… [T]hat brings me to one of the most momentous mysteries of the new year. Did American and Russian forces just engage in a deadly clash in Syria, and was that clash the direct result of a Putin-approved effort to test American defenses? While Americans were arguing over Russian Facebook posts, did American air power and artillery leave up to 300 Russians dead on a Syrian battlefield?
Here’s the basic chronology.
On the night of February 7, “pro-regime” Syrian forces reportedly launched an assault on a “known” American base. American forces defended themselves with attack helicopters, jets, and AC-130 gunships, and the attackers withdrew after taking significant casualties.
That next week, on February 12, Reuters reported that at least two Russians died in the fighting, according to their associates. The Russian casualties were apparently contractors accompanying regime forces. By February 13, both the Washington Post and New York Times had picked up the story, and the number of rumored Russian dead swelled to “large numbers” or “dozens,” but — we were assured — there was no direct confrontation between Americans and members of the Russian military.
As rumors swirled online that the true number of Russian dead numbered in the hundreds, the Washington Post published a report suggesting that the attack on U.S. forces may have had official Russian backing. …
… So, what is really going on here? Was this the kind of “fog of war” incident that’s nearly inevitable in a battlespace so crowded with competing militias, armies, and mercenaries? Or was it something else? Was Putin following his time-honored tactic of testing enemy will through the use of unmarked or proxy forces? Who can doubt the official sanction of the “little green men” in Crimea or the Russian “paramilitaries” in the Donbass conflict? Did a great power intentionally send its own citizens into a deliberate clash with American forces?