|Syria. Map Courtesy of CIA World Factbook.|
A website called Polygraph.info reported on Feb. 16 that, “Zakharova Downplays Armed Clash with Americans in Syria, Kremlin-linked Audio Recordings Contradict Her Story.” Here is how Polygraph.info led off its report.
Press secretary, Russian Foreign Ministry
“Material about the deaths of dozens and hundreds of Russian citizens – it is classic disinformation. It was not 400, not 200, not 100 and not 10. Preliminary figures indicate that as a result of the armed clash that took place, the causes of which are now being investigated, we can talk about the deaths of five people, presumably citizens of Russia. There are also wounded, but all this needs to be verified – in particular, and first and foremost, [their] citizenship; whether they are citizens of Russia or other countries.”
Source: Russian Foreign Ministry website, February 15, 2018
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova is the only Russian government official who has publicly confirmed that five people, “presumably” Russian citizens, were killed in an armed clash with U.S. forces near Deir el-Zour in Syria.
Opposition leaders inside Russia, as well as Russian and Western media reports, dispute Zakharova’s comments.
Then, on Feb. 22 The Washington Post reported that, “Putin ally said to be in touch with Kremlin, Assad before his mercenaries attacked U.S. troops.”
A Russian oligarch believed to control the Russian mercenaries who attacked U.S. troops and their allies in Syria this month was in close touch with Kremlin and Syrian officials in the days and weeks before and after the assault, according to U.S. intelligence reports.
In intercepted communications in late January, the oligarch, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, told a senior Syrian official that he had “secured permission” from an unspecified Russian minister to move forward with a “fast and strong” initiative that would take place in early February. . . .
The intelligence reports provide additional information about an incident that remains only murkily described by all concerned, with the Pentagon providing few details and the Russians offering changing accounts.
U.S. intelligence agencies declined to comment on the reports, excerpts of which were shared with The Washington Post.
The final sentence from The Washington Post article should have raised alarms for anyone following the story. That sentence indicates two things: (1) if the Post was indeed receiving actual intelligence from U.S. officials, that in itself would appear to be an illegal act. And it subsequently calls into question what the motivation is of those officials disclosing the intelligence. (2) The same (or other) government officials refused to say what they thought of the apparently illegally disclosed intelligence, indicating that they might not be ready to make an analytical judgment on what it means, or that they were using it to manipulate public opinion.
So this alone should have prevented anyone from saying with certainty that the early February attack on U.S.-backed forces was conducted by Russian mercenaries and resulted in hundreds of them being killed.
But there was more than just this Washington Post article that should have raised concerns about the authenticity of the narrative about the attack and counterattack.
The Polygraph.info report revealed that it had “obtained audio recordings from a source close to the Kremlin who said the Russian casualties were personnel from a private Russian military company who attempted to capture an oil refinery in Syria.”
It should have struck anyone who read that as odd. Would a media website really have “a source close to the Kremlin” who was able to provide audio recordings that provided an after-action review of the attack?
So just who backs Polygraph.info? Here is key info from its “About” page.
Polygraph.info is a fact-checking website produced by Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The website serves as a resource for verifying the increasing volume of disinformation and misinformation being distributed and shared globally. A similar website in the Russian language can be found at factograph.info.
VOA and RFE/RL are U.S. government propaganda organizations. And Polygraph.info is part of them.
This turns the Polygraph.info report from somewhat suspect to highly suspect. Is it possible that a U.S. government propaganda network would be able to develop a human intelligence source close to the Kremlin without Russia figuring it out? A HUMINT source who would feed Polygraph.info audio recordings that would then be publicly disclosed without compromising his identity in the process? Maybe. But it would be very difficult—and that makes the Polygraph.info report highly suspect. In fact, I’d lean towards saying that someone played the people at Polygraph.info.
On top of all this, we get a March 2 report from Der Spiegel called, “The Truth About the Russian Deaths in Syria – Hundreds of Russian soldiers are alleged to have died in U.S. airstrikes at the beginning of February. Reporting by DER SPIEGEL shows that events were likely very different.”
Der Spiegel claims to have talked with sources on the ground who witnessed or participated in the attack as well as events leading up to it. Here is a key paragraph from the article.
Among those stationed in Tabiya was a small contingent of Russian mercenaries. But the two militia sources said they did not participate in the fighting. Still, they said, 10 to 20 of them did in fact lose their lives. They said a total of more than 200 of the attackers died, including around 80 Syrian soldiers with the 4th Division, around 100 Iraqis and Afghans and around 70 tribal fighters, mostly with the al-Baqir militia.
So not only did Russian mercenaries not participate in the attack on American-backed forces according to Der Spiegel, but Iraqis and Afghans—the people whom America has spent blood and treasure on for a decade-and-a-half—did. If true, that in itself is a story.
What really happened in the early February attack and counterattack in Syria between U.S.-backed and Syrian-backed forces? I don’t know. But many other people don’t know either. The entire truth might not be what is coming out of publications like The Washington Post and Polygraph.info, but it may not be what is coming out of Der Spiegel either.
However, the narrative that the U.S. killed “hundreds of attacking Russian mercenaries” should not be accepted as truth. Parts, or the entirety, of the account appear to be wrong.