The death of “dozens” of Russian mercenaries in Syria — some reports say “hundreds” — is quite significant. Russia under Vladimir Putin has been playing a weak hand skillfully, so skillfully as to have convinced many people that Russia is a rising rather than a declining power. America is doing itself no favors by going along with the Russian propagandists on this score: when Radio Free Europe paints these ‘mercenaries’ as having been discarded as unimportant, it gives credence to the Kremlin’s claims that they have little control over their deployment. In fact, the use of deniable assets is key to Russia’s approach.
What that means is that there is a significant mismatch in US commitment to this conflict, versus Russian commitment. That endangers American servicemembers and our allies. The United States needs to rethink its commitment to this war. Either the US should fight it as the very serious high-stakes conflict its enemies think this war is, or it should pull back to more defensible lines. To do otherwise is to court having our forces overrun.
I. The Russian Involvement in Syria Underscores the Strategic Importance of that War
Russia has real but limited military resources, and deniable assets like the ‘mercenaries‘ employed by the PMC Vagner organization represent a strategic investment for the Russians. Deniable assets deployed in Syria cannot be deployed in Ukraine, for example, where the Russians are also hotly contesting a civil war. How important are such deniable forces? The United States recently announced the sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukrainian forces, designed to deal with “unlabeled tanks.” Similarly unlabeled men — called “little green men” in the press, and thought to be Russian special operations forces — have been at the forefront of Russian support for its partisans in that conflict. The “little green men” also appeared in Russia’s successful conquest of Crimea. Mercenaries provide an additional layer between the operators and the native partisans. Reports from Syria indicate that the Vagner organization is serving to prepare the ground for formal Russian special operators, and as an assault force that can afford to take casualties at rates that would be ruinous if they cost the lives of expensive-to-train special operators.
Given the usefulness of such forces in Ukraine and elsewhere, then, the use of these mercenaries in Syria is significant. The Ukrainian conflict has not gone entirely in Moscow’s favor, but they are using these forces in Syria instead.
Why would they do that? The Russians correctly understand that the battles being fought right now in the Middle East are going to determine the structure of the world’s power relationships for at least a generation. The questions at stake include whether Russia will continue to have a naval base in the Mediterranean sea; whether Iran will cement its domination of the northern Middle East, and its oil; whether the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, will have their own oil exports subject to closure by Iran and its proxies; and whether or not the United States will remain a major player in the Middle East at all. Turkey’s status, and thus NATO’s continued viability, are in play as the Turks are being pulled away from the West by this conflict. Israel’s survival is not necessarily of much interest to the Russians, but it is certainly also an issue that could be settled by this conflict insofar as it enables Iranian domination of Syria and Lebanon. A lot is at stake.
II. War and Proxy War: Players and State of Play
Now that it is evident that the Russians value outcome of the Syrian war highly, and that they have good reasons for doing so, let us run through the basic state of play. For Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, this is more a war than a proxy war. Their military forces are engaged in the war fully. Syria’s military is in tatters, however. Iraq’s performed reasonably well against the Islamic State (ISIS) with both US and Iranian support, but it is not clear whether it can act independently. Of all the nations involved in this war, only the Turks have forces that could immediately engage the war with the capabilities of combined arms, large numbers, and coherence in logistics and training.
For Iran, Russia, and the United States, this is more of a proxy war than a war. Each of these powers is pursuing their own ends via the support of different coalitions of native forces. Iran took an early lead here via its support to regional Shi’a militias across Mesopotamia and the Levant. These forces are irregular but numerous and widespread. Some of them are also well-established and well-provisioned with arms, especially Lebanese Hezbollah and those Iraqi militias that the Iranians supported against the United States during the Iraq War.
The Russians came late, backing a Syrian regime that has already had its formal forces shattered by the civil war. The Syrian forces that the Russians and Iranians are propping up are not powerful. That is why the Syrian government continues to use chemical weapons: their traditional forces are too weak to bring the conflict to a close. On the other hand, Russia’s geostrategic opponent — the United States — has chosen to engage the war with quite limited military assets, backing a coalition led by Kurdish fighters that are chiefly talented irregulars. The Kurds are also politically divided, and geographically strung out. The Russians believe they can contest the US-backed irregulars. In addition to their own operators and direct proxies, the Russians count on bringing to bear Syria’s limited forces and Iranian-backed proxies including Shi’a militias.
III. Challenges for the US Posture & the Kurdish Irregulars
The United States believes its chief interest is in completing the destruction of ISIS. While this is a worthy goal, it is not clear that the American policy has grappled with how much more is at stake in this conflict (see section I, above). For this reason, we have committed very light resources that are greatly at risk given that other players see the stakes of the conflict as much higher than our policymakers have so far believed.
This light American footprint is endangered, as the recent Russian attack shows. The only reason we did not see the American and Kurdish forces overrurn was that our airstrikes and artillery were able to materialize faster than the Russians anticipated. “Around 600 fighters with artillery and tanks, mostly Russian speakers, took part in the attempt to storm the base… They counted on the U.S. having too little time to target them without risking casualties among its mainly Kurdish allies, but strikes began when only half the force had made it to the base[.]” Better organization on their part might have made the difference, meaning that the successful repulsion of the last attack cannot be counted upon to be repeated in the future.
So what should the United States do here? First, it is important to appreciate the geography of the conflict. Consider this map, constructed by Axios’ Andrew Witherspoon based on Janes’ Defence data.
The Turkish offense against the Kurds has so far focused on Arfin, which you can see to the northwest of the map. Turkish sources tell me that they believe their government intends to press the Kurds as far as the Euphrates, which is the river east of Arfin that passes south into a large lake, and then on into Iraq.
The United States, because of its focus on ISIS, is deployed with Kurdish irregulars chiefly much further east — the Russian assault occurred near Deir ez-Zor, much further south and east along the Euphrates. Kurdish irregulars thus do not enjoy American support across the board, either practically or politically. We are there to fight ISIS, not to support the Kurds. The only Kurds who currently enjoy our protections are the ones who are being assisted by American forces in the counter-ISIS fight.
So far that is as far as the United States is prepared to go. Just as we recently allowed Kurdish Kirkuk itself to be seized by Iraqi national forces, we have so far seemed prepared to allow Arfin to fall to the Turks.
There are some signs that this may be changing. Secretary of State Tillerson has been engaging the Turks with an eye towards avoiding a formal break. Perhaps this will entail a solution on Arfin. Members of Congress sent a letter supporting the Kurds in Arfin to the State Department, encouraging such a move.
Nevertheless, at the moment our commitment to this operation is as a limited anti-ISIS fight. That exposes our Kurdish allies to aggression on multiple fronts. It also endangers our servicemembers, who are present only in numbers designed to be sufficient for the ready destruction of ISIS. Our force commitment is not adequate to handle a more serious campaign against us by Russian and Iranian proxies, to say nothing of what will happen if the Turks were to formally turn against us.
The United States needs to decide if its interests really end with the destruction of ISIS, or if the other outcomes that are likely to result from this war also represent key national interests. If the former, the light footprint we have been using may need to be reinforced for as long as it continues to be necessary. However, the deployment as a whole should be short-lived. If, on the other hand, we have a stake in the outcome of the larger war, a new approach to this conflict is needed.