By M K Bhadrakumar
Veteran soldiers are known to have dark humor. While talking to the press party accompanying him on Tuesday, the US Defence Secretary James Mattis chuckled over the deadly air attack by American jets on a column of Syrian government forces and allies in the eastern Syrian province of Dier Ezzor in the night of February 7. There has been a massacre of dozens, if not hundreds, of Russian military contractors. And the New York Times, here, just stopped short of alleging a cover-up by the Kremlin.
Mattis maintained that he doesn’t have the foggiest idea that Russians were killed in the savage American attack. He claimed he knew nothing beyond what the Russian press has reported! Isn’t it a shame that the US defence secretary has to base his assessment on “reports coming out of… open press” in Moscow? Mattis was openly taunting the Kremlin.
Yet, it was a 3-hour air strike. The CENTCOM commander US Air Force Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian gave these details during a briefing on Tuesday:
• The hostile force initiated the attack by firing artillery and tank rounds at the SDF (Kurdish militia) position, followed by a battalion-sized dismounted formation attempting to advance on partner forces under cover of supporting fires from artillery, tanks, and multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars.
• We immediately contacted the Russian officials on the de-confliction telephone line to alert them… After these calls, coalition officials approved strikes to destroy hostile forces. On the ground, Air Force joint terminal attack controllers embedded with the SDF called in precision strikes for more than three hours from aircraft and ground artillery, directing F-15Es, MQ-9s, B-52s, AC-130s and AH-64 Apaches to release multiple precision fire munitions and conduct strafing runs against the advancing aggressor force, stopping their advance and destroying multiple artillery pieces and tanks. As the hostile forces turned west and retreated, we ceased fire.
• Despite the attack being unprovoked, it was not entirely unexpected. The coalition observed a slow buildup of personnel and equipment the previous week, and we reminded Russian officials of the SDF and coalition presence via the telephone de-confliction line. This was well in advance of the enemy forces’ attack.
In plain terms, this was a pre-meditated attack and it is unlikely that the Americans lacked the technical capability to discern the presence of the sizable Russian contingent embedded in the “battalion-sized dismounted formation” building up over a week, equipped with “artillery, tanks, and multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars.”
Equally, it is inconceivable that the Russian military set-up in Syria was unaware of it. But Washington has forced Moscow into denial mode, because the latter cannot officially acknowledge that Russian mercenaries are fighting in Syria. On the other hand, so long as Moscow doesn’t acknowledge that Russian mercenaries were killed, Pentagon also can afford to be in denial mode.
Amidst all this, President Trump telephoned President Putin on February 12(four days after the massacre in Dier Ezzor) to “express his condolences regarding the crash of Saratov Airlines Flight 703 on February 11” and offer that “the United States was standing by to assist Russian authorities in their investigation.” Didn’t Trump know that the US bombed the daylight out of dozens of Russian personnel just 4 days back? Of course, he knew.
Plainly put, the US has drawn Russian blood for the first time in the Syrian war and it has been a pre-meditated act. It is a defining moment. No doubt, the US has taken a calculated risk, assessing that the Kremlin simply cannot afford a nasty confrontation with the US at this point in time when the presidential election in Russia is just about 4 weeks away. On the other hand, the incident also pricks Russia’s self-image of a national security state and will not help President Putin’s re-election campaign.
The bottom line is that the Pentagon has marked territory in eastern Syria and notified Moscow that the large tract of territory under its control is simply out of bounds to Russia’s allies in Syria. That territory also happens to be an oil-rich region of Syria, which Russian and US oil companies are eyeing.
From the American perspective, control over the oil fields in Dior Ezzor province are vital for the financial viability of a future US-backed independent Kurdistan state which it hopes to carve out in northern Syria. Whereas, for Damascus, the oil fields constitute a major source of income for the Syrian economy.
Very dangerous situation developing US massacres Russian personnel in Syria
By M K Bhadrakumar