Death of Military Contractors Illuminates Russia’s War by Proxy in Syria

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor

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Members of Russian private military company Vagner, in Syria (Source: ChVK Vagner: Russian mercs in Syria | SOFREP SOFREP.com)

Officials from the United States and Russia, together with non-governmental sources, all agree on the core narrative: On February 7, 2018, east of the Euphrates River, in the oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour, a battalion-size armed group loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, supported by armor and artillery, moved to take over a dysfunctional oil refinery occupied by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); but this invading force was then decimated by US firepower “in self-defense.” The Euphrates River is more or less the so-called “de-confliction line,” agreed on by US and Russian military chiefs to separate Russian-supported pro-al-Assad forces and the US-backed SDF. On February 7, the pro-al-Assad forces were operating on the wrong (eastern) side of the river and threatened SDF fighters and coalition special forces embedded with them. The Russian Ministry of Defense insisted “no Russian servicemen were involved” and explained the incident as a mistaken move by local pro-al-Assad militias pursuing some Islamic State leftovers. The Russian authorities scolded the pro-al-Assad fighters for failing to notify and vet their move with Russian command in advance; but they simultaneously rebuked US forces for “seeking to grab valuable economic assets instead of fighting ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—the former name of the Islamic State group]” (Interfax, February 8).

Yet, as more evidence trickled in, the narrative presented in Moscow began to shift. According to Kommersant, a large force of several hundred men—pro-al-Assad militias reinforced by fighters from the notorious private military company (in Russian Chastnye Voennie Company—ChVK) “Vagner”—gathered to attack the refinery and possibly take over nearby oil and natural gas fields. The backbone of the force was made up of up to 600 ChVK Vagner Russian contractors armed with tanks and heavy guns, according to an unnamed military source. The attack was not authorized by the Russian command and was planned as a night raid—the Russian-led force opened fire and attempted to swiftly move in, believing the SDF would offer only token resistance and that US forces would not risk aerial attack as the Russians moved in. But the US promptly deployed overwhelming firepower before all of the ChVK Vagner contractors moved out into battle formation. They suffered heavy losses in both men and equipment. The unnamed Kommersant military source told the paper that about 11 Russians were dead (Kommersant, February 14).

Igor Strelkov (Girkin)—the former commander of Russia-backed rebels in Ukraine’s Donbas—was one of the first to post a report, based on information from “reliable sources,” about at least a hundred Russian ChVK Vagner fighters “slaughtered” by the US. Strelkov, like some other radical Russian nationalists, has opposed President Vladimir Putin’s incursion into the Syrian civil war, believing true Russian patriots must fight for Russian interests by defending truly Russian land, like in Donbas. Strelkov called for future potential volunteers “to think twice before enlisting with ChVK Vagner” (Newsru.com, February 9). This is not the first time Strelkov has published reports about heavy Russian casualties in Syria that have quoted former “colleagues from Donbas” who are now with ChVK Vagner (see EDM, October 12, 2017).

Different media outlets have reported widely disparate casualty estimates: Pro-Kremlin sources have tended to downplay the losses, declaring about 10 to 20 Russians dead and up to 50 wounded, while others report casualties in the hundreds. Official sources refuse comment, citing a lack of reliable information. But no one seems to refute the fact of an encounter gone badly wrong or that ChVK Vagner mercenaries were hit by US military fire, that many were killed or wounded, and that heavy equipment was destroyed (Kp.ru, February 13).

The ChVK Vagner force demonstrated rare incompetence by cavaliering into a night assault against a US-backed force, apparently ignorant of the fact that the US military has, for some time, preferred to fight in the dark to utilize night-vision superiority. The experience of fighting in Donbas or against the Syrian opposition and the Islamic State may have provided them with a false sense of security, underestimating what a full-scale US precision firepower attack could bring.

Russian military chiefs, meanwhile, may be somewhat pleased ChVK Vagner receive a licking. The private military company is reportedly financed and sponsored by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman from St. Petersburg known in the Kremlin court as “the cook” because he began his career catering for Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin reportedly has business interests in Syria and is apparently seeking to take over phosphate mining, oil and natural gas deposits. In promoting ChVK Vagner, “the cook” and his private army have reportedly increasingly come into conflict with the Ministry of Defense and Minister Sergei Shoigu (Novaya Gazeta, January 21).

The Russian military command almost certainly knew in advance of ChVK Vagner’s planned move east of the Euphrates. And in Moscow, most assume the “traitorous” Americans were also aware of the imminent attack and, thus, prepared a deadly ambush (Militarynews.ru, February 13). This narrative is supported by the fact that, just hours before the ChVK Vagner force was massacred, a 210-meter bridge over the Euphrates, built last September by Russian sappers (see EDM, September 28, 2017), was washed away by a sudden flash flood. The Russian military accuses the SDF and/or the US of deliberately opening the floodgates at a hydroelectric damn upriver to destroy the bridge. The Pentagon denies this allegation (Interfax, February 9). The collapsing bridge cut off the Vagner-led force on the left bank from supplies, reinforcements and the possibility of an organized retreat.

Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, the top US Air Force general in the Middle East, told journalists the encounter in Deir el-Zour “was not entirely unexpected”: For a week prior to the incident, the US had observed a slow buildup of hostile forces on the Euphrates bridgehead and reportedly contacted the Russian military. According to Harrigian, to repel the attack, multiple precision-fire munitions were released by ground artillery, F-15E fighter jets, MQ-9 drones, B-52 bombers, AC-130 gunships and AH-64 Apache helicopters (RBC, February 14). Some of these formidable assets could have been scrambled at short notice, but the B-52s, based presumably at Diego Garcia island, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, must have been in the air, loaded with ordinance, hours before ChVK Vagner made its move.

No one seems to be telling the whole truth about an encounter in which the US military seemingly knowingly planned and executed an attack on proxy Russian troops, while the Russian military command deliberately turned a blind eye. This dangerous combination of heavy casualties and muddled narratives could potentially escalate into something much worse than war by proxy.

 

Pavel Felgenhauer

The Jamestown Foundation

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Gas Games in the Eastern Mediterranean are Threatening Europe

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The European Commission is offering European consumers the so-called Southern Gas Corridor, which provides for the supply, in particular, of Azerbaijani and Central Asian gas along the Turkey–Greece–Italy route. The project’s potential participants have their own interests, however, and are divided by long-standing antagonisms that are turning the corridor into a military and political delayed-action mine.

Turkey, which is traditionally reluctant to play by the European Union’s rules, is playing a particular role here. Ankara’s plans to build an Israel–Turkey pipeline are being superimposed on the desire of the Turkish elite to occupy key positions in the development of offshore natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, primarily around Cyprus. These plans are unleashing a whole host of problems between Cyprus, Greece and Turkey, while, at the same time, affecting the interests of Israel, as well as Egypt and Libya, which are claiming their rights to the continental shelf. The world’s leading oil and gas companies are also pursuing their own economic objectives in the region, the most active of which are the French company Total and the Italian company ENI.

The current focus of contention is the offshore «Block 11», situated in the territorial waters of Cyprus. Turkey, which is also speaking on behalf of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, has already sent a frigate, TCG Gökçeada, to the region. The frigate’s commander has been ordered to use whatever measures necessary to counteract ‘undesirable’ activity around the continental shelf. But any actions by Nicosia and Athens in support could be deemed ‘undesirable’, since Turkey’s official position is that all the gas resources on Cyprus’ continental shelf belong not only to the Greek Cypriots, but also to the Turkish Cypriots. And by the latter is meant the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Speaking in July at the World Petroleum Congress in Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated: «What we expect from anyone who takes sides in the developments in Cyprus is that they should refrain from steps that might pave the way for new tensions in the region. I would like to remind them that they could face the risk of losing a friend like Turkey, not just in the region, but anywhere and in any field».

Ankara has already sent its own flotilla to the potentially oil-rich regions of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, including the drilling vessel Barbaros Hayrettin Pa and several navy vessels.

Athens has not stood idly by either, officially declaring that Greece will respond to Turkey’s «countermeasures against the development of Cyprus’ ‘Block 11’» and that the country is «ready to defend its sovereign rights». In this regard, it is worth remembering that in 1993, Greece and Cyprus adopted the Defence Doctrine of the Single Area, which aims to jointly react to an aggression by another country.

Israel, Libya and even Egypt are showing an increased interest in the deposits – each considers them to be extensions of their own continental shelf. And this interest is being reinforced by concrete military measures. The Israeli Ministry of Defence, for example, has signed a $420-million contract to equip the country’s navy with special systems to defend gas fields and navigable waterways. The deal is intended to supplement an earlier purchase of four Sa’ar 6 warships, which will be used to protect Israel’s economic waters in the Mediterranean Sea. As for Egypt, there is growing opposition to Turkey in connection with Ankara’s support of Qatar, which, in turn, is openly sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt.

Rivalries surrounding the gas fields of the Mediterranean shelf could mean that the possibility of constructing one of the world’s longest gas pipelines between Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, Greece and Italy (more than 2,000 kilometres) comes to nothing. The estimated cost of the project stands at more than $6 billion, some of which the project’s participants are planning to obtain from the funds of the European Commission as part of the notorious ‘diversification’ of energy supplies. In this project, the bulk of the gas will come from Israel’s Leviathan gas field, the reserves of which amount to around 613 billion cubic metres of gas and 39.4 million barrels of gas condensate. «We are confident that in the future, Europe will buy gas produced in the Eastern Mediterranean», stated Israel’s Minister of National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Resources, Yuval Steinitz. «Intensive talks are currently underway on the construction of two pipelines. One of these will stretch to Turkey and then on to Europe. The other pipeline will go through Southern Cyprus and Greece to Italy».

The Balkans could end up the biggest loser in disputes over the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, and calls from Brussels and Washington to diversify energy sources are hardly helping. There will simply end up being nothing with which to diversify Russian gas imports, especially given the current confrontation between the US and the EU on US sanctions against Russian energy projects. By imposing sanctions against Moscow, America is «restricting economic cooperation with Russia in order to foist US shale gas on Europeans. Resentment is growing at the dishonest way the US looks after its own interests at the expense of others», writes the German newspaper Handelsblatt. 

https://www.strategic-culture.org

 

 

Lebanon’s Government Is Using Syrian Refugees and Fear To Kill Democracy and Pass Its Agenda

A Separate State of Mind | A Blog by Elie Fares

Tensions in Lebanon are at an all-time high as political rhetoric against the refugees seems to have found its way to a union the like of which we haven’t seen before, bolstered by public support that’s near-unanimous, fueled by pro-Army rhetoric that’s become so intense it’s bordering on worrying.

The Lebanese Army has been engaged in a courageous fight against ISIS militants who have embedded themselves in refugee camps in the Beqaai border town of Arsal. The details of the fight, which is still ongoing, have become known for most. The gist of which, however, is that despite Lebanon’s army advancing against the militants, some transgressions against civilian refugees have taken place, with some of them dying during captivity prompting questions of torture.

As it is in Lebanon, of course, even mildly thinking about criticizing our army’s practices, or wanting an investigation to take place in the death of those…

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in memory of an angel

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15 years ago 5 year old Samantha was playing a board game in her front yard with her friend, Sarah when a man approached the two girls and told them that he had lost his dog and he needed help finding it. Samantha took a few moments to talk to the man, and then he grabbed her. As he forced Samantha into his car, Samantha yelled to Sarah, “Help me! Tell my grandma!”

The man drove away with Samantha in his car. Sarah immediately told Samantha’s mother. Samantha’s mother reported this and the search for Samantha began. Despite Sarah being a young child and only seeing the man who abducted Samantha briefly, she was able to give a very accurate description of him and the car he was driving

Just a day later, Samantha’s body was found. She was nude, and her body was found about fifty miles away in a national forest by a passerby. Samantha had been sexually assaulted and she had been strangled, which caused her death. It was also discovered that she had fought her attacker, as his DNA was found underneath her fingernails.

The man who had assaulted and killed Samantha had been described by police as “incredibly sloppy”. He had left behind much evidence that he was the one who kidnapped, assaulted, and murdered Samantha. His name was Alejandro Avila. In May of 2005, he was convicted of first degree murder with special circumstances, and he was sentenced to death.

Alejandro had previously been near Samantha’s home because his ex-girlfriend lived there. He had been acquitted of molesting his ex-girlfriend’s daughter and niece. Police also found child pornography on Alejandro’s computer.