The U.S. military has created a new precedent for how to counter Russian “hybrid war.” Set in a murky clash of arms in Syria in early February, and one averted in March, this precedent—you might even call it a “red line”—will reverberate from the Middle East to the Black and Baltic seas.
The problem is the appearance on your territory of what defense-policy wonks call “little green men.” They come heavily armed and dressed for combat. They operate at the direction of a government, Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Yet they wear no insignia, and their sponsors deny any control over them. Operating outside the laws of war, they pursue Russian political ends such as the illegal takeover of Crimea and the dismemberment of Ukraine. Via a Russian mercenary paramilitary company called Wagner Group, they have turned up to support Russian ends in Syria as well.
Hybrid war, in the popular conception, encompasses all sorts of irregular conflict, from little green men to cyberdisruption to information operations. Its point is the pursuit of political ends by means not readily traceable to their origin. It seeks conflict without accountability. It probes the question of how much gain is possible short of regular military means. As such, it poses particular challenges to deterrence and wartime accountability. These challenges are of especially great and increasing interest in Europe’s east, from Finland and Sweden through the Baltics, Poland and Ukraine, on to the Balkans. What to do?
In Syria on the night of Feb. 7, a group of pro-Assad-regime fighters crossed the Euphrates River and advanced on a headquarters in Deir Ezzour of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF are the main regional ally of the U.S. in the fight against ISIS. U.S. special forces were also present at the base in significant numbers on their “advise, assist, accompany” mission.
The Euphrates marks a “deconfliction” line between Russia-backed pro-Assad forces and the U.S.-backed SDF. U.S. and Russian forces are in regular communication with each other to avoid unintended military confrontation in the region.
Although the exact size and composition of the forces crossing the Euphrates that night is in dispute, the fact of the crossing and the presence of Wagner Group mercenaries is not. Nevertheless, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week, when U.S. military personnel contacted their Russian counterparts about the contingent bearing down on the SDF base, the Russians said they “weren’t their forces.”
Perhaps this was a mask on a deliberate Russian probe of U.S. and SDF commitments to the base and to securing oil facilities on that side of the river. Perhaps the Wagner Group paramilitary operatives were exceeding their instructions or freelancing. Perhaps the operation was not primarily a Wagner Group affair. Mr. Mattis, who always speaks carefully, said: “I have no evidence that they were being dishonest and that they knew, in fact, these forces were theirs.”
But if the Russian disavowal was intended to sow confusion, it failed. The U.S. attacked the advancing force by air, halting its advance and destroying much of it. Casualty estimates range from dozens to several hundred killed, including unknown numbers of Russians. Russia, in the months since, has lodged no significant public protest.
The message is this: If you are responding to little green men who—without acknowledgment of their state sponsorship—have turned up in your territory or are crossing into it, you should act at once to repel them, rather than scratching your head in puzzlement while they establish their presence. A “deconfliction line” is not an international border, but the principle is similar.
It’s unlikely that the U.S. military attacked the force advancing on the SDF base to make this broader point. But it seems to have been made anyway, even though the Russians and Iranian-backed pro-Assad forces seem intent on continuing to test U.S. resolve, in Syria and elsewhere.
Last month another military force, including Russian mercenaries, crossed the Euphrates deconfliction line toward the Deir Ezzour base. As if to emphasize the seriousness of the issue, the “deconfliction” conversation this time took place at the highest military level: U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford himself discussed the matter with his counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the Russian military.
Details of that conversation, unsurprisingly, have not become public. But it’s hard to imagine it didn’t include a component from Gen. Dunford along the following lines: If the forces are under your control, pull them back; if not, well . . .
The advancing force pulled back.