A Bloomberg news report today described an incident that potentially could spark WWIII- clashes between American and Russian forces with scores of casualties in Syria. Assad troops and some Russian nationals attacked a coalition position held by U.S. and Kurd forces near Al Tabiyeh, Syria. The details of the incident are fuzzy, yet it seems that the attack was repealed by American air strikes, which led to mass casualties. This scenario has been one of the major concerns of officials and forces operating in this area. In the last couple of years Syria became the playground of U.S. led coalition against ISIS, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, the Assad regime, as well as numerous armed groups among them Hezbollah, Kurds militias, and Syrian opposition forces. This level of involvement, that includes web of often contradictory interests and numerous independent armed and ready to war actors is a coordination nightmare. This recent incident where Assad and Russian forces attacked a military base held by American and Kurds in eastern Syria is an example for that complexity and potential miscalculations.
Yet, as we can see, WWIII did not occur. We are still here. Moreover, it seems that the Russian response has been to downsize the magnitude of the incident. The reason for this odd Russia response is that the Russian soldiers who died were not soldiers. They were Russian private military contractors. In an effort to downplay its involvement in the Syrian Civil-War, and its associated costs, Russia started to outsource its offensive ground operations to Wagner, a Russian private military company. Wagner has proven to be a real asset for Russia with its battlefield success. And more so by allowing Russia to further obscure its level of involvement and actual casualties.
In his article on outsourcing sacrifice (and as I addressed in one of my posts) Taussig-Rubbo explains that contractors’ death is not documented and does not receive much media and popular attention. Following this playbook, Russia has been able to distance itself from the recent casualties and from the incident as a whole. For Russia those are deniable assets that may or may not be associated with its policy. In that situation, where contractors’ casualties do not have a political or military cost, we can predict seeing more private contractors and more contractors’ casualties. If this Russian response will dictate the norms in how state treat their contractors’ casualties, it may open the door of proxy conflict. State may be tempted to use contractors to promote goals they prefer the military, and the official state, won’t dare taking. If that will be the case, we are facing geopolitical instability.