Russia, at times, can seem like one big rabbit hole which is a feature not a bug. As a general rule one should avoid internet rabbit holes as they are time consuming and rarely lead to any real answers. But every rule has an exception and these newly revealed facts are most certainly an exception. It feels like a Quentin Tarantino movie with the villain controlling vast internet troll armies and mercenaries in a war torn middle eastern hellhole complete with a jumbled up timeline that starts in the middle of the story. (However, it’ll be missing the gratuitous profanity because Redstate is a classy joint.)
Yesterday news broke that Department of Justice (DOJ) would indict 13 Russians which was all expected as the DOJ has been turning over every rock in sight to find out exactly what Russia’s role was in the 2016 presidential election. What slipped past even the most dedicated, pundits, observers and commentators could turn everything we’ve been told about Russia’s power and presence in Syria on its head. Strap in because this timeline is gonna jump around a bit.
On February 8th, 2018, anywhere from 300 to 600 Assad loyalists launched an attack on American Special Forces and American-backed Forces 5 miles East of the Euphrates River outside a place called Deir Ez Zor. The “battle” lasted a little over 3 hours. What side of the Euphrates this battle occurs in is vital because of the agreement made by Moscow and Washington D. C. at the end of the Obama administration. According to the U.S. State Department and journalist with Chechen sources in Syria, it wasn’t a “battle” it was bloodbath.
Two Chechen-language audio recordings are circulating on WhatsApp, from a Chechen member of Wagner. He's at Hmeimim airbase and his message is "whatever you do, don't come here [to Syria]. It's not what they say. We are getting f***ing slaughtered, every day." His words.
— Neil Hauer (@NeilPHauer) February 15, 2018
Neither Russian or American officials had much to say on the matter. America chose to give the Russians, who know exactly where all American forces in Syria are at all times, the benefit of the doubt. Something those not familiar with the dynamics of the Cold War may find odd, but it’s quite common.
Eli Lake wrote at Bloomberg, “Better to express bewilderment and give Russian President Vladimir Putin a chance to back down and deny culpability, which he ended up doing despite the heavy casualties suffered by his mercenaries.” The mercenaries were employed by Wagner, a private Russian military company often compared to Black Water, the American private security company who gained infamy in Iraq.
The exact number of dead Russian mercenaries contracted by Wagner is still unknown, but according to the Institute for the Study of War and people on the ground in Syria, Hezbollah was apart of the attack and the number of killed Hezbollah fighters is also unknown. Best estimates are between 50-100. The real answer likely lies with a man mentioned in the DoJ indictments, Wagner owner, Evgeni Prigozhin. This is the point in the Tarantino movie where the name “Evgeni Prigozhin” would come on the screen with some funky jam playing in the background and Samuel L. Jackson would explain through narration that Prigozhin was known to US intelligence. This is also where the story jumps back in time to 2014 when the US became aware of Prigozhin’s trafficking of misinformation. In other words, he ran a Russian troll farm.
The fact that Prigozhin ran a propaganda mill and a company that employed mercenaries who fight for Bashar al-Assad should have anyone following this story pumping the brakes on any claims made by Russia or Wagner. They do, after all, specialize in disinformation and stirring up chaos. What’s clear is Russia doesn’t have control of the situation in Syria. They’re stretched too thin and can’t project or maintain security any further east in Syria than Palmyra and they most certainly can not budge American forces east of the Euphrates.
The poetic justice here is that in a span of 4 days Prigozhin lost his mercenaries in Syria and his troll army in Russia. Russians haven’t seen a string of defeats like that since the Soviet-Afghan war. Prigozhin waged real war and a propaganda war and it seems the tide is turning for the worst on both fronts for him. Tarantino couldn’t have written it any better.