Hybrid Warfare is Dangerous
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.