- On the night of February 7, 2018, 500 pro-Syrian fighters, supported by Russian mercenaries, launched a massive assault on U.S. commandos and their Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) allies at an oil refinery near Khasham, Syria.
- The U.S. troops resisted the continuous waves of attacks for an intense four hours, inflicting substantial casualties on the opposing forces.
- The battle revealed the intricate involvement of foreign entities, specifically Russian mercenaries, indicating possible indirect involvement from Russia in the Syrian conflict.
- American intelligence intercepts linked Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of President Putin, with the mercenaries. The intercepts suggested that Prigozhin had communicated with Assad’s government before the attack.
- The U.S. response to the assault was overwhelming and lethal, with the U.S. forces holding their ground and eliminating hundreds of their attackers.
- Despite evident proof of significant casualties among the Russian mercenaries, Moscow denied any losses and any involvement in the incident.
Chronology of Events:
- Pre-Assault Phase (Pre-February 7, 2018): The U.S. military maintained a presence in Eastern Syria to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their fight against ISIS. The U.S. forces were positioned around key oil and gas fields to prevent them from falling into ISIS or Syrian government hands.
- Direct Preceding the Assault (February 7, 2018): The American military detected a buildup of forces on the west side of the Euphrates River, which served as a “deconfliction” line agreed upon by Russia and the U.S. to separate their operations in Syria.
- Commencement of the Assault (February 7, 2018): Around 10 PM local time, approximately 500 pro-Syrian forces initiated an attack on the SDF and the U.S. special operations troops positioned near Khasham. The attacking force was supported by artillery, tanks, and multiple-launch rocket systems.
- The American Response (February 7 – 8, 2018): The U.S. forces, significantly outnumbered, called in air support and retaliated with artillery and airstrikes. The U.S. commandos held their ground, resisting the attack for a grueling four hours.
- The Aftermath (Post-February 8, 2018): The U.S. forces emerged victorious, having inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy forces. However, it was later revealed that Russian mercenaries were among the attackers, leading to speculation about Russia’s indirect involvement in the battle.
- Revelations and Denials (February – March, 2018): American intelligence intercepts linked Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of President Putin, with the mercenaries. These intercepts suggested communication between Prigozhin and the Assad government prior to the attack. Despite the evidence, Moscow consistently denied any Russian casualties or involvement in the incident.
- Reflections (2023 and beyond): Years later, the Battle of Khasham continues to underscore the complexity of the Syrian conflict, the indirect involvement of global powers, and the dangers of mercenary warfare. The events of that fateful night in 2018 continue to shape geopolitical discourse on the involvement of major world powers in regional conflicts.
The Battle’s Unfolding
On the night of February 7, 2018, the placid town of Khasham in Syria was ensnared in a crescendo of war. A coalition of 500 pro-Syrian fighters, bolstered by Russian mercenaries, launched an audacious assault on the U.S. commandos and their allies entrenched at an oil refinery near the town. According to a Special Forces soldier quoted by Kevin Maurer in The Warhorse, the onslaught was relentless, with the adversaries determined to seize control of the position.
This was no random, small-scale engagement. The backdrop was the Conoco factory oil refinery, a significant asset in a country where control of resources often symbolized political and military power. In the crosshairs were not just American soldiers but also their Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) allies, who had been instrumental in the fight against ISIS. “They were coming at us, wave after wave,” an American soldier vividly recounted to Thomas Gibbons-Neff of The New York Times.
The American response was swift and decisive. Gibbons-Neff further detailed how the U.S. troops held their ground for a grueling four hours, inflicting substantial casualties among the attacking forces. But the weight of this battle extended far beyond the immediate firefight; the undercurrents of international power play soon surfaced, shedding light on the clandestine roles of foreign actors in the Syrian theater.
The Anatomy of a Defense: US Forces at Khasham
A mere 40 American troops, constituting a special forces detachment, stood at the frontlines in the face of hundreds of incoming mercenaries. This might have appeared as a lopsided situation to the untrained eye, but a closer examination of the intricate interplay of American forces – on the ground, sea, and in the air – paints a very different picture. This arrangement of US forces at Khasham was a masterclass in military interoperability, and the success of their defense efforts underlines the potency of such an approach.
The frontline was manned by a special forces detachment, a part of the US Army. They were highly trained and competent, seasoned by prior deployments and missions. As Kevin Maurer in his report for the War Horse mentions, “It was a defensive fight. We were not at liberty to be in the offensive,” according to one Green Beret. This highlights the ground forces’ role: they were not there to initiate the combat, but to hold the line.
Behind this robust, but relatively small frontline force was an elaborate network of support, bridging the land-sea-air divide with impressive coordination. The ground troops were linked via advanced communication networks to the considerable might of the US Navy and Air Force. US naval assets in the Mediterranean Sea, along with air assets stationed at various bases throughout the region, were on standby, ready to offer their overwhelming firepower at a moment’s notice.
This interoperability was not merely in the context of battlefield roles. As The New York Times details, quoting a military official, “They were in constant communication, calling in where they [the mercenaries] were, how they were equipped, and what they were doing.” From the special forces on the ground to the sailors and pilots off-site, the information flow was seamless, ensuring each cog in the military machine knew exactly what to do and when.
The results of this intricate coordination became evident when the battle commenced. As the mercenaries advanced on the Conoco gas plant, the American forces responded. First, they launched warning artillery fire, a deliberate attempt to dissuade further aggression. When this didn’t work, they called in air support.
The air strikes were decisive. As Christoph Reuter noted in his piece for Der Spiegel, “The air strikes stopped them [the mercenaries] dead in their tracks.” These strikes were meticulously targeted, aided by the frontline troops’ intelligence and surveillance. Jets, drones, and attack helicopters swooped in, raining destruction upon the advancing mercenaries.
Simultaneously, naval assets in the Mediterranean launched cruise missiles, their precise strikes guided by the real-time updates provided by the ground forces. This assault from the sea further bolstered the airborne strikes, halting the mercenaries’ advance, and leading to a swift resolution of the combat.
The Battle of Khasham was won not by sheer numbers, but by the well-coordinated interoperability of US forces across multiple domains – land, sea, and air. This display of a united military front underlines the effectiveness of the US military’s ability to operate cohesively, reinforcing the idea that in modern warfare, it is not just the strength of the soldiers on the ground, but the power of coordinated and cooperative military strategy that often makes the difference.
The Russian Connection:
The Battle of Khasham, which took place on February 7, 2018, was a stark revelation of the complex and often murky relationship between the Russian state, represented by the Kremlin, and the private military company known as the Wagner Group. The battle saw U.S. forces at a Conoco gas plant near Deir Ezzor come under attack by a battalion-sized force primarily composed of Wagner Group mercenaries.
The Wagner Group has long been suspected of acting as a covert arm of the Russian military. While the group operates independently, it is widely believed to have close links to the Kremlin. It’s also suspected to receive direct orders from the Russian Ministry of Defense, providing Russia with plausible deniability and allowing it to operate in regions where an overt military presence would be politically unpalatable.
Before the battle, the Kremlin’s official stance was that Russia had a military presence in Syria to combat terrorism, support the Syrian government, and maintain its geopolitical interests. The Russian military’s operations were widely broadcast, but the actions of the Wagner Group were not. According to an article by Thomas Gibbons-Neff in The New York Times, the Russian military even assured the U.S. that they would not engage with coalition forces near the Conoco plant.
However, despite these assurances, a large contingent of fighters – largely believed to be Wagner Group mercenaries – advanced on the U.S. position. This significant discrepancy led to speculation about the extent to which the Wagner Group was acting independently or following orders from the Kremlin. “The episode underscored the hazards that could accompany the use of such forces,” Gibbons-Neff wrote.
In the aftermath of the battle, the Kremlin adopted a stance of denial and distancing. Russian officials initially downplayed the attack’s severity and the subsequent casualties, even denying that active-duty Russian soldiers were involved. The involvement of Russian citizens working for a private military company, they asserted, did not imply government involvement. A piece by Christoph Reuter in Der Spiegel noted: “Moscow is making a concerted effort to downplay the true extent of its casualties.”
However, reports from Ellen Nakashima, Karen DeYoung, and Liz Sly in The Washington Post suggested that Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin and the supposed backer of the Wagner Group, was in touch with both the Kremlin and Syrian officials before the attack. This has led many to question the level of coordination between the Russian state and the Wagner Group.
To summarize, the Kremlin’s role in the Battle of Khasham, through the Wagner Group, remains controversial and filled with questions. While direct orders from the Kremlin to the Wagner Group cannot be unequivocally proven, the strong circumstantial links suggest a level of state complicity. The use of such groups allows state actors to circumvent traditional military engagement rules, but it also complicates conflict resolution and obscures the true nature of warfare.
Annihilation: The U.S. Response Was Comprehensive And Total
In response to this well-coordinated assault, U.S. forces resorted to an overwhelming display of firepower. The ferocity of the attackers, and the strategic significance of the oil refinery, dictated a response that was unambiguous and lethal. “For four hours, American commandos held back the onslaught, killing hundreds,” Thomas Gibbons-Neff described in his account for The New York Times.
An American soldier quoted in The Warhorse report put it succinctly: “We had been attacked, and we were going to defend ourselves.” Their retaliation was not just a tactical response but also a larger statement of international norms and agreements.
Christoph Reuter of Der Spiegel highlighted the uneasy truth following the battle. Despite the undeniable evidence of heavy casualties among the Russian mercenaries, Moscow kept denying any losses. The curtain of denial added a further layer of complexity to an already intricate situation. Through this lethal dance of power, the Battle of Khasham underscored the high stakes and uncompromising nature of the Syrian conflict.
Official and Unofficial Belligerents At the Battle Of Khasham
The Battle of Khasham, which took place on the night of February 7, 2018, saw the involvement of several nations, both officially and unofficially.
- United States: The U.S. had Special Operations forces in Syria supporting local forces against ISIS. They were the main defense against the attacking forces in Khasham.
- Syria: The U.S. forces were in Syria with the permission of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Kurdish and Arab militias. While the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad opposed the U.S. presence, they officially control Khasham.
- Russia: The attackers were largely composed of Russian mercenaries, specifically from the Wagner Group, a private military company with close ties to the Russian government. While Russia has maintained that these forces acted without its knowledge or control, the level of coordination and equipment involved has led many observers to question this assertion.
- Iran: While not directly involved in the battle, Iran is a key supporter of the Assad government and has a vested interest in the outcome of the conflict in Syria.
It’s important to note that the dynamics of the Syrian conflict are highly complex, with multiple local, regional, and global actors involved. Therefore, the list above may not capture every group that had a stake in the events around the Battle of Khasham.
- Gibbons-Neff, Thomas. “How a 4-Hour Battle Between Russian Mercenaries and U.S. Commandos Unfolded in Syria.” The New York Times, 24 May 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/05/24/world/middleeast/american-commandos-russian-mercenaries-syria.html.
- “Battle of Khasham.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Khasham.
- Maurer, Kevin. “Special Forces Soldiers Reveal First Details of Battle With Russian Mercenaries in Syria.” The War Horse, 11 May 2023, thewarhorse.org/special-forces-soldiers-reveal-first-details-of-battle-with-russian-mercenaries-in-syria/.
- Nakashima, Ellen, DeYoung, Karen, and Sly, Liz. “Putin Ally Said to be in Touch with Kremlin, Assad Before His Mercenaries Attacked U.S. Troops.” The Washington Post, 22 Feb 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/putin-ally-said-to-be-in-touch-with-kremlin-assad-before-his-mercenaries-attacked-us-troops/2018/02/22/f4ef050c-1781-11e8-8b08-027a6ccb38eb_story.html.
- Tharoor, Ishaan. “The Battle in Syria That Looms Behind Wagner’s Rebellion.” The Washington Post, 30 June 2023, www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/06/30/wagner-syria-russia-battle-united-states/.
- Reuter, Christoph. “The Truth About the Russian Deaths in Syria.” Spiegel International, 2 Mar 2018, www.spiegel.de/international/world/american-fury-the-truth-about-the-russian-deaths-in-syria-a-1196074.html.