Inside the U.S. coalition attack on Syrian forces in Deir-ez-Zor

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This article was updated on February 13, 2018 as new information came out confirming at least twelve Russian deaths in the U.S. attack.

In the early morning of February 8, U.S. coalition air assets backed by Marine artillery struck pro-government forces in Syria’s Deir-ez-Zor governorate. According to the Pentagon, U.S. coalition-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) came under a coordinated attack by forces loyal to the Syrian government near Khusham, on the outskirts of the strategic Conoco gas fields. The Pentagon claims that Russian mercenaries were among the 100 fighters killed, the Russian Defense Ministry denies any pro-government deaths occurred.1.“Assad’s government accuses US of massacre” : BBC

For its part, the Syrian government claims that the attack was launched by local militiamen of the Bagarra tribe, which reconciled with Damascus in the fall of 2017.2.“Following Islamic State ouster, tribes key to stability in eastern Syria” : al-Monitor The Syrian Ministry of Defense stated that local fighters had come under coalition and SDF fire after targeting ISIS positions near Khusham.3.“Syrian fighters defiant after US coalition airstrikes” : al-Masdar News According to a coalition spokesman, the U.S. believes that the pro-Syrian government forces were attempting to seize the gas fields around Khusham from the SDF.4.“US-led coalition strikes kill pro-regime forces in Syria” : CNN

U.S. coalition “kills 100”

Pro-government outlets have made various claims about their losses: that zero deaths occurred,5.“Assad’s government accuses US of massacre” : BBC that all deaths were among local tribesmen,6. https://www.facebook.com/NDF.center.der.al.zour/posts/1943105896005680 or that only 25 National Defence Force (NDF) fighters died.7.“Dozens of Syrian troops killed by US defensive airstrikes in Deir Ezzor” : al-Masdar News However, loyalist martyrdom reports paint a very different picture.

Within 24 hours, 22 martyrs “of the American aggression in Deir Ez Zor” had been named and at least 30 bodies had been brought back to the hospital in Suqaylabiyah. By February 13, 28 had been named.8.https://twitter.com/GregoryPWaters/status/963493003427008512 9.https://twitter.com/vincebeshara/status/962302642805444608 Of these men, only eight were Deir-ez-Zor locals fighting under the command of Liwa al-Baqir. At least two belonged to the Bagarra tribe: Laith and Ashraf al-Bashir, sons of the influential Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir.10.https://twitter.com/tobiaschneider/status/962014010362101761 Of the remaining 20 fighters, seven were from the coastal governorate of Latakia, six from the coastal governorate of Tartous, and eight from Hama.11.https://twitter.com/GregoryPWaters/status/962050059108941826 Two of the men from Tartous were high ranking officers: Brigadier General Yusuf Haider and Lieutenant Colonel Yasser Essa. Lieutenant Colonel Essa and ten other fighters were identified as members of the enigmatic “ISIS Hunters,” a small Russian-equipped, well-trained, and well-armed militia historically operating in Syria’s east.12.https://twitter.com/GregoryPWaters/status/962117062658228224 Brigadier General Haider was identified by a relative as a Russian linguist.13.https://twitter.com/GregoryPWaters/status/962106408216023040

The “ISIS Hunters” factor

According to analyst Aymenn J. Al-Tamimi, a militia commander in Deir Ez Zor confirmed that the “biggest number” of deaths in the U.S. coalition attack was among the ISIS Hunters, with NDF and tribal militias also suffering casualties.14.https://twitter.com/ajaltamimi/status/962045469802233856 Understanding who the ISIS Hunters truly are is difficult, as the group has masked itself behind a slick English-language propaganda campaign – a rarity among Syrian militias.

According to Stanimir Dobrev, ISIS Hunters’ social media output is incredibly dissimilar to the rest of Syrian loyalist media. Beyond the lack of Arabic text, the ISIS Hunters’ Facebook and Twitter pages do not venerate Bashar al-Assad, have fostered no prominent personality cult among its leaders, have no references to their fighters’ home communities, and commemorate none of its martyrs. All of these are typical traits across both English and Arabic Syrian social media, whether community pages, official government pages, or militia pages. The absence of these basic features implies that at the very least, the social media for the unit is run by non-Syrians. Even the 5th Corps, which was formed, trained, and equipped by Russian military advisers in late 2016 follows the regular social media patterns of other Syrian forces.15.al-Tamimi, Aymenn Jawad, “The Fifth Legion: A New Auxiliary Force”, AymennJawad.org Despite this, the 5th Corps command is run by high-ranking Russian officers.16.“Russia says general killed in Syria held senior post in Assad’s army” : Arab News Therefore, it seems plausible that Russians run the combat operations of ISIS Hunters as well.

Pro-government sources have made clear the origins and primary directive for this group in Syria’s expansive desert: a Russian-run task force intended to secure oil and gas facilities from ISIS.17.“ISIS Hunters secure gas fields east of Palmyra” : al-Masdar News18.http://jamilaeyes.com/2017/03/05/isis-falls-prey-to-the-hunters/ A January 6th, 2018 Facebook post by an ISIS Hunter fighter bragging about his $600 salary for “guarding oil wells in the Syrian Badia” was met with ridicule by other pro-government Facebook users. One page’s response complained about “the rise of mercenaries at the expense of the blood and martyrs of the Syrian army’s soldiers.”

In search of oil

Furthermore, in June 2017 the St. Petersburg-based Fontanka organisation broke the news that the new gas and oil company Euro Polis and the state-owned General Petroleum Corporation had signed contracts granting them the rights to 25% of any oil and gas production at facilities captured by “its contractors” from ISIS.19.“Немного бизнеса в сирийской войне” : Fontanka This was confirmed by the Associated Press in December 2017.20.https://twitter.com/NatVasilyevaAP/status/940535691557130240 The Fontanka report further identified “ISIS Hunters” as holding “contractual obligations” to Euro Polis for securing those oil and gas fields. Fontanka also published a video filmed by Russian fighters near Palmyra, Homs, identical to an earlier video published by the official ISIS Hunters Twitter page.21.http://m.fontanka.ru/2017/06/26/084/

Shortly after the skirmish, a mid-level Syrian fighter posted his account of what happened on Facebook: “At around 10:45pm last night, the Syrian Arab Army and its friends began the battle for the liberation of the Conoco gas fields controlled by the Kurdish militias.”22.https://twitter.com/delfoo/status/961578336727322624 Two sources close to another Russian private military contractor operating in Syria, Wagner PMC, further claimed there were Russian casualties in the battle.23.https://twitter.com/666_mancer/status/96188048370861260824.https://twitter.com/NeilPHauer/status/962363619626377217 On February 13, credible sources reported that at least 12 Russians belonging to Wagner PMC had been killed in the initial U.S. coalition attack.25.https://twitter.com/oryxspioenkop/status/96346327128098816026.https://twitter.com/CITeam_en/status/963037526247333888 The high concentration of ISIS Hunters among the attacking forces, the presence of a Russian linguist and Russian casualties, and the intention of seizing the largest gas fields in Deir-ez-Zor implies that this attack was instigated either by Wagner PMC or by Russian leaders within the ISIS Hunters, potentially at the behest of General Petroleum Corporation.

With this evidence in mind it is clear that the Syrian and Russian governments’ accounts of this event are false. Pro-government forces intentionally pushed for the SDF-held Conoco gas fields and plant, consisting of both tribal militias and ISIS Hunters, incurring at minimum dozens of deaths. The heavy presence of ISIS Hunters and death of Brigadier General Haider further create reasonable suspicion that Russian PMCs were involved in this attack and may have suffered casualties as well. If this is true, it brings into question the Russian Defence Ministry’s relationship with these unofficial Russian combat units. It is possible that the ISIS Hunters serve as a proxy force for the Russian military when needed; in this case allowing the Russians to be on the ground probing SDF lines while retaining plausible deniability of any involvement. Oil and gas remains Syria’s most lucrative natural resource, and Russian state-owned companies are well aware of this fact.

Gregory Waters
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Gregory Waters is a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley and a fellow at the UC Berkeley Human Rights Investigations Lab. He researches conflicts and political transitions in the MENA region, primarily using open source information. His current research focuses on mapping Syrian militia unit structures. He publishes his research here and on Twitter.

References   [ + ]

1, 5. “Assad’s government accuses US of massacre” : BBC
2. “Following Islamic State ouster, tribes key to stability in eastern Syria” : al-Monitor
3. “Syrian fighters defiant after US coalition airstrikes” : al-Masdar News
4. “US-led coalition strikes kill pro-regime forces in Syria” : CNN
6. https://www.facebook.com/NDF.center.der.al.zour/posts/1943105896005680
7. “Dozens of Syrian troops killed by US defensive airstrikes in Deir Ezzor” : al-Masdar News
8. https://twitter.com/GregoryPWaters/status/963493003427008512
9. https://twitter.com/vincebeshara/status/962302642805444608
10. https://twitter.com/tobiaschneider/status/962014010362101761
11. https://twitter.com/GregoryPWaters/status/962050059108941826
12. https://twitter.com/GregoryPWaters/status/962117062658228224
13. https://twitter.com/GregoryPWaters/status/962106408216023040
14. https://twitter.com/ajaltamimi/status/962045469802233856
15. al-Tamimi, Aymenn Jawad, “The Fifth Legion: A New Auxiliary Force”, AymennJawad.org
16. “Russia says general killed in Syria held senior post in Assad’s army” : Arab News
17. “ISIS Hunters secure gas fields east of Palmyra” : al-Masdar News
18. http://jamilaeyes.com/2017/03/05/isis-falls-prey-to-the-hunters/
19. “Немного бизнеса в сирийской войне” : Fontanka
20. https://twitter.com/NatVasilyevaAP/status/940535691557130240
21. http://m.fontanka.ru/2017/06/26/084/
22. https://twitter.com/delfoo/status/961578336727322624
23. https://twitter.com/666_mancer/status/961880483708612608
24. https://twitter.com/NeilPHauer/status/962363619626377217
25. https://twitter.com/oryxspioenkop/status/963463271280988160
26. https://twitter.com/CITeam_en/status/963037526247333888