'Killing Russians' and the Risks of Escalation
If regular Russian forces had been involved in the deadly action, they almost certainly would have received air cover or been accompanied by road mobile Pantsir or advanced Verba MANPADs, and at least some of the low flying American Apache and AC130 gunships which savaged the ISIS hunters and their Russian contractor allies would've been shot down. The political consequences of such a black eye for Uncle Sam and the Trump Administration's supposedly risk free brinkmanship with the Russians and Iranian forces in Syria would be uncertain, but given the hysterical climate of Russophobia created since the election, Trump would be under enormous pressure to escalate to direct attacks on Russian bases. Russia's President Vladimir Putin has done everything possible it seems to avoid such scenarios while winning the ground war, using proxies wherever possible. The use of private military contractors in lieu of Russian special forces however, can be seen as a tactical if not strategic blunder by the Kremlin. It certainly created an inviting target for the Kremlin's enemies to, in ex Deputy CIA Director Mike Morrell's words, 'kill Russians' (and Donbass native former citizens of Ukraine) without running the major risk that Americans would die quickly in response (Moscow already has the coordinates of every significant U.S. forward operating base in eastern Syria ready to be hit with Iskander or Kalibr missiles in the event Kheimmim is destroyed in a surprise U.S. attack).
Nonetheless, even if the Feb. 7 body count has been exaggerated, the tone of the Western press in covering the incident has been almost gloating, while Russian media has been full of angry accounts from relatives asking why their husbands or brothers were given no direct support from the Russian Defense Ministry which disavowed them. The curious timing of the assault, in which the U.S. defended a demarcation line along the Euphrates River as if it were a border that the Americans have a legal right to be present on, was followed up within 72 hours by Israeli Air Force (IAF) standoff missile strikes, supposedly prompted by an Iranian drone overflight. The IAF of course, suffered the loss of at least one F16 fighter jet and likely severe damage to an F15, as well as disclosed near fatal injuries to an Israeli pilot. But the Americans unlike the Israelis still maintain their aura of invincibility in Syrian skies, notwithstanding their avoidance of Kheimmim's S400 batteries and the Russians reportedly adding multiple SU35 if not their latest SU57 interceptors to their Kheimmim contingent. As my white Russian Floridian friend The Saker wrote in mid-February:
The problem with such clever tactics of 'killing Russians' so long as they're contractors rather than servicemen, is that Moscow is unlikely to ever expose its non-servicemen groups in such numbers again without at least some air support or forward air controller spetsnaz accompanying them. The next time the Americans take a few shells falling hundreds of yards from their positions as a pretext to rain hell down on a Syrian force opposite them, they may find the retaliation more severe than expected.
The most likely risk to American forces and contractors accompanying them in Syria now, however, is likely to come from Iranian Quds force and linked Shi'a militia operatives infiltrating mixed Arab-Kurdish areas to plant IEDs or ambush an American convoy with thermobaric RPGs. Such Iraq-insurgency type attacks aimed at forcing the Americans to pull out are unlikely to be greenlit in Moscow or even Tehran, given that the Syrian government and its Iranian allies have their hands full at the moment. The Syrians are working with the Russians to contain Turkey's territorial ambitions in the Kurdish north around Afrin while cleaning up the jihadist dominated pocket east of Damascus, in the dense urban terrain of Ghouta. The jihadis corralled into Idlib province which Turkey has attempted to protect from further Syrian Arab Army (SAA) advances remain a threat to launch attacks, though they have been pushed back from the Aleppo-Khanasser highway.
Turks Shell Pro-Syrian Government Forces Who Convoy into YPG Held Afrin, After Kurds Agree to Permit Damascus Loyalists to Show the Flag in Area as Deterrent Against Further Turkish Aggression
A convoy of Syrian Shi'a fighters made it into Afrin flying the Syrian government flag this week. Turkish media claimed that the convoy had been turned back by shelling which killed at least two militiamen, but at least several dozen vehicles made it through despite Turkey's artillery fire. Turkey's drones continue to swarm over the area but several have been shot down by Kurdish YPG forces, who continue to inflict losses on the Turks' Syrian jihadi proxies as they slowly advance on Afrin city outskirts. According to experienced Mideast correspondent Elijah J. Magnier, Damascus is making it clear to the Turks through Russian diplomatic intermediaries that the Turkish Army will not be permitted to advance any further. Erdogan has promised to besiege Afrin within days but it's unlikely the 'Olive Branch' operation forces he has committed present a sufficient amount of manpower for the task.
The most likely goal of the Turkish operation as we've mentioned before in Syraq SITREPs is to force the Afrin Kurds back into the arms of the Damascus government. That is to make them place Syrian Army forces not only along the border but within the canton to limit the YPG's ability to support PKK militants inside Turkey. Whether the Turks can actually achieve this goal remains to be seen. The Turkish Air Force can still bomb Afrin from its own air space and the Russians are not actively defending the skies over the enclave, but the Syrian Air Defenses reportedly moved closer to positions where they could engage Turkish drones and aircraft. If the Turks continue to bomb Afrin they are likely to see one of their own F16s shot down after Israel lost an aircraft of the same type earlier this month. If the Turks are forced to pull back after reaching some sort of face saving deal that nominally places YPG forces under SAA command if not actual control, then the U.S. would be left as the only major occupying force inside Syria. According to Magnier, that is the Russians' plan, which won't be deterred by American attacks like the air strike of February 7:
The Ghouta Urban Warfare Meatgrinder
The Ghouta region east of Damascus has been the scene of the bloody urban combat for years, with civilians suffering heavily as jihadists dug in using tunnel networks to hold off determined SAA assaults. This week Syrian and Russian air strikes have been pounding the area resulting in many civilian deaths, while the SAA masses armor and artillery for a major assault. Multiple rocket attacks and shellings from the area on Damascus city including Russian diplomatic and national reconciliation center relief facilities have created greater urgency in Moscow and among Syrian commanders to clean out the pocket and evict its jihadists to Idlib. Just as the Aleppo battle proved bloody to combatants and civilians alike, the U.S. and its allies are likely to demand a cessation of hostilities and condemn the Syrians and Russians for seeking a military solution to the humanitarian crisis created by the terrorists dominating the area.