One of the interesting aspects of the Trump era is the extent to which our political culture is obsessing over marginalia while truly significant events transpire largely out of sight and out of mind. For example, late last year the Iraqi government announced the defeat of the ISIS caliphate within Iraqi borders — a significant moment, no doubt — but that same day Donald Trump got in a Twitter spat with the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel over the crowd size at a Pensacola rally. Guess which event got more coverage?
Part of this dynamic, of course, is the president’s fault. He should have trumpeted the allied victory and charted the road ahead. The caliphate was in ruins, but ISIS still exists. Where do we go from here? And part of this is the media’s fault. It’s just easier to follow the president’s lead. After all, that’s where the clicks are. It’s harder to look at the world and discern which stories truly matter.
And that brings me to one of the most momentous mysteries of the new year. Did American and Russian forces just engage in a deadly clash in Syria, and was that clash the direct result of a Putin-approved effort to test American defenses? While Americans were arguing over Russian Facebook posts, did American air power and artillery leave up to 300 Russians dead on a Syrian battlefield?
Here’s the basic chronology.
On the night of February 7, “pro-regime” Syrian forces reportedly launched an assault on a “known” American base. American forces defended themselves with attack helicopters, jets, and AC-130 gunships, and the attackers withdrew after taking significant casualties.
That next week, on February 12, Reuters reported that at least two Russians died in the fighting, according to their associates. The Russian casualties were apparently contractors accompanying regime forces. By February 13, both the Washington Post and New York Times had picked up the story, and the number of rumored Russian dead swelled to “large numbers” or “dozens,” but — we were assured — there was no direct confrontation between Americans and members of the Russian military.
As rumors swirled online that the true number of Russian dead numbered in the hundreds, the Washington Post published a report suggesting that the attack on U.S. forces may have had official Russian backing:
A Russian oligarch believed to control the Russian mercenaries who attacked U.S. troops and their allies in Syria this month was in close touch with Kremlin and Syrian officials in the days and weeks before and after the assault, according to U.S. intelligence reports.
In intercepted communications in late January, the oligarch, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, told a senior Syrian official that he had “secured permission” from an unspecified Russian minister to move forward with a “fast and strong” initiative that would take place in early February.
This, by the way, is the same oligarch that special counsel Robert Mueller indicted for alleged criminal acts committed in the Russian effort to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Monday, Business Insider published unverified transcripts of “leaked audio recordings” from Russian mercenaries on the scene. The mercenaries describe a violent hellscape, where they were sitting ducks as American artillery and aircraft killed more than 200 of their comrades.
The alleged transcripts certainly make for vivid reading. Here’s a taste:
The reports that are on TV about … well, you know, about Syria and the 25 people that are wounded there from the Syrian f*** army and — well . . . to make it short, we’ve had our asses f*** kicked. So one squadron f*** lost 200 people … right away, another one lost 10 people . . . and I don’t know about the third squadron, but it got torn up pretty badly, too. . . . So three squadrons took a beating. . . . The Yankees attacked . . . first they blasted the f*** out of us by artillery, and then they took four helicopters up and pushed us in a f*** merry-go-round with heavy caliber machine guns … They were all shelling the holy f*** out of it, and our guys didn’t have anything besides the assault rifles . . . nothing at all, not even mentioning shoulder-fired SAMs or anything like that . . . So they tore us to pieces for sure, put us through hell, and the Yankees knew for sure that the Russians were coming, that it was us, f*** Russians . . . Our guys were going to commandeer an oil refinery, and the Yankees were holding it. . . . We got our f*** asses beat rough, my men called me . . . They’re there drinking now. . . many have gone missing . . . it’s a total f*** up
The transcripts create the impression of a column of troops that were simply cannon fodder — sent to their deaths without air support of any kind and without any air defenses.
So, what is really going on here? Was this the kind of “fog of war” incident that’s nearly inevitable in a battlespace so crowded with competing militias, armies, and mercenaries? Or was it something else? Was Putin following his time-honored tactic of testing enemy will through the use of unmarked or proxy forces? Who can doubt the official sanction of the “little green men” in Crimea or the Russian “paramilitaries” in the Donbass conflict? Did a great power intentionally send its own citizens into a deliberate clash with American forces?
Confrontations are inevitable. Proper management of those confrontations is not.
While we wait for answers, at least two things are clear. First, both Russia and the United States are downplaying the incident. If the Russians were testing American will, they got their answer, but there appears to be no American desire to retaliate or to escalate the confrontation into a full force-on-force encounter. This is encouraging, but not entirely comforting. When blood is spilled, the consequences are not always predictable or controllable.
Second, the situation in Syria is extraordinarily dangerous. It’s understandable that international eyes are focused on North Korea, but consider this: If reports of hundreds of Russian dead are correct, the American military just killed more Russians than it did in any single encounter throughout the entirety of the Cold War. That’s stunning. At present, a few thousand American troops are in the midst of the world’s most vicious war, rubbing up against hostile Russians, Syrians, Turks, Iranians, and Lebanese. Confrontations are inevitable. Proper management of those confrontations is not.
Therefore it’s more vital than ever that the Trump administration formulate and articulate a clear strategy for American involvement in Syria. The administration should approach Congress to request fresh military authorizations to replace the outdated and inadequate Afghan and Iraqi resolutions. In two regions now, America faces the possibility of a large-scale, conventional military clash — a clash unlike anything we’ve seen in generations. It’s imperative that the American people understand the risks, understand the administration’s vision, and approach these potential confrontations with their eyes wide open. We should not stumble into war.