Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Perhaps you didn’t hear that, a few weeks ago, Americans were involved in a fierce battle in Syria involving, among others, Russians contractors and American forces. Many of the Russians – the exact number is unknown – were killed after a force made up of hundreds of Russian contractors and a militia allied with the Syrian regime attacked the Americans and their allies. When the US side came under fire, it responded with airstrikes, killing the Russians.
During normal times, the deadly incident would have topped the news, but we’re not living in normal times. This major event got lost in the swirl of domestic news that is understandably consuming the American public.
Not only was there an attack on American forces and their Kurdish allies by men suspected to be among the hundreds of Russian mercenaries with close ties to the Russian military, but many other disturbing events have been occurring in Syria, and much worse could follow.
This is the worst possible time to have a President Donald Trump, who is mysteriously reluctant to criticize Russia and its President, Vladimir Putin.
This is the worst possible time for the US Congress – for Republicans who control Congress – to abdicate their mandate to act as a check on the President, often using their position to defend him from his accusers rather than the country from its enemies.
It is the worst possible time to have a presidency in chaos, where a respected national security adviser is openly criticized by the President and could soon be leaving the administration – part of a dizzying, record-setting pace of personnel turnover that makes it more difficult for the United States to develop and maintain a coherent foreign policy in the face of increasingly daunting challenges on the global stage.
Americans’ attention is focused on all the urgent news at home, but it is vital to note what is happening in Syria. What used to be a civil war there has now become a battleground for half a dozen countries, with forces hostile to the United States and its allies fortifying their positions and slaughtering civilians, and the prospects for a much larger and deadlier war growing as neighboring countries prepare to defend their interests in post-ISIS Syria.
If you think a battle between Russians and Americans – one that, by some accounts, left some 300 Russians dead – is alarming, consider an even more extraordinary detail: The man reportedly controlling the Kremlin-linked mercenary force that was allegedly involved in the attack on the Americans in Syria is the same man who allegedly played an instrumental role in the Russian interference operation against US democracy in the 2016 election, according to his recent indictment in the Mueller investigation. The indictment listed him as a key player in an operation to help Trump and hurt Clinton in the 2016 elections.
His name is Yevgeny Prigozhin, also known as “Putin’s chef,” an oligarch with close ties to Russian President Putin.
Prigozhin has denied controlling the mercenaries of Wagner, the Russian firm that has allegedly worked in shadowy Kremlin operations in Crimea and elsewhere, wearing unmarked uniforms, and doing Moscow’s bidding while giving Putin a shield of deniability.
Late on February 7, the Russian mercenaries attacked the US troops, who responded with such fury that they decimated the attackers. Russia has admitted some of its citizens were killed.
The clash came as Russian-backed Syrian forces have launched a brutal campaign against rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, a Damascus suburb, killing hundreds of civilians – including scores of children – in just the last week.
It came in the midst of a huge military campaign by Turkey, whose forces have taken on America’s Kurdish allies in and around the city of Afrin, putting the United States in a position to choose between betraying its closest allies in Syria and taking on Turkey, a NATO member.
Now the Kurds, disheartened by the US failure to support them in Afrin, have turned to the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for support. That’s one of the most head-spinning turns in what has been one of the most complex conflicts in recent memory.
But perhaps the most ominous development came just after the Russian attack on Americans, when Iran – a close ally of Assad’s, operating on the same side as Russia – sent a drone flying into Israeli-controlled territory. Israelis, conscious of Iran’s repeated threats against their country, have vowed that they will not allow Iran and its allied Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, to take threatening positions near the Syria-Israel border. In response to the drone incursion, Israel bombed the Iranian sites inside Syria believed to have controlled the drone incursion.
The possibility of direct warfare between Iran and Israel is growing. Turkey is attacking America’s allies, and Russian militias have fired on American troops.
During normal times, the President of the United States would take a clear stance against America’s foes. But when the foe is Russia and the President is Trump, that is curiously not happening. During normal times, the United States would have a leadership not roiled by a multitude of scandals, and a stable staff of foreign policy professionals fully backed – rather than attacked – by the President. During normal times, the Congress would be watching, and doing whatever is needed to protect the country.
But these, these are perilous times.