In her daily press briefing Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders rejected the contention that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals for interfering with the 2016 election proves the Trump administration is soft on Russia.
To back up her point, Sanders drew a distinction between former president Barack Obama’s policies towards Russia and President Donald Trump’s Russia policy, and insisted Trump has been much tougher on Russia than Obama was.
Sanders was right.
Not only is the administration tough on Russia, but its toughness is also a function of a hard-headed strategy to diminish Russian power in Syria and throughout the Middle East.
Russia was able to accrue its power in the Middle East through its intervention in Syria on behalf of the Bashar Assad regime and his Iranian overlords. Russia felt free to deploy its forces to Syria in September 2015 – for the first time since the Cold War — due to Obama’s strategic shift away from America’s Middle East allies and towards Iran.
The Trump administration’s strategy is not a rhetorical flourish. No senior official has spelled it out. Indeed, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has all but denied it. Nevertheless, U.S. moves on the ground signal strongly that America’s goal is to diminish – with the hope of eliminating – Russia’s power in Syria.
On February 7, several hundred Russian forces — mercenaries from Wagner, a Kremlin-linked military contractor — joined Syrian elite forces from the Russian-trained ISIS Hunter unit, along with Iranian advisors. Together, this force of 500 crossed the Euphrates from west to east into Syria’s Deir al-Zour province. The zone they entered is designated a neutral area under a deal forged between the Russian military and the U.S.-led coalition. Their target area was Khusham village, which is located on the outskirts of the Conoco oil field.
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated the Khusham and the oil fields area from ISIS in late 2017. SDF retained control over the area, along with much of eastern Syria. Indeed, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted earlier this month, U.S. forces and their SDF allies control some 30 percent of Syrian territory, largely located east of the Euphrates.
On the night of February 7, U.S. forces attached to the SDF detected the Russian-led force and warned the Russian military that if the attacking troops failed to withdraw to the other side of the river, the U.S. would attack them. Rather than comply with the American directive, the Russian-led attackers advanced to within three miles of the U.S.-SDF position, attacking it with mortars, rockets, artillery and tanks.
The US responded to the assault with a massive air assault, which included fighter jets, and helicopter and artillery fire. According to Reuters, between eighty and hundred Russian mercenaries were killed. Two hundred were wounded. One hundred Syrian forces were also killed.
The Russian wounded were transported back to Russia on military aircraft. They are being treated in military hospitals.
Sources close to the Wagner mercenaries told Reuters that the Russian-led force was taken by surprise by the Americans’ decision to attack them. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. did not respond when Russia and its partners attacked U.S.-backed forces in battle after battle.
This distinction, by itself, would prove Sanders’s claim that the Trump administration is tougher on Russia than the Obama administration. But it would be a mistake to view the strike as a mere demonstration of resolve. It exposed that the Trump administration is determined to dramatically reduce Russia’s power in Syria.
The U.S. has good reason to view Russia’s empowerment in Syria as a direct threat to its interests. Until the first Russian military personnel and assets landed in Syria in September 2015, the U.S. was the unquestioned superpower in the region. Since September 2015, Russia has supplanted the U.S. as the most powerful force in Syria. Moscow’s emergence as the power broker there has in turn required U.S. allies in the Middle East to seek independent arrangements with Russia to minimize the damage Russia’s entry into the region exacts on their security and national interests.
Beyond the strategic implications of the harm Russia’s presence in Syria has done to American power in the Middle East and its trustworthiness in the eyes of its allies, Russia’s operations on the ground in Syria have empowered Iran and its proxies against the U.S. and its allies. By siding with the Syrian regime, and its Iranian and Hezbollah partners and overlords, Russia turned the tide of the war in their favor, while weakening Israel’s strategic position in relation to Iran.
Israel and the U.S.’s other regional allies lack the wherewithal to confront Russia. And since Iran and Hezbollah operate in alliance with Russia, so long as the Russians remain the most powerful actor on the ground in Syria, Israel and other American allies have little chance of scaling back Iranian entrenchment in the country in any serious way. The only force capable of taking on Russia is the U.S.
In recent weeks, senior administration officials, including Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, have declared that the U.S. is committed to diminishing Iran’s regional power. But again, this cannot be achieved without dealing with Russia. Which brings us back to February 7.
The U.S. airstrike against Russian-led forces by Khusham undermined all aspects of Russia’s strategy for maintaining its position in Syria.
Russia’s strategy in Syria has three major components. First, Russia seeks to limit its official footprint. To cultivate the perception that Russian involvement in Syria is more limited than it actually is, Moscow has employed mercenary forces, most prominently Wagner.
The problem with plausible deniability is that it cuts both ways. Just as Moscow is able to disavow actions undertaken by Russian mercenaries, so, too, the U.S. can attack Russian mercenaries, causing grave harm to Russian power and interests, while denying that it was targeting Russian assets in Syria.
That is precisely what happened on February 7. The day after the attack Mattis said, “It makes no sense [that Russian forces would attack US forces]. It does not appear to be anything coordinated by the Russians. I think the Russians would’ve told us [if they were involved].”
Not wishing to acknowledge that their forces initiated an attack against a U.S. position, the Russians were unable to retaliate against the U.S. and its SDF allies in a meaningful way.
The reason the Russian-led force took the risk of attacking the U.S. position at all owes to the second component of Russia’s strategy in Syria. The February 7 strike undermined this component in a fundamental way.
According to media reports, the goal of the Russian-led assault was to seize the Conoco oil field on the outskirts of Khusham. As Israeli strategist Dr. Guy Bechor explained in an analysis of the U.S. airstrike, published on his Hebrew language website, the monetary cost of Russia’s war in Syria is becoming prohibitive. With oil now selling for $60 a barrel, Russia is running short on cash.
To pay for its operations, the Russian regime oversaw financial deals between Assad’s regime and its private military companies. Wagner signed a deal that gives it 25 percent of the revenues from oil fields its seizes and holds.
The problem with Russia’s economic strategy is that the vast majority of Syria’s major oil fields and refineries are located in the area controlled by the U.S. and its SDF allies. Seizing them requires Wagner to fight and defeat the U.S. and the SDF. By all but annihilating Wagner’s forces at Khusham, the U.S. blocked Russia’s primary means of financing its war in Syria.
The third component of the Russian strategy in Syria is arguably the most problematic from Russia’s perspective. Fighting in recent weeks around Idlib, Deir Azour, Damascus, Homs and Aleppo and in other locations previously seized by Russian-supported Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah forces demonstrates that the Assad regime is not able to maintain control over territory it seizes. Rather, it is required to fight over and over for the same territory.
The Syrian forces killed on February 7 were among the most elite fighters in Assad’s army. According to Bechor, the troops killed were members of the Alawite, Druse, and Christian minority sects. These communities are loyal to the regime because they have no choice. If Assad falls, the Alawites, like the Christians and Druse, rightly assume they will be wiped out by his successors. And yet the level of losses they absorbed from the U.S. strikes was unprecedented and demoralizing, and augers ill for their continued capacity to fight.
As reports of the number of Russian casualties began surfacing in the global and Russian media in the days following the February 7 battle, the Kremlin issued statement after statement denying the reports of high casualties and insisting that if Russian nationals were killed, the government knew nothing about why they were in Syria or how they died. This move was a bid to maintain the Kremlin strategy of plausible deniability.
On Tuesday, under increasing pressure from the families of the dead and wounded Wagner mercenaries, Russia’s Foreign Ministry finally admitted that “several dozen” Russian forces were killed in Syria and that the regime had provided them transport back to Russia. The official announcement did not state where or when the forces were killed, and continued to disassociate the dead with the Russian government.
Tuesday’s statement was, in many ways, an acknowledgment that Russia’s strategy of plausible deniability had been defeated. By causing massive, undeniable damage to the mercenary forces, the U.S. pushed the Kremlin into a corner, trapped between its strategy and the Russian public’s outcry and demand for answers.
Some commentators argue, reasonably, that the U.S. strategy in Syria is too limited. For instance, while the U.S. defends its SDF allies in the Deir a-Zour province, it has provided no assistance to its SDF/YPG allies in Afrin province, which has been under Turkish assault for the past month.
Although the criticism has merit, the fact is that the U.S. has limited resources in Syria. Whereas the U.S. has only two thousand soldiers in Syria, Iran controls more than 82,000 troops in the country. The U.S. needs to conserve its resources and carefully limit its operations to targets that give it the highest return on its investment.
The Russians are the primary force empowering Iran in Syria. The U.S. is the only force in the Middle East that can confront Russia. By carefully drawing its lines and defending them, the U.S. is undermining every aspect of Russia’s strategy in Syria. How this will play out over time is impossible to know. But what is clear enough is that the U.S. has a strategy for securing its interests in Syria. It is implementing that strategy to deadly effect.
And the key component of that strategy is taking a tough stand against Russia.