By Bijan Razzaghi
On the night of February 7th 2018 a mechanized force of between 100 to 500 pro Assad forces conducted an attack on a Coalition backed Syrian Democratic (SDF) position in the town of Khasham in northwestern Syria. The bulk of the force were believed to be Russian contractors from a organization known as Wagner Group. The group is composed of well-trained Russian veterans. At around 11:00PM the force began to shell the position then moved in with infantry supported by T-72s, It is unclear what variant of the tank was used. The presence of US Special Operations forces in Khasham prompted the US to conduct close air support operations to defend the position from getting over run. Coalition F-22 Raptors, F-15E Strike Eagles AH-64 Apaches and AC-130 Gunships halted the advance while US Marine Artillery from 155mm Howitzers and HIMAR rockets suppressed any further advances.
The attack reflects the inability for pro Assad Forces in Syria to counter coalition forces conventionally. Pro Assad forces including Wagner group lacked any effective air defense or air support. It was likely the presence of F-22 Raptors and coalition air power that deterred Syria from using its Air Force to support their forces. In addition to the lack of any defenses against coalition air power, pro Assad forces were completely exposed once they had initiated the attack. Despite having mechanized forces and tanks, Kurdish light infantry were able be unexposed and did not sustain any major losses with only one fighter being wounded.
The attack is the most brazen that has taken place in Syria, in the past pro Assad forces have conduced unsuccessful raids on Al Tanif at the Jordanian border. Despite being out numbered on the ground Coalition forces maintain full air superiority over Syria and are able to conduct close air support, air interdiction and ISR without any difficulty. Although there is a significant presence of Russian fighters engagements have never become violent between the two.
The recent attack is likely not the last, the pattern of attacks on coalition forces shows that Pro Assad forces are testing coalition defenses and exploring coalition capabilities. It is also likely to expect future attacks to be more coordinated with the deployment of mobile air defense systems such as the Pantsir S-1 that can be easily camouflaged. Effective ISR, and low observable platforms such as the F-22 and F-35 can counter these threats while rotary wing platforms such as the AH-64 Apache are vulnerable in a contested environment.
Since the battle of Khasham minor engagements between pro Assad forces and Coalition troops continued with multiple T-72 tanks being disabled or destroyed by MQ-9 Reaper drones and Apache’s. The possibility for escalation remains high.