On February 7, a large pro-Assad force of battalion-sized strength, equipped with tanks, rocket launchers and artillery approached a base housing U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in the Deir-Ezzor region, and opened fire. The force was approximately 5 miles east of the so-called de-confliction line before mounting the attack. The offensive represented an attempt by the Russian-backed regime of Bashar Assad to secure areas that are currently not under regime control.
United States military advisers operate alongside the SDF, which was initially formed primarily to fight ISIS. The defeat of ISIS has made this anti-Assad force useful as a bulwark against Iranian expansion in Syria. After warnings to disengage went unheeded, the U.S. responded with overwhelming force to break up the attack. Air power and artillery were used to good effect. The force immediately turned tail and ran off without further interference by U.S. fighters.
According to U.S. sources, at least 100 pro-regime soldiers were killed and an additional 200 to 300 were injured. This wasn’t the first time the U.S. employed military force to thwart regime aggression in Syria. In June 2017, a U.S. F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 after the latter dropped bombs on SDF positions, and U.S. airpower had been employed in the past to breakup menacing Syrian convoys approaching the de-confliction line. Moreover, just one week after the Deir-Ezzor engagement, a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) blasted a Russian-made T-72 battle tank operating near Al Tabiyeh in Syria. The tank had been firing on SDF positions. The fate of its crew and their respective nationalities were not known.
But the February 7, incident was markedly different in scope and has far greater ramifications than the other engagements. According to multiple Russian sources familiar with the incident, at least 200 and possibly as many as 300 Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainians were killed in the U.S. strikes. They were mercenary contract workers, employed by a shadowy outfit called Wagner, the Russian equivalent of Blackwater. Some of the Ukrainians had been doing Russia’s bidding in eastern Ukraine before they were shipped off to Syria.
According to a report in Bloomberg News, they were hired by Assad or his allies to guard Syria’s energy assets. The Deir-Ezzor region is an oil-rich area and the likelihood is the Russian force was making an effort to seize oil-rich regions in the vicinity on behalf of the regime. These mercenaries may have also been hired directly by Russia to do their dirty work. A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman released a statement that made no mention of Russian mercenaries but condemned the American action in harsh terms and claimed that 25 Syrian fighters were injured. The Defense Ministry termed the U.S. military presence as “illegal” and accused the U.S. of “attempting to seize [Syrian] assets.” In a blatant display of abject hypocrisy, the Assad regime, which used sarin and other forms of poison gas against its own people, called the U.S. action “barbaric,” and a “war crime.”
We also cannot discount the possibility that these Russian mercenaries were bankrolled by the Iranians. Flush with $1.7 billion in cash ($400 million of which was ransom for the release of U.S. hostages illegally seized by Iran) as well as billions more in sanctions relief, compliments of Obama, the Iranians have been funding and sustaining numerous proxy armies across the region including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen and multiple proxy militias in Iraq. In addition, Iran has also recruited willing Shia mercenaries from impoverished failed states like Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The U.S maintains two primary interests in Syria. The first, the defeat of ISIS, has largely been accomplished. Unlike his predecessor Obama, Trump made the defeat of ISIS a priority and adopted a robust approach toward accomplishing this goal. Trump accomplished in one year what Obama could not accomplish in three.
The second goal is to prevent further Iranian entrenchment and expansion in Syria. In an absurd effort to curry favor with the mullahs, Obama turned a blind eye toward their nefarious regional activities and even considered them allies in the fight against ISIS. Trump however, is under no illusions about the malignant nature of the Islamic Republic. Shia and Sunni extremism pose equal dangers to Western civilization.
Trump’s approach toward Iran places him squarely at odds with Vladimir Putin, who regards the Iranians as indispensable allies in Syria. The death of at least 200 Russian contract mercenaries has almost certainly further heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia. Nevertheless, Trump, by both word and deed has made clear that the U.S. will act to preserve its own interests in Syria regardless of any friction it may cause with Putin.
Notwithstanding Trump’s hardline approach toward Moscow in Syria and the impending imposition of new sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 elections, Democrats led by oleaginous propagandists like Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi, and their allies in the Trump-hating establishment media continue to peddle the discredited narrative that Trump is Putin’s stooge. Their entire argument rests on a fully discredited, Russian-sourced dossier compiled by a shady ex-British intelligence agent and Hillary Clinton’s infamous “Black Ops” hack, Sidney Blumenthal. It should be clear to all that if anyone is Putin’s stooge, it’s Adam Schiff & Company.