President Trump reportedly wanted to immediately and publicly acknowledge that U.S.-led forces engaged Russian mercenaries in Syria earlier this year, killing hundreds of them, but senior National Security Council staff, led then by H.R. McMaster, intervened, saying it would be unnecessarily antagonizing to Moscow.
The president is said to have wanted White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to immediately acknowledged and “take credit” for fending off the Russian mercenaries, Breitbart News reports.
For several weeks following the Feb. 7 incident, American officials intentionally avoided pointing fingers at Moscow after private mercenaries known to be on the Kremlin’s payroll attacked a base where U.S. forces were located in eastern Syria.
The report said U.S. officials at first were not “100 percent sure” that Russia was involved, though early on indications were that Moscow’s fingerprints were all over it.
The bigger concern for McMasters and the NSC staff was that publicly blaming Russia and then appearing to gloat over it would be unnecessarily provocative and might even spark a Russian reprisal.
Two months after the attack, and after McMaster left the administration, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo acknowledged and confirmed the attack during his secretary of state hearings.
“In Syria, now, a handful of weeks ago the Russian[s] met their match,” Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 12. “A couple hundred Russians were killed.”
Two sources have confirmed the report to Breitbart.
Analysis: The president’s mantra seems to be ‘go big and go bold’ when it comes to foreign policy if this report is accurate, and at this point, there’s no reason to doubt that it isn’t — though we’d expect the White House to deny it. Russia is believed to have been sending mercenaries to Syria for years, to assist President Assad’s forces in their battle against ISIS and rebel groups.
Whether Trump was getting competing advice on whether to acknowledge the incident or keep quiet about it is not known, but what we believe is clear is that the attack was not only conducted with the explicit approval of President Putin (the mercenaries were with the Wagner Group, which does not officially exist in Russia but is a regular “Blackwater”-like client of the Kremlin), but that it was an early test of Trump’s resolve in Syria.
The Russians have always viewed Syria through the lens of strategic importance. In January 2017, Putin signed a 49-year free-of-charge lease for port facilities in Tartus, Syria, which is the Russian navy’s only Mediterranean repair and replenishment spot and its only overseas base. Having the facility at Tartus, which Moscow is free to expand (and is) and where as many as 11 warships belonging to the Black Sea Fleet, including nuclear vessels, provides strategic presence and alleviates the need for Russian warships to traverse the Turkish Straits to other Black Sea bases.
But what was less clear — to Putin, anyway — was U.S. resolve in Syria. So he commissioned an assault on a base where he knew U.S. troops were stationed so he could see what Trump’s reaction would be. And know he knows.
That said, the decision to keep quiet about the incident and not to ‘brag’ about it publicly was the right one.
Trump no doubt wanted to use the incident as ‘proof’ that he’s no Russian stooge, and that may have been a good move politically but it would have been a foreign policy snafu of the highest order. No doubt Putin was plenty angry about the incident and especially the results; publicly sticking a finger in his eye may very well have provoked a response that likely would have only escalated from there, as both Putin and Trump are powerful personalities in their respective countries and would not want to be seen as being ‘outdone’ by the other.
Tensions with Russia are high enough as it is. U.S. and Russian forces are already operating far too close to each other in Syria and are already very prone to ‘accidents.’ Provoking one wouldn’t help matters there at all.