In the aftermath of Robert Mueller’s indictment against 13 Russian “operatives” for meddling with the US presidential election, President Trump has been under fire for lashing out at everyone… except Russia. So, in response, Bloomberg reports that the Trump administration is weighing citing the deaths of more than 200 Russian fighters – or rather mercenaries – in Syria, who were killed following US strikes on February 7, as an example of Trump’s tough stance toward Russia.
Recall that last week, “more than 200 mercenaries, mostly Russians fighting on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, died in a failed attack on a base and refinery held by U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region” In terms of total body count, the U.S. official put the death toll at about 100, with 200 to 300 injured; while Russia admitted that Russians were killed, it said the number was five and denied that the men killed were officially sanctioned Russian troops.
It is this attack that Trump hopes to use as proof of his administration’s determination to show a “hard line” stance toward Putin.
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made an oblique reference to “an incident” as she argued that President Donald Trump has been tougher on Russia than his predecessor Barack Obama. And, according to Bloomberg, she was alluding to the Syria battle – an episode which as we suggested last week threatened to further deteriorate relations with Moscow, as it would put the onus on Putin to respond to what Trump will deem an official Russian provocation.
“He has done a number of things to put pressure on Russia and to be tough on Russia. Just last week, there was an incident that will be reported in the coming days, and another way that this president was tough on Russia,” Sanders said in a briefing for reporters.
The Bloomberg source adds that “Trump himself would like to publicly make the case that the battle shows his resolve to confront Moscow.”
The official recognition of Russian deaths would be direct escalation in the diplomatic crossfire: the U.S. has not previously publicly acknowledged that Russians were among the fighters killed in the Feb. 7 battle.
It goes without saying that Sanders’ characterization of the event as evidence that the president has been “tougher on Russian in the first year than Obama was in eight years combined” would further antagonize the Kremlin.
It’s unclear when the White House learned of the attack or the composition of the Russian forces. And if Trump wanted to show his resolve to confront Russia, there are easier ways: he could enact sanctions Congress has already approved in retaliation for the election meddling or publicly criticize the Russian campaign.
As reported previously, in the February 7 Syria battle, Russian mercenaries and allied units fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad attacked a base held by U.S.-backed forces, mainly Kurds, in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region. According to the Pentagon, after 20 to 30 artillery and tank rounds landed near the Kurds and U.S. soldiers acting as advisers, the U.S. coalition responded with artillery and airstrikes. The result was over 200 Russian mercenaries killed.
U.S. forces used a deconfliction line with the Russian military to inquire whether the attacking force was theirs. White said that U.S. officials “were in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the attack.”
What is most notable, however, is that both the Kremlin and the Pentagon have downplayed the incident. Russia’s military said it had nothing to do with the attack and the U.S. accepted the claim. While denying that official Russian troops were present, the Russian Foreign Ministry has acknowledged five Russian deaths in the incident.
Regardless, it was the deadliest clash between citizens of the two countries since the Cold War.
Further complicating matters, the Russian assault on the base in Syria may have been a rogue operation, conducted by the Wagner Group, the Russian equivalent of the US Xi, or Blackwater, a firm owned by a Kremlin-connected businessman named Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The risk is that by elevating the status of Russian mercenaries to state-backed fighters – which would be the only reason why the US action would be indicative of a tough stance toward the Kremlin – Russia will interpret what until now was deemed largely an accident, albeit the deadliest encounter between the two countries in decades, as an overt act meant to punish Russia by killing its troops – whether legitimate soldiers or mercs – and Putin would have no choice but to respond in kind.
The potential escalation takes place two days after Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, warned the Trump administration on Feb. 19 not to “play with fire” in Syria by supporting the autonomy-seeking Kurds, who have helped the U.S. largely eradicate the Islamic State militant group’s presence in the country.
* * *