Russian forces suffered their highest casualties thus far in Syria this week, causing some in the country’s media to question the Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict and its benefits for Russia in the short and medium term.
There were calls for the return of Russian soldiers from Syria and an end to the Russian intervention in a conflict that these voices said was of no clear strategic significance.
On 7 February, armed convoys accompanied by T-72 and T-55 tanks approached the Conoco oil field north of the city of Deir Al-Zor in eastern Syria and bombed militia positions belonging to the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units that control the area.
This area is in the de-escalation zone east of the Euphrates River agreed in a deal between Washington and Moscow. The US apparently contacted Russia to ask about the approaching forces, but Moscow denied there were any Russians among them, claiming that they were Syrian regime and Iran-backed militias.
The US then obliterated the convoys in a ferocious military operation that did not give time for the targets to retreat.
Less than one hour into the attack, Russia asked the US to stop the bombing and to allow the regime forces to withdraw. However, Washington refused, destroying some 20 vehicles, including nine tanks, using firepower that included the use of F-15 and F-22 aircraft, Apache helicopters and Marine Corps artillery.
Washington declared it had killed 500 fighters loyal to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad when these had attacked an oil field where US military personnel were present, but did not mention the presence of any Russians among the dead.
Some days later, the Russian media and opposition parties revealed that 644 soldiers had been killed, including 215 Russians. “The US leadership contacted its Russian counterpart on the ground to avoid further escalation,” US Secretary of Defence James Mattis said.
“The Russians told us they did not have any soldiers there. We know they were pro-regime forces, but I could not say if they were Iranians or Russians or mercenaries,” Mattis said.
The Russian Defence Ministry continues to deny that any of its soldiers were killed, with spokeswoman Maria Zakharova only admitting that five soldiers “who are believed to be Russians” were killed.
“They may not be enlisted in the Russian army,” she said, indicating that the soldiers involved could have been enlisted by private contractors providing mercenaries to support Al-Assad regime troops.
Russia’s denial and its disregard for the fate of Russian “mercenaries” in Syria upset many. Russian presidential elections candidate Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the Yabloko United Democratic Party, demanded that Russian President Vladimir Putin provide an account of the “mass murder of Russians in Syria”.
Reports said that those killed were Russian mercenaries hired by the Wagner Group, a private company, and others. Some Russian officials said the Russian government was not responsible for Russian nationals who sign up to fight with private military contractors.
However, Yavlinsky said that the Wagner Group fighters had been trained at Russian bases, had received war medals from the Kremlin, and were in fact private units belonging to the Russian Defence Ministry.
The Wagner Group is a private Russian military contractor linked to the Kremlin. Critics say that Moscow is using Wagner Group mercenaries to limit its official military losses in Syria.
This is the first direct clash between the two major powers in Syria and the first fatal engagement between the US and Russia since the end of the Cold War. The US carried out the operation with deadly accuracy using extensive intelligence. Several military experts have said it is almost certain the Americans knew that more than 200 Russians were in the convoys.
The US operation sends clear messages to Moscow, Tehran and Damascus and reveals that US-Russian coordination in Syria is now at an all-time low, with tensions high.
Some believe disputes between Washington and Moscow could now escalate, though they also say that the attacks mostly indicate the sensitivity of Deir Al-Zor to both the Russians and the Americans since the city neighbours Syria’s oil and gas reserves.
The area also intersects the passage between Iraq and Syria, blocking Iran from completing its so-called “Shia Crescent” to the Mediterranean via Iraq and Lebanon. It is also home to US military bases in eastern and southern Syria.
For the Russians, the region allows them to impose regime control over most of Syria and opens the border with Iraq for Iran-backed combatants to come to Syria should they be needed in battles on the ground.
Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime still believe in a military option over a political solution to the conflict, seeing war as a means to impose a settlement that serves the interests of these players. This explains why battles erupted after the Russian-sponsored Sochi Conference on Syria failed when it was boycotted by the Syrian opposition and western countries.
Russia then launched a military campaign against the city of Idlib in northern Syria, and the regime destroyed eastern Ghouta outside Damascus. Russia tried to take control of the Conoco gas field, and Iran shot down an Israeli military jet.
These incidents indicate tensions among the players involved in the Syrian crisis since they neither further their interests directly nor force the Syrian opposition to submit to Russian, Iranian and regime demands. Russian soldiers were massacred, Israel destroyed 50 per cent of the regime’s anti-aircraft positions, and the battles at Idlib and Ghouta triggered further anger against the regime.
The Russian forces in Syria, supported by air, land and naval bases including the Hamim Airbase and the Tartus Naval Base, have not succeeded politically. Russia has been ensnared at Deir Al-Zor and the Hamim Airbase, where several jets have been damaged, and Iran’s military influence on the ground has been growing on the ground.
Russia cannot impose a political solution in Syria, as has been shown by the failure of the Moscow, Astana and Sochi Conferences. Its alliance with Turkey remains fragile, and the western sanctions against it have increased. Meanwhile, the armed opposition forces are ready to work with the US if the goal is to destroy the power of the regime, Iran and Russia in Syria.
The US could now expand its punitive military operations if red lines are crossed by Iran and the regime, including by bombing high-value Iranian targets and sensitive locations for regime forces. The other players will need to remain within the margins outlined by the US, until it is time to solve the crisis based on US criteria. They include Russia, which was dealt a severe blow near Deir Al-Zor.
* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly