On February 16, 2018, Bloomberg’s Eli Lake published an article entitled “Don’t Be Fooled: Russia Attacked U.S. Troops in Syria.”
For context, the U.S.-led coalition conducted air and artillery strikes against what was believed to be pro-government forces in Syria on February 7, 2018, in response to an “unprovoked attack” launched by these pro-regime forces. Not long after, reports began emerging that significant numbers of Russian personnel were included in the over 100 dead and wounded, though Russia denied this at first. As the evidence began to mount, the accepted version of events on both sides was that those involved were Russian mercenaries and contractors, not official troops.
When asked about the incident initially, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said he had “no idea why they [pro-government forces] would attack there, the forces were known to be there, obviously the Russians knew.”
“We have always known that there are elements in this very complex battle space that the Russians did not have, I would call it, control of,” he added.
In response to this conundrum, Lake wrote:
“Now, it should be said that Mattis, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, is a very smart man. His perplexity in this case is probably what Plato called a ‘noble lie,’ a falsehood spoken by a leader to achieve a greater social good. If Mattis acknowledges the obvious — that the Kremlin authorized a direct assault on a U.S.-sponsored base by non-uniformed personnel — he risks an escalation spiral in Syria. Better to express bewilderment and give Russian President Vladimir Putin a chance to back down and deny culpability, which he ended up doing despite the heavy casualties suffered by his mercenaries.”
“But make no mistake: There is overwhelming evidence that those Russian contractors were working at the behest of the Kremlin. What’s more, the Russians knew U.S. military personnel were in Deir Ezzor, which has been part of successive agreements to separate, or ‘deconflict,’ forces fighting in Syria.”
First, if the Kremlin did actually give the go-ahead for the advancement of troops in that particular area, it is already quite apparent that the aim of the pro-government troops in question, including their Russian component, was to try to seize a lucrative Syrian oil field in the vicinity. CBS reported that according to Pentagon officials, the Russians did, indeed, have their sights on these oil fields. CNN also reported this before it was made aware that the Syrian troops involved Russian contractors.
Russia was recently granted exclusive rights over Syria’s oil and gas production, and Deir Ez-zor is Syria’s most oil-rich region. So, with regard to the perplexity as to why Syrian and/or Russian personnel would launch an offensive, the reasoning is already well-known. The U.S. provided air cover for Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to retain a substantial portion of this area in 2017 and retains its military presence there in order to enable SDF’s occupation to continue.
Second, and most important, if Syrian forces, backed by Russian forces (whether they are official troops or not), decide to launch an offensive to retake one of its oil fields, it is not the U.S. that is under the attack. The U.S. is an invading force that has been bombing Syria since 2014 without legal justification and continues to maintain an illegal military presence in order to carry out its dangerous foreign policy agenda. It wouldn’t matter if the U.S. had one troop on the ground in Syria and if Russia had ten thousand — Russia’s presence has been sanctioned under international law and America’s hasn’t.
Yes, Russia knew U.S. personnel were in Deir Ez-zor. But that doesn’t mean Russia and Syria should be barred from reclaiming the territory under international law. If Russia had set up an illegal base in an oil-rich part of the U.S. and American troops launched an offensive with their allies to retake the territory, no one in their right mind would try to suggest that Russian troops were subsequently under attack. In fact, if this particular scenario were to play out, the NATO charter would require all of America’s NATO allies to come to its aid against this hypothetical Russian aggression.
It doesn’t matter what one thinks of the Syrian government and the various allegations against it. Even for the sake of argument, we can assume that all of the allegations against Bashar al-Assad are true. It doesn’t make a difference.
The U.S. has attacked Syria, and it could be the case that Syria and its allies want to drive them out, as is their right. That’s the only way to properly view this issue if we want to maintain a workable system of international mutual respect and cooperation. Right now, there only appears to be one flawed system: the U.S. and its allies doing whatever they like until they are eventually confronted by a formidable adversary that possesses nuclear weapons.