David Warsh: Russian suicide attack on American base in Syria is casting a very long shadow

The city of Deir ez-Zor.

The city of Deir ez-Zor.

The assault on the outpost reads like Hemingway story, from the Spanish Civil War. That a hundred or more Russian mercenaries were killed in what amounted to a suicide attack on an American base along the Euphrates River has been known in Moscow more or less since it happened, on the of the night Feb.  7-8, not far from the city of Deir ez-Zor, in in eastern Syria.

Last week a team of reporters for The Washington Post, citing “U.S. intelligence reports,” wrote that the Russian oligarch who is thought to control the mercenaries was “in close touch with both Kremlin and Syrian authorities in the days before the attack.”

Russian soldiers are positioned within a few miles of each other on opposite sides, west and east, of the Euphrates.  U.S. troops are there supporting a considerably larger force of Kurdish soldiers who are battling the remnants of ISIS forces in the area. Russian soldiers have been in Syria since their government intervened on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad in 2015.  Officers on both sides confer daily by telephone to avoid direct conflict.  

Also in the area had been a Russia mercenary unit of the shadowy Wagner Group, a larger and more widely deployed Russian version of the Blackwater Company that the U.S. employed heavily in Iraq. 

According to the Post, oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin is thought to control the Wagner force in Syria. In communications intercepted in January, he was said to have told Syrian officials that he had “”secured permission” from a high Kremlin official to launch a “fast and strong” initiative in early February. The Syrians, in return, assured him he would be repaid for his efforts. 

Prigozhin, a close associate since St. Petersburg days of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been indicted  by  a federal grand jury in the probe led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into U.S. election meddling by his Internet Research Agency.

A good account of the assault on the American base is to be found in Bloomberg Businessweek: some 300 killed or wounded among an attack force estimated to have been 600 soldiers.

Russia’s military has asserted that it had nothing to do with the attack.

“The Russians may have allowed the attack to take place simply to make it clear to Assad that you can’t do things without coordination with Moscow,” said Yury Barmin, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group set up by the Kremlin.

From a slightly different angle, Jonathan Haslam, Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advance Study in Princeton, N.J., offered an illuminating account of the murderous folly, although the B-52 strikes he reported may have been AC-130 gunship support.

That some of the wounded have been evacuated to military hospitals in Moscow and St. Petersburg had been confirmed by Russian authorities. The echoes of Russia’s war in Afghanistan are melancholy.

In half a dozen capitals, the reporting has only just begun. There is much to be learned. The Russian elections next month will be an occasion for a thoroughgoing appraisal, in the U.S., as well as in Russia, of Vladimir Putin’s 18 years in power.

David Warsh, an economic historian and long-time columnist on business, politics and media matters, is proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this first ran. He is based in Somerville, Mass.