the west.”  And as so often happens in history maybe someone didn’t get the word.

Col. Thomas F. Veale said … Russian officials offered assurances that they would not engage the coalition forces in the area.

“Pro-regime forces initiated hostilities with artillery pieces (howitzers). Additionally, Syrian pro-regime forces maneuvered T-55 and T-72 main battle tanks with supporting mortar fire in what appears to be a coordinated attack on Syrian Democratic Forces approximately 8 kilometers (5 miles) east of the Euphrates River de-confliction line in Khusham, Syria,” Veale said.

By crossing the river, the pro-government forces would have violated the existing de-confliction agreement between Washington and Moscow, approaching U.S.-backed forces based near an oil field. Russia is the main ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Asked if Russia was responsible for not stopping the attack, Veale said: “The de-confliction effort has served its purpose. Just as the coalition does not direct the operations of the SDF, the Russians do not direct operations of the Syrian regime.”


Alternatively Putin may have come to regard Washington as so divided he could send hybrid forces into Syria and overrun an objective before anyone could react. The Washington Post editorial board believes the Kremlin is feeling its oats.  In an article titled “Russia is betting it can push the U.S. out of Syria”, the WaPo warned Putin may be embarked on yet another attempt at “bold duplicity”:

Russian forces are backing the Assad regime’s offensives, and they, along with Iran, may have supported the attack on America’s Kurdish allies east of the Euphrates River. Russian ruler Vladi­mir Putin gave Turkey a green light to launch its offensive against the Kurds, and his phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday put a stop to hostilities between Israel, Syria and Iran.

Mr. Putin is seeking to establish Russia as the dominant power in Syria and, by extension, a major player in the Middle East — all at the expense of the United States. His attempt to stage a conference supplanting the U.N.-sponsored peace process for Syria largely flopped last month. But he has established Russia as the arbiter of Syria’s multiple conflicts, capable of fueling them or shutting them down.

The headlines out of Washington delegitimizing the current administration certainly might have contributed to a feeling of invincibility in the Kremlin.  Unfortunately for Russia Trump’s much criticized delegation of authority back to the military may have decoupled its tactical response from Washington’s political paralysis. Even if he was on the golf course or watching the gorilla channel, as the media is wont to report, the airstrike still could have happened.  Paul McLeary tweeted: “head of US air operations in Middle East says the US commander on the ground in Syria has authority to call in airstrike on ‘battalion-sized’ force that attacked SDF/US advisors last wk.”


Yet this flexibility to respond harbors dangers of its own, namely the risk of unintended escalation.  The deconfliction of Russian and US forces was one of the keys to preventing accidental general war in the late 20th century.  But just as deterrence was supposed to make confrontation unthinkable — and elections supposed to make the slow coup and counter-purge in now evident Washington impossible — the breakdown of both has given chaos license to roam. It is yet one more sign that the costs of the War in Washington are finally being felt in Syria.

Perhaps the culprit for this situation is the idea that cyberattacks, subversion, bribery, mercenary troops, secret operations and drone strikes can be waged without consequence.  This falsely lulled leaders into thinking they could have war without war. Everything was possible if it could be outsourced, renditioned, droned and passed through multiple layers of cutouts.

Syria reminds us that events have a logic all their own and war remains war by any other name.

This may be important to remember because the 2018 midterm elections are already being de-legitimized and subverted. Yet another provocation is in the works.  “The intelligence chiefs warned the Senate Intelligence Committee, during an annual hearing on worldwide threats, that Russia believes its interference in the 2016 presidential election largely achieved its chief aim — weakening faith in American democracy. Moscow now sees the coming congressional elections as a chance to build on its gains, they said.”


Those “gains” have so far borne bitter fruit for Russia.  Director of Central Intelligence Mike Pompeo just tweeted “we need to look at how the Russians respond to the cumulative actions of this administration. The list of places – like Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela – where the Russians are feeling the pain from this administration’s actions are long.”  To what extent is the Trump administration compelled to prove it’s tough on Russia? Hybrid warfare, like any other sort, is a knife that cuts both ways.

The locomotive which just ran over 200 Russians in Syria has disappeared round the bend for now but pray tell: who is in charge of the clattering train?

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