The curious chain of events surrounding the speculative fate of Russia’s “Wagner” mercenary force in Syria suggests that Iran might have secretly manipulated this “private army” into carrying out a “suicidal mission” with the intent of provoking Russian-American tensions that Tehran could then leverage to its advantage in attempting to escape from what it may fear to otherwise be the imminent multilateral (albeit uncoordinated) “containment” of its regional influence.
This article needs to be prefaced with the disclaimer that the author is relying on a combination of facts and previously discernible patterns to partake in an exercise of educated guesswork and that incorporates a dose of intuition in order to make the analytical conjectures that are contained within the text. The sensitive nature of this topic is such that it would be irresponsible to lead the reader into thinking that anything in this piece is “journalistic reporting” when it’s actually all just a subjective interpretation of events intended to make sense out of one of the most curious incidents to happen since the War of Terror on Syria first began seven years ago. That said, and having gotten the necessary caveat out of the way, it’s now time to decipher what may have really happened in northeastern Syrian last week and why.
The Disaster In Deir ez-Zor
In case the reader isn’t already aware, the US asserts that it was forced to retaliate last weekend against what it reported to be “militias” allied with the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) after they supposedly attacked the American-backed and Kurdish-led SDF east of the ‘informal’ Euphrates River “deconfliction line”, though Alt-Media sources contradict that and say that the targeted forces were responding to Kurdish shelling across the country’s de-facto ‘internal partition’ line. Both parties are in almost undisputed agreement that roughly 100 of these “allied militia” units or more (up to 200 by some estimates) were apparently killed by the US’ counterstrikes, but some reports scandalously began to claim that an uncertain number of the dead fighters may have been members of Russia’s “Wagner” mercenary force that might have been employed by the SAA at the time and under its control.
It’s impossible to know exactly what happened, but piecing together statements from US and Russian officials can provide clues about what may have truly transpired. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters that:
“The Russians told us they had no forces there initially. I think that’s still the case but we don’t have full clarity on what the regime forces are doing there. The Russians professed that they were not aware when we called them about that force that had crossed [the Euphrates]. As it came closer they were notified when the firing began.”
Shortly thereafter, Russian Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov cryptically said the following after an unidentified Foreign Ministry source told the media that the story about Russian citizens getting killed by American ‘retaliatory’ strikes in Syria was “misinformation”:
“One cannot rule out that Russian citizens can be on Syria’s soil. They are not Russian military servicemen, that’s all we can say, but, anyway, our citizens remain Russian citizens, whatever happens.”
Just an hour ago, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova chimed in and announced that:
“According to preliminary data, as a result of the armed conflict, the reasons for which are now being clarified, five people, presumably Russian citizens, could have been killed. There are also injured people, but all this requires verification — in particular, first of all, their citizenship — whether they are all citizens of Russia or other countries. I would like to stress once again that we are not talking about Russian servicemen.”
Piecing two and two together, it seems as though Russia is being very careful to differentiate between its professional servicemen and mercenaries carrying its national passport, which are two completely different categories of armed combatants. The protection of the Russian Armed Forces is the duty of the state, while Moscow has no such responsibility when it comes to any of its nationals who sell their military services to a foreign contractor, whether it’s the SAA or anyone else. This distinction is why there are mercenary organizations (“private military companies”, PMCs) in the first place and the reason that they’ve become more prominent all across the world ever since the end of the Cold War. In addition, the US appears to be implying that it doesn’t believe that its recent target was the Russian military because Moscow apparently denied having a presence in the region at that time.
All of this strongly points to the presence of a Russian PMC at the time of the Deir ez-Zor disaster, just as initial reports claimed, but unlike what has been inferred in the Mainstream Media since then, Moscow supposedly wasn’t behind the group’s decision to respond to the attacking Kurds and attempt to take over a nearby energy facility. This explains Mattis’ statement about Russia being caught off guard by the news that the SAA’s “allied militia” (likely in hindsight the Wagner PMC) crossed the Euphrates without their knowledge, and it also adds some clarity to why Peskov was reluctant to “rule out” that individual Russian citizens might have been involved in their own private capacity despite vehemently denying that official representatives of the Russian military were. Furthermore, it provides a situational basis for Zakharova’s claims that at least several Russian citizens might have indeed been killed in the fighting.
The backchannels of communication that are evidently in use between Russia and the US have served to de-escalate what could have otherwise been a very dangerous conflict spiral between these two nuclear-armed Great Powers, but no cohesive explanation has thus far been offered by anyone as of yet in answering the question of why the “Wagner” PMC undertook such a provocative mission to begin with. The US is trying to get Russia to agree to the de-facto “internal partition” of the Syrian Arab Republic along the Euphrates River “deconfliction line” that forms the geographic boundary of their “gentlemen’s’ agreement”, so it has no incentive to invent a false-flag explanation for ‘justifying’ an unprovoked attack against the country’s most (in)famous PMC. Likewise, Russia surely wouldn’t have sent its own compatriots on what anyone could have predicted would ultimately be a “suicide mission”, thus hinting at the involvement of a mysterious “third force”.
Going by unverified media reports, the “Wager” PMC might have been employed by the SAA, which is believable since it would make sense for Damascus to want to augment its war-weary and mostly youthful conscripts with fresh support from what are presumed to be professional and highly trained former members of the Russian military, especially in light of Moscow’s large-scale withdrawal from the country in December 2017. Syria begrudgingly accepts that Russia doesn’t support a “military solution” to the conflict in line with President Assad’s previous promise to liberate “every square inch” of the country, which has been practically made impossible anyhow by the “de-escalation zones” and the American occupation of the energy- and agriculturally-rich northeastern one-third of the state, so it naturally sees the need to purchase contracted military assistance to defend itself against any provocations that Moscow the “Balancer” isn’t willing to respond to on its behalf.
Furthermore, Syria and Russia are at serious odds with one another over the post-war “political” contours of the country’s UNSC Res. 2254-mandated settlement, something which was suspected at the time that Moscow first unveiled the “draft constitution” that it surprisingly decided to write for Damascus in January 2017 but was just officially confirmed a few days ago when the Arab Republic resolutely rejected the main result of the recent Sochi Summit in having a UN-led commission preside over the country’s constitutional reform process. The symbolism behind this move was shocking because the “Syrian National Dialogue Congress” was President Putin’s brainchild and supposed to show his electorate that he was making progress in bringing peace to the war-torn country, but now Russia’s military “ally” just scuttled the entire process one month before Russians go to the polls.
President Putin will undoubtedly win his fourth and final reelection as the country’s top leader, but for equal matters of personal pride and acquiring the uncontested political power to cement his legacy, he wants to secure his highest-ever supermajority of votes during this time, something that might be made all the more difficult now that Damascus is openly contradicting Moscow and refusing to go along with the outcome of the Sochi peace process. This is personally embarrassing not only to the President himself, but also his diplomatic team of advisors responsible for the Syrian file, particularly Mr. Vitaly Naumkin, the man who’s widely considered to be the architect of the Russian-led Syrian peace process.
This globally respected expert must be red in the face after prematurely proclaiming that Sochi was a “fateful, unusual phenomenon in the history of Russia, in the history of our peacekeeping, our diplomatic and military activities” and that while “there are ill-wishers who question the achieved progress…their voice is not dominant.” He was so sure of the ‘success’ of this latest summit that he even bragged that “today, no one can deny that the Congress will contribute to the settlement of the Syrian crisis”, only to be disproven by none other than the Syrian government itself when it flat-out rejected Naumkin’s orders that “the work on the next steps to launch the process of constitutional reform, as well as work on the final formation of the Constitutional Committee will continue through the United Nations”.
The Perfect “Cat’s Paw” For The Islamic Republic
Syria’s increasing – but politely expressed – dissatisfaction with Russia and the growing differences of vision that these two wartime partners have over the final settlement of the New Cold War’s most bloody proxy conflict have provided the perfect opportunity for Iran to deepen its influence in the Arab Republic in response, seeing as how Tehran – unlike Moscow – is on the exact same page as Damascus when it comes to this decisive subject. Like the author previously wrote in his recent piece titled “Dangerous Delusions: Syria Isn’t Going To Liberate Palestine Anytime Soon Nor Is Russia Turning Against ‘Israel’”, it’s absolutely normal for any pair of countries to have disagreements over anything, and this does not mean that a “hostile rift” is developing between the two parties. However, there’s nothing equally unusual about the fact that a “third party” would try to take advantage of this in pursuit of its own interests, which is where Iran enters into the picture.
The aforementioned article also described the reasons why the Islamic Republic would seek to use its Arab counterpart as a “cat’s paw” for provoking tensions between Russia on the one hand and the US & “Israel” on the other, with the reader being encouraged to review the full argument made within the text but which could be summarized as Tehran’s desire to provoke “controlled chaos” in order to prevent any “unholy alliance” between these three actors against its IRGC forces and their Hezbollah allies in Syria. In case the reader isn’t already familiar, the author published an analysis late last year that made the argument that Russia and “Israel” are indeed allies in Syria, no matter how much this “inconvenient fact” may infuriate the most dogmatic members of the Alt-Media Community, and he explained at the beginning of the year in an exclusive article for the conservative Iranian newspaper “Kayhan” that Tehran must accordingly revise its regional strategy.
In particular, it was pointed out that multilateral efforts will soon be put into place to “contain” Iran along its western and southern flanks, and that its leadership must accept that they’ve reached the zenith of their regional influence for now and must instead concentrate on securing its gains there while redirecting its strategic focus eastward to Pakistan, Central Asia, and China. As it stands, Russia has its own reasons in line with the “19th-Century Great Power Chessboard” paradigm for “limiting” Iran’s “freedom of strategic movement” in the first-mentioned theater, and these are separate from the US’ because they aim to ensure a diversity of multipolar stakeholders instead of the continued dominance of a single unipolar bloc, though there’s no avoiding the observation that there’s a certain degree of overlap between the two that might lead to the reinvigoration of Moscow’s hoped-for “New Détente” with Washington if this uncoordinated “containment” initiative is “successful”.
“Controlled Chaos”, “Resistance” Style
Iran is keenly aware of the larger dynamics at play and understands the strategic utility that its position in Syria affords it in terms of achieving regional depth and consequently shaping the Mideast’s geopolitical affairs, which is why looks to have made the unofficial decision to push back against this “containment” campaign via the asymmetrical means of “controlled chaos” in the Arab Republic. This was touched upon in the abovementioned article about “Dangerous Delusions” when talking about the “Disaster in Deir ez-Zor” and the “Gamble in the Golan Heights”, but the latest news about the “Wager” PMC’s possible involvement in the former compels the author to write a more comprehensive analysis about this theme. The “weaponization of chaos theory” isn’t exclusive to the US but could theoretically be employed by any actor that aspires to achieve a strategic advantage via the confusing circumstances that they deliberately provoke (“Hybrid War”), thus making it potentially applicable to Iran in this context as well.
Whether “justified” or not, Iran thinks that it’s in a security dilemma with Russia after Moscow’s latest Mideast moves over the past year. Russia has allied itself with “Israel” in Syria and repeatedly turns a blind eye whenever Tel Aviv bombs Tehran’s forces in the Arab Republic; Moscow is partaking in a delicate dance with the Kurds that could upset Iran’s dreams of establishing an overland corridor to Syria (the so-called “Shiite Crescent”); Russia’s rapid rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and future S-400 sale to Riyadh are seen as strengthening the Islamic Republic’s hated Wahhabi foe at Iran’s “zero-sum” expense; the Hadi government and STC’s requests that Moscow mediate in Yemen could work out to the distinct disadvantage of Iran’s Houthi allies who want to conquer (“liberate”) the whole country; and lastly, Russia’s latest military–energy deals with Lebanon are designed to replace discredited Saudi Arabia as the country’s “Israeli”-friendly “counterbalancing” force against Iran.
In response to these perceived (key word) pressures, Iran has cleverly tried to use Syria as its “cat’s paw” for asymmetrically provoking a coordinated series of international crises that could entangle Russia in a conflict with the US and “Israel”, one which Tehran hopes could divide the “unholy” “containment coalition”, thus buying it and its Hezbollah allies some “breathing space” in Syria while simultaneously enabling desperate Damascus to make its much-desired high-risk gamble to liberate the occupied territories in the “de-escalation zones” and Kurdish-controlled northeast. “Wagner’s” relevancy comes into play because its members’ Russian passports made them an irresistible instrument for Iran to utilize in attempting to engender this scenario, whereby all that Tehran had to do was get Damascus to consent to sending them on what amounted to a “suicide mission” in order to produce the ultra-provocative outcome of “scores of Russians getting killed by Americans”.
“Blowback” For “Hacking” The Russian Election
As an added “benefit”, Iran might even hope that this manufactured “scandal” deals a blow to President Putin’s envisioned “supermajority” victory next month at the polls, thus irredeemably inflicting an unprecedentedly personal insult on Russia’s leader in “revenge” for his active “complicity” in “containing” the Islamic Republic. Nevertheless, it’s obvious by the time of writing that the one result that this “conspiracy” definitely won’t lead to is the explosion of international tensions that Iran may have been betting on, though the inadvertent consequence could likely be that Russia’s implied discovery of this far-reaching “influence operation” via its “liaising” with the US and “Israel” leads to Moscow doubling down on its “commitment” to “containing” Iran.
The way that Russia might be seeing it, Iran crossed several “red lines” by deceiving Moscow’s decommissioned servicemen into undertaking a de-facto “suicide mission” in order to provoke an interstate conflict with the US and “Israel”, all the while attempting to “poach” Russia’s Syrian partner out from its “sphere of influence” in order to “exploit” it as Tehran’s “cat’s paw” for carrying out this operation. Moreover, Iran’s implied intent of “hacking” the upcoming Russian elections through what may have been its secret attempt to influence the vote by engineering this scandalous scenario won’t be forgotten by President Putin, no matter how much his Foreign Ministry shrewdly deflects blame for the “Wagner” reports to “anti-government militants” in order to thrown Tehran “off the trail” of what it’s truly thinking on this matter.
Should this be the case, and it remains to be seen for sure owing to the analysis’ admittedly speculative basis per the opening caveat/disclaimer, then the three affected parties of Tehran’s “influence operation” may have already realized that the “Iranian tail is trying to wag the Russian-American dog “ in Syria, thus portending negative news for the Islamic Republic. Any “retributive” steps that Russia might make towards contributing to the “containment” (“balancing”) of Iran, whether out of its own deliberate intent in this direction or per the subjective “security dilemma” perception of Tehran’s leadership, could make the Mideast country more “strategically dependent” on Moscow for lack of any realistic alternatives and therefore unwittingly undermine Iran’s “freedom of strategic movement” that it hoped to enhance through this “master plan”.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.