One of the nightmare scenarios of the Syrian Civil War has been the prospect of direct military clashes between Russian and American forces.
Now we know that this has happened at least once, with as many as 200 Russian citizens killed by American airstrikes. The good news: WW3 has not started as a consequence. The bad news: we can expect such clashes to become more common in the future, with the possibility that things between the two countries may yet escalate out of control.
On 7 February this year, about 500 hundred pro-Assad forces attacked a US-held position near the oil fields of Deir ez-Zor, defended by 30 elite American soldiers later backed up by another 16 from another nearby position.
The result of the clash was what one might expect: no US casualties, but 2-300 of the attackers dead, mostly from US air support. The twist: the majority of the attackers, as well as the majority of their casualties, were Russian citizens.
The US and Russia maintain active channels of communication in Syria in order to prevent just this kind of scenario. But according to the Russian military command in the region at the time, the attack had nothing to do with them, and they could not order the Russians to stop their assault on the American position.
That Russian citizens are involved in testing American positions and capacity in Syria without the knowledge or involvement of the Russian government at some level is hard to believe.
Russia has figured that using military strength to pursue its strategic interests while denying responsibility is a winning strategyDr. Azeem Ibrahim
But we must concede that the evidence is only circumstantial: the Russians in question are members of a private military operator known as the Wagner group whose leader, Dmitry Utkin, last served in a special forces brigade of the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU.
Regardless, this brings us to an interesting point in the geopolitical arena: the two most-powerful nuclear states in the world can kill each other’s citizens in direct warfare without nuclear consequences – at least so far. And this is likely to alter quite a few strategic calculations for all global and regional powers.
For one, Russia has figured that using military strength to pursue its strategic interests while denying responsibility is a winning strategy. It has worked well enough in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, why not extend that to Syria. Or, indeed, to Libya, Sudan or the Central African Republic.
Acting in self-defense
For another, if Russia denies ownership of these troops and their actions, it would seem that they also cannot complain if mishaps were to befall these troops. At the Deir ez-Zor debacle, the Americans acted purely in self-defence.
But now that the taboo is broken, there is no obvious reason why American, Western, Iranian or any other regional power could not proactively target and kill Russian “shadow military” troops and operations, when they become a nuisance. If Wagner group troops move around Libya, we must assume that the Kremlin would not mind if a French jet would drop a bomb or two on them.
What is more, if Russia can have “autonomous patriotic volunteers” waving weapons around all over the world, why would other countries not expect to find that they too have a considerable pool of patriotically minded, violent and well armed people around? And surely the Kremlin would not falsely accuse Washington, Paris or London if some of these “rogue groups” were to actively engage official Russian military personnel.
In a sense, these developments are to be welcome. We are now at a point in human history where the big nuclear players can do their conflicts and their wars without the risk of nuclear escalation. In an odd way, this is a sign of geopolitical maturity.
The downside, however, is that this model of conflict risks proliferating all over the Middle East and the Sahel, and further destabilise the region, exacerbating already tragic levels of human suffering, and accelerating global migration trends. Though a positive development from the point of view of nuclear risk, in the end it is still the world’s poorest and most vulnerable who will pay the price. As always.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.