After an attack on February 7 by the United States military against Syrian “pro-regime forces,” reports quickly emerged that the U.S. had killed a number of Russians embedded with the Syrian forces. While the Russian government remained silent, the U.S. soon announced that it had indeed killed “scores” of Russians in that air raid. Later, Russia confirmed that Russian “civilians” had been killed but that no Russian soldiers died. Russia put those numbers at around five while the United States stated a few dozen. Western mainstream media reports put the number at over a hundred.
Then, on February 15, another incident took place where 15 Russians died in an apparent explosion outside a weapons depot run by a Russian contracting company. The explosion itself is suspicious, particularly when taken in the context of the previous killing of Russians in Syria by the U.S. military.
There is no doubt that the U.S. killed the Russians on February 7. However, there are a number of questions that arise out of both incidents, especially the first.
Who Are The Russians?
The Russians who were killed in both incidents in Syria are allegedly part of Wagner Group, a Russian contracting firm based in Hong Kong. Although readers should exercise caution when analyzing information produced by CNN, the news agency claims that Wagner has no public offices in Russia. Both CNN and FOX report that Wagner has anywhere from hundreds to thousands of contractors operating in Syria at this moment. The firm is also believed to have been active in eastern Ukraine, supporting separatists who have been fighting Western-backed Nazi forces.
Why Are They There?
As was the case in eastern Ukraine, Russia needs to deploy fighters to Syria that will aid Syrian military forces and allied militias on the ground but it needs to do so covertly. After all, Russia announced some time ago that it was drawing down its military presence in Syria as a result of many of its goals having been achieved. While Russia did draw down a number of its military forces, private contractors can also be used to shore up Syrian forces, help with logistics, and conduct other operations that the Russian military would rather not be publicly involved with. As cover, the contractors are technically on the payroll of the Syrian government and thus appear as if it is simply a private Russian firm engaging in business with the Syrian government.
While private military contracting with the Syrian government is possible, it is much more likely that the Russian military contractors are operating in Syria and Ukraine for the same purpose – to provide the Russian government with boots on the ground as well as plausible deniability (such as being able to state that Russia has no troops on the ground in Ukraine). Russia is therefore able to conduct certain operations unofficially and publicly draw down its forces while maintaining boots on the ground.
Is The U.S. Killing Russians Intentionally?
Obviously, a direct military assault against Russian troops would create an incredibly dangerous international situation. Putin would be forced to respond to those attacks whether he wanted to or not simply by virtue of public outrage, political pressure, and to protect the perception of Russian strength in the eyes of the world. If the United States were to play the incident as if it were an accident, perhaps Russia could avoid physically responding. However, if the U.S. were to admit intentional targeting, there is little doubt that some type of direct military confrontation between the two powers would take place as a result.
Unfortunately, it is possible that the United States has bet on the fact that the plausible deniability aspect also precludes Russia from the required response that would have resulted if the attacks had killed Russian soldiers. Russia is not going to go to war over private contractors and the United States knows this. Killing Russian contractors then becomes a way to exact a price against Russia for its support of the Syrian government without risking World War Three to the extent it would have done otherwise. The U.S. would then force Russia to begin conducting operations with regular forces or stop conducting operations altogether. Likewise, at a more immediate and simplistic level, it is able to physically disrupt any ongoing operations undertaken by the contractors.
Killing Russians on the ground is also a way to project strength in the same perverted way the U.S. has been doing all along. In other words, the U.S. can claim to the world that it is so powerful that it can enter Syria, occupy it, and kill Russians (presented to the world as soldiers all the while claiming ignorance of their presence) and that Russia is too afraid and/or weak to do anything about it. Of course, this is not the reality of the situation but the perception of it has effects both at home and abroad that result in pressure on the Russian government, most notably its president.
While there is no direct evidence to suggest that the United States is intentionally targeting Russians in Syria, the timing of both incidents is hard to ignore. Given that Russia has thwarted most of America’s plans for Syria, it is clear that the United States wants to make Russia pay a price for its support of the Syrian government, whatever form that price may be, i.e. political, military, or economic. Regardless, the bombing and killing of Russian contractors in Syria is a dangerous new escalation on the part of the United States whose very presence in Syria is both illegal and immoral.