Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
I have been to the Syrian border in the Golan Heights. It was peaceful when I was there. However, that was an exception. Men have fought over that forlorn piece of dirt since the very dawn of time. Little has changed today.
I have a couple of buddies who did combat tours in Syria in recent years. Like much of that part of the world, they tell me it is a ghastly place. These guys came back with little interest in ever returning. Many of the people who live there seem to be crazy. Perhaps it is something in the water.
I am not really qualified to articulate a clear description of the political situation in that part of the world circa 2018, but I’ll nonetheless give it a whirl. The Russians were aligned with Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government forces. We were part of a coalition of nations supporting the SDF. The SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) is a loose confederation of ethnic militias comprised of Arab, Kurdish, and Assyrian/Syriac peoples along with a few others. They are the Good Guys to us, though the Turks rather strongly disagree. Mixed in among all that was ISIS.
The State of Things There
ISIS is short for Islamic State. They are also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Daesh, and Daish, depending upon who you ask. These are some bloodthirsty scum. ISIS is the only mob in the world vile enough to get all those disparate guys listed in the previous paragraph focused on a common goal. Every sensible person on the planet believes ISIS needs to die. In nearly a decade of active combat, it is estimated that coalition forces have killed more than 100,000 of these jerks.
This particular war has been going on for quite some time, and ISIS is still losing. However, everybody over there has guns, and everybody has a specific agenda. The Americans stand for truth, justice, and the American way. The Russians want to keep Assad in power as he is their boy bought and paid for. The Iranians want to sow their own unique brand of chaos, and ISIS just wants to watch the world burn. That makes Syria one of the most dangerous places in the world.
When I was young, mercenaries got a pretty bad rap. They were lumped in alongside prostitutes and politicians as generally seedy disreputable sorts. Then something changed. In the modern era, mercs are called Private Military Contractors (PMCs), and theirs is now a fairly respectable profession. I have several friends who have drunk that Kool-Aid. I considered it briefly myself.
On our side of the pond, there was Blackwater, Triple Canopy, Academi, G4S, and MVM, Inc. For the Russians, though many aspire to greatness, there is really only one show in town. That is Wagner.
What Is Wagner
Also known as Wagner PMC, this paramilitary organization has evolved into a de facto private army for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Wagner does not espouse any particular formal ideology, and fighting for money is technically illegal in the Russian Federation. However, these guys nonetheless offer a deniable military presence that is readily deployable and, to be frank, expendable.
There are credible allegations that Wagner is infiltrated with neo-Nazis and similar ilk. They have a reputation for war crimes and brutality wherever they serve. Rape and robbery are common, and Wagner has indeed recruited from within Russian prisons to support the recent invasion of Ukraine.
Dmitriy Valerevich Utkin purportedly birthed Wagner in 2014 to support operations in the Luhansk region of Ukraine. Utkin supposedly has SS collar tabs tattooed onto his neck. He hasn’t been seen in public since 2016. Yevgeny Prigozhin is alleged to be the real money behind the mob. Prigozhin is known as “Putin’s Chef” because of his earlier business as a caterer that hosted state dinners in Moscow. He’s obviously come a long way since then.
The Setting of Khasham
In early February 2018, US Special Operations Forces were deployed to Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. This joint counterterrorist mission had the mandate to wipe ISIS off of the face of the earth, and they were doing a mighty fine job of it. In keeping with their mission, US Special Forces operators were embedded with SDF forces assisting with the ongoing operations deconstructing ISIS. Though there were relatively few American boots on the ground, those troops that were had superb radios. On the other end of those radios there stood waiting a great deal of on-call pain.
So much testosterone packed into such a small geographic area is the chemical formula for inadvertent tragedy. In an effort at de-conflicting operations, there was a geographic demarcation agreed upon by both US and Russian forces to keep each side’s troops out of the other’s business. For the area in question that was the Euphrates River. The Syrians and Iranians were not signatories to these documents, but they, in general, had sense enough to stay out of the way. There was also an emergency telephone linking the two respective headquarters. This communications link was maintained to help ensure that nothing got out of hand.
SDF troops were oriented to the east of the Euphrates. The American Green Berets were physically collocated with them. The American government later claimed that Syrian pro-government forces began massing for an attack on a known SDF headquarters.
How It Went Down
The facility in question was eight clicks inside the safe zone. Keep in mind that everybody hates everybody over there. Though destroying ISIS was the published goal, the SDF and Syrian government forces would each be thrilled to obliterate the other while they were at it. The Iranians also had their grubby fingers in everything.
At around 2200 hours on 7 February 2018, a mixed force of roughly 500 pro-government Syrian forces supported by Russian PMCs launched a weird night attack on the SDF headquarters near Khasham. They led with rockets, mortars, and conventional tube artillery. The infantry attack was directly supported by T-55 and T-72 tanks. The operation was purportedly fairly well-coordinated. Somewhere between 20 and 30 artillery rounds landed within 500 meters of the SDF facility. Did I mention there were American Special Operations troops present there as well?
Throughout it all, American commanders were supposedly on the horn with their Russian counterparts who denied all involvement. Once the Syrian government forces began firing artillery, Uncle Sam unlimbered his big stick. Before the night was out there had been strikes from MQ-9 Reaper drones, AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, AC-130 gunships, F-15E Strike Eagles, F-22 Raptors, and B-52 heavy bombers. US Army artillery did their part with M142 HIMARS precision-guided rockets. In the world of modern war, there really is no such thing as overkill.
The fight lasted about four hours. One allied SDF fighter was wounded. No US troops were hurt. The butcher’s bill on the receiving end of all that pain has since been vigorously disputed.
Truth And Lies
Forgive my sweeping generalities, but the Russians lie about everything. The Russian government lies when telling the truth would be easier. The following week a Wagner leader named Andrey Troshev admitted that fourteen Russian “volunteers” had been killed in the battle. Russian journalists later reported that between 20 and 30 Wagner PMCs had perished. Three other Wagner commanders later capped that number at fifteen. Viktor Alksnis, a Russian hardliner known as “The Black Colonel,” later claimed there had been 334 Russian dead.
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The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number of Russian dead at fifteen but claimed that they had been killed in the explosion of an arms depot some distance from the fighting. A subsequent investigation by the German magazine Der Spiegel placed the number of dead Russians at around twenty. The Syrian government admitted to 55 dead Syrian soldiers and ten Russian PMCs.
The American report claimed the enemy dead to be around 100. The official narrative acknowledged the presence of Wagner PMCs but never admitted to any Russian casualties. The following year outgoing CIA Director Mike Pompeo stated during a Senate hearing that, “A couple hundred Russians were killed.” He was the head of the CIA. I should think he would know.
Russia, Syria, and Iran all launched official objections. The Russians claimed we attacked because we wanted to annex Syrian oil fields. The Syrians labeled US actions a war crime. An Iranian spokesman said, “Today, the U.S. government is the cruelest and most merciless system in the world, which is even worse than the savage ISIS members.” Whatever.
We cannot manage our own southern border. The very last thing the US wants is to try to exploit some forgotten piece of dirt in Syria. As regards the Syrian accusations, I would assert that dropping barrel bombs out of helicopters onto defenseless civilians comes a bit closer to the definition of a war crime. The Syrian government has purportedly deployed some 82,000 of those horrible things over the course of nine years of unfettered civil war. For the Iranians, well, just consider the source. I wouldn’t pee on those losers if they were on fire.
Russian reports later claimed that Su-57 Felon stealth fighters had subsequently attacked rebel positions and killed ten American SF troops. Some Russian online venues claimed these attacks were in retaliation for Khasham. Pravda’s military correspondent Viktor Baranets stated, “According to his information the Su-57s had ‘excellently’ carried out their mission in Eastern Ghouta.” There were no US Special Operations forces reported lost during this time.
The war in Ukraine rages on as I type these words. I have a couple of friends who are fighting over there. I struggle to comprehend what possesses Putin and his people to do what they do. My gut feeling is that they have simply painted themselves into a corner and are too dim to get themselves out. The argument could be made, however, that in the context of Khasham they really should have seen this coming.
Much has changed since I wrote this piece. Yevgeny Prigozhin grew weary of having his men ground into hamburger in Ukraine and staged a brief insurrection that was fabulously successful. However, he subsequently had a change of heart and relocated to Belarus. People who formally oppose Putin have a nasty habit of dying, often by falling out of windows. In Prigozhin’s case, his Embraer Legacy 600 jet broke up in flight between Moscow and St Petersburg on 23 August 23, killing all onboard. There were rumors of a missile attack or a bomb. Nobody knows, and nobody is terribly interested in digging too deeply. Prigozhin and his Nazi pal Dmitriy Utkin both purportedly perished in the crash. Though Utkin’s demise seems reliable, there are rumors that Prigozhin faked his death and is now chilling on his own private island someplace. We will likely never know the truth. Regardless, they are both reliably out of play. In short, life goes on as normal in the utopia that is Putin’s Russian Federation.