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.
Prigozhin made front-page headlines last week when he was indicted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on charges of bankrolling and guiding a long-
running Russian scheme to conduct "information warfare" during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
He is known to have close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, forged when he was a restaurateur in St. Petersburg and expanded through what became Prigozhin’s wide-ranging business empire, including extensive contracts with Russia’s Defense Ministry.
Among his various enterprises, U.S. intelligence believes that Prigozhin also "almost certainly" controls Russian mercenaries fighting in Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad. The mercenaries, employed by a company called Wagner, comprise ultranationalist Russians and military veterans, some of whom also fought in the Ukraine conflict, according to Russian news reports.
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.
What is clear, however, is that the attack marked the biggest direct challenge to the U.S. military presence in eastern Syria since U.S. Special Operations forces began deploying there in 2015 in support of their Syrian allies in the fight against the Islamic State. The episode also raises questions about ongoing U.S. cooperation in Syria with Russia, Assad’s primary backer in a civil war that increasingly has overlapped with the United States’ campaign against the Islamic State.
A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive issue, described the episode as "worrisome." The official added that "it’s striking how the Russians themselves have been quick to distance themselves" from what he described as an operation "under Syrian command and in response to Syrian directive."
"I think [the Russians] realize just how damaging it could be to any further cooperation," the official said.
U.S. and Russian-backed Assad forces are now separated by only a few miles in parts of eastern Syria, along a "deconfliction" line that restricts the former to the eastern side of the Euphrates River and the latter to the western side. In recent years, U.S. and Russian military officers have maintained near-daily telephone contact to ensure their aircraft and forces don’t run into each other.
The recent incident took place on the night of Feb. 7-8, when a headquarters base of U.S. troops and their Syrian allies, located near a strategic oil field several miles east of the river and close to the town of Deir al-Zour, was attacked by 300 to 500 "pro-regime" forces.
The Americans quickly mobilized a ferocious response, including AC-130 gunships, jet warplanes and Apache attack helicopters. After three hours, the attacking force retreated, leaving behind what the U.S. military said was about 100 dead attackers. No casualties were reported among the Americans and their allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The Pentagon, in statements since the attack, has repeatedly said it is still investigating and has reached no conclusion on the identities of the attackers. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the incident "perplexing" and said "I cannot give any explanation" as to why a "pro-regime" force would cross the river and fire on a known SDF and U.S. headquarters.
The Russian government has strenuously denied involvement. At the time, the Russian Defense Ministry said only that a "pro-government militia unit" had been conducting "surveillance and research" into the activities of a militant group, presumably the Islamic State, that had been firing mortars at government positions. The militia had no intention of attacking the SDF base, Russia said. Instead, it charged, the U.S. military had conducted an unprovoked attack against the militia.
It also said the militia had not informed "the Russian operational group" about its surveillance plans, according to a statement carried by the Russian news agency Tass.
A report in the Russian Kommersant newspaper quoted a military official as saying that the Russian military command in Syria viewed the incident as "dangerous amateurism."
But as stories began to spread in both the Russian and U.S. news media that most of the dead were Russian mercenaries, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said last week that five Russian citizens might have been killed.
In a new statement Tuesday, the ministry acknowledged that "several dozen" Russians were killed or wounded in the attack and that the wounded had been "provided assistance to return to Russia . . . where they are undergoing medical treatment at a number of hospitals."
"Russian service members did not take part in any capacity and Russian military equipment was not used," the statement said. It referred instead to "Russian citizens" who arrived in Syria "of their own free will and for different reasons." The ministry, it said, "does not have the authority to assess the validity and legality of their decisions." Russia has acknowledged that many of the attackers, who also included regular Syrian army troops and militias, were mercenaries.
The intercepted communications show not only that Prigozhin was personally involved in planning the attack but that he had discussed it with senior Syrian officials, including Minister of Presidential Affairs Mansour Fadlallah Azzam.
In a Jan. 24 exchange, Prigozhin said he had secured permission from an unspecified Russian minister the day before to move forward with a "fast and strong" initiative and was awaiting a decision by the Syrian government.
On Jan. 30, Prigozhin "indicated he had a ‘good surprise’ " for Assad "that would come between 6 and 9 February." According to one intelligence report, he also was assured by Azzam that he would be paid for his work.
The reports indicated an increased tempo of communications between Prigozhin and Kremlin officials during the same period, including Putin chief of staff Anton Vayno and deputy chief of staff Vladimir Ostrovenko, but the content of those talks is not known. The communications continued until Feb. 5 and resumed the day after the attack.
U.S. Special Forces at the base and overhead reconnaissance had seen the attack force mobilizing west of the river at least a week before the attack, according to Mattis and Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command. They notified the Russians at that time and warned that the base would defend itself. Asked in a briefing with reporters last week to characterize the conversations, Harrigian said only that they "remained professional."
On the night of the attack, Mattis said, "the Russians profess that they were not aware when we called about that force that had crossed, and it came closer. They were notified when the firing began," and the Americans were told "there were no Russians there."
When the attackers, using tanks and artillery, began firing in their direction, Harrigian said, the Americans struck back.
Asked Sunday as he returned from a trip to Europe whether the Russian government was responsible for its citizens fighting under contract in Syria, Mattis told reporters aboard his aircraft: "I’d prefer not to answer that right now. I need more information to understand and answer that authoritatively."
The Syrian government has repeatedly threatened to use force to ensure the departure of U.S. troops from Syria. Russia, even as it has formed an uneasy partnership with the United States to avoid confrontation, also has condemned the U.S. presence as "illegal," because the United States, unlike Russia, has not secured permission from the Syrian government.
Oil and gas deal
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, Prigozhin owns a Russian company called Evro Polis, which, according to the Russian news site Fontanka, struck a deal in 2016 with the Syrian government to receive a 25 percent share of oil and natural gas produced on territory recaptured from the Islamic State. Most of those fields are on the eastern side of the Euphrates, where SDF fighters, accompanied by U.S. forces, have been advancing on the militants.
The Prigozhin-linked mercenary company Wagner apparently provides the ground forces to help achieve that goal, working under contract with the Syrian government.
The use of Wagner for operations such as the one in early February shows how integral private mercenary groups are to the Russian military effort in Syria and elsewhere, while giving the Kremlin "a thin patina of deniability," said Michael Carpenter, a former Pentagon and White House official who worked on Russia policy in the Obama administration.
"More importantly," he said, "it allows Russian forces to take on the U.S.-backed SDF in a way that regular Russian forces wouldn’t dare do for fear of escalation."
Prigozhin has made himself indispensable to the Kremlin, said Andrew S. Weiss, a Eurasia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"On the one hand, he does things that are at the pointy end of the spear, like operating a significant information operation against America," Weiss said. "On the other, he is deeply intertwined in the activities of the Ministry of Defense and provides combat capabilities and other services."
By Ellen Nakashima, Karen DeYoung, Liz Sly, The Washington Post