Intel Chief: Moscow Probably Didn't Order Mercenary Attack in Syria


The head of the U.S. military's intelligence agency told lawmakers this week that he does not believe the Russian government ordered the surprise attack by pro-regime Syrian forces, possibly including Russian mercenaries, on a rebel base in Syria that housed American special operations advisors.

The attack in early February prompted a devastating U.S.-led counter-strike that is reported to have killed hundreds, including several Russian private military contractors. The clash looked like an international incident that could've quickly put Russia and the U.S. on the path to direct confrontation, but governments on both sides have done their best to downplay the whole thing.

On Tuesday Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr. was asked by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) of the Senate Armed Services Committee if Russian mercenaries were doing Moscow's bidding at the time the time of the ill-fated attack.

"So I can't speak to whether or not that particular action was executed with the knowledge-- The information I have at the unclassified level is we do not think the Russians directed that particular maneuver that you're referencing from that PMC [private military contractor]," Ashley said.

Ashley's response appears to fall in line with what Defense Secretary James Mattis said shortly after the incident when he told reporters, "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."

Mattis said the attack was "perplexing." 

The Russian Foreign Ministry, for its part, disputed the reported death toll of the counter-attack and stressed that those involved were Russian "citizens" acting on their own -- hardly a call to arms for revenge. "To reiterate, the issue is not about Russian servicemen," Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in mid-February. (A recent glowing report from Russia's TASS news agency on the Russian "heroes" who have died in Syria pointedly only discusses four servicemembers and makes no mention of the contractors.)

Since the attack, news reports and experts have provided explanations that run the gamut from the attack being a Kremlin-endorsed probe of U.S. resolve in Syria to an incident in which the Russians did not even initially participate but were just in the "wrong place at the wrong time."

A third explanation could be drawn from a recent Foreign Policy article in which Russia expert Mark Galeotti corrects what he sees as some mislaid assumptions about Russia's infamous hybrid warfare.

Galeotti, who is speaking generally of Russian strategy abroad and does not address the attack, writes:

First of all, there is no single Russian ‘doctrine.’ If anything, their campaign is dangerous precisely because it has no single organizing principle, let alone controlling agency. There is a broad political objective — to distract, divide, and demoralize — but otherwise it is largely opportunistic, fragmented, even sometimes contradictory. Some major operations are coordinated, largely through the presidential administration, but most are not. Rather, operations are conceived and generally carried out by a bewildering array of ‘political entrepreneurs’ hoping that their success will win them the Kremlin’s favor: diplomats and spies, criminals and think-tankers, oligarchs and journalists.

The idea that the February 7 attack could be the work of a freelancing, opportunistic Russian mercenary was floated in mid-February in the New Yorker, when Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group who covers Syria, was quoted as saying "someone" may have seen a tempting "opportunity" in gaining control of oil fields at the site of the assault.

Many questions remain about near-catastrophic incident, but at least for now, it doesn't appear to have sparked the Third World War. Even the direct U.S.-Russian deconflicting line is still up and running, according to a senior U.S. military official.

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