Yesterday’s testimony by the Secretary of Defense provided a genuine Mattisism for the ages, but also some nuance over the destruction of a reported Russian mercenary force in Syria. James Mattis addressed the issue in response to a question from Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE), who wanted to know whether US commanders used deconfliction communications to resolve the conflict. Mattis affirmed that, and more, as the Free Beacon’s Paul Crookston reports:
Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. has a deconfliction line with Russia to ensure that the two countries can communicate in order to avoid direct conflict with one another in Syria. He said that a group of “irregular forces” were in conflict with U.S. forces, and once it was ascertained that those forces were not Russian regulars, Mattis directed a counterattack.
“The Russian high command in Syria assured us it was not their people, and my direction to the chairman was for the force, then, to be annihilated,” Mattis said. “And it was.”
This is no picayune matter. This incident had the potential to start a shooting war between the US and Russia, so who ordered the strike and how it was accomplished matters. It’s been a few weeks since the strike and no further escalation has resulted, but the SASC has to keep a close eye on these matters, especially in Syria, where so many nations are present on the battlefield in ever-changing configurations.
So the Mattisism is worth enshrining for posterity, but Mattis’ answer on steps taken prior to the order matter more. Mattis also declined to put the onus on Russia for the mercenary unit’s activities, showing he too has concerns about unnecessary escalations:
Asked about whether the Russian Federation was harassing U.S. forces in Syria, Mattis stopped short of blaming Russia for particular battlefield actions.
“I cannot target the responsibility to the Russians right now,” he said. “It is a crowded battlefield; it’s also got Iranians there and, of course, the regime forces as well.”
There has been some questions as to how many of these forces were Russians at all. Mike Pompeo told Congress two weeks ago that they were mainly Russians:
Pompeo went on to list all the actions the Trump administration has taken against Russia, including confirming that U.S. forces killed over a hundred Russians in Syria.
“But it hasn’t just been sanctions. The largest expulsion, 60 folks, was from this administration. This administration announced a nuclear posture review that has put Russia on notice that we’re going to recapitalize our deterrent force. In Syria, now a handful of weeks ago, the Russians met their match and a couple hundred Russias were killed.”
Back in February, dozens of Russian mercenaries killed in a U.S. airstrike in Syria have been reported to be part of a secret Kremlin-backed private military company, according to U.S. and Ukrainian officials.
Der Spiegel dug into those claims in March, however, and determined that most of the losses were among native militias. The actual number of Russian casualties may have been as low as nine. Der Spiegel reported that the allegation of massive Russian casualties was a product of online speculation, not hard reporting on the ground. That still hasn’t been entirely established and Pompeo’s testimony contradicts it, but the Der Spiegel report fits with Mattis’ description of the Russian response during the deconfliction efforts. It seems unlikely that a Russian mercenary force of that size would operate on a complicated battlefield without direction or at least coordination with Russian command, who would be unlikely to willingly allow their slaughter at the hands of Americans just to keep their operations secret.
At any rate, Mattis’ remarks are worth watching. Come for the Mattisism, stick around for the appreciation of discipline.