A Russian major-general was killed in Syria last week, but the incident has not yet led to escalation or repercussions. Maj.-Gen. Vyacheslav Gladkikh was killed along with the commander of the local National Defense Forces (NDF) during a patrol, according to reports. A "roadside bomb" killed him, according to footage posted online and reports by Rudaw, Al-Monitor and other channels.
What is known about the incident is that on August 18, the Russian general was traveling in Syria's Deir Ezzor province, apparently on the western side of the Euphrates River, when an improvised explosive device exploded.
Two Russian servicemen were wounded, according to Rudaw, a Kurdish news network. The incident took place near an oil field called At-Taym, but it was not clear exactly where, Russian media reported.
Gladkikh was the first Russian major-general killed in such a way in Syria, Al-Monitor reported. It is noteworthy that the commander of the local Syrian NDF from Al-Mayadin was with him. Moscow has played a key role supporting the Syrian regime since 2015 and now is a kind of power broker across the war-torn country.
Gladkikh was deputy commander of the 36th Combined Arms Army, a news website reported. Mikhail Yakovlevich Nosulev was appointed commander of the 36th in 2017, according to another report.
The 36th consists of a tank brigade based in Ulan-Ude in Buriyatia, a rifle brigade, an artillery brigade, an antiaircraft brigade and a missile brigade, as well as command and logistics units, according to a 2018 report on Russia's armed forces. Ulan Ude is in east Siberia.
Russian patrols also have been targeted in Idlib by extremist groups that operate under Turkish areas of control.
Russia signed ceasefire deals with Turkey regarding Idlib in September 2018 and March 2020. It also conducts joint patrols with Turkey. Last October, Moscow signed another deal with Ankara after the US withdrew and Turkey invaded part of northern Syria. Russia sells air-defense systems to Turkey but also supplies them to the Syrian regime. Moscow seems to be working both sides of the Syrian conflict.
Russia views itself as fighting ISIS in Syria and also opposing the US role there. For instance, it has condemned the US for ruining Raqqa during the liberation of the besieged city from ISIS in 2017 and for an oil deal in eastern Syria. Russian soldiers are present in places such as Deir Ezzor, conducting various patrols. Russian contractors are also present.
These contractors attacked the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in February 2018. Since then, Russia has appeared to want to stir up controversy and local unrest against the US. Russian patrols regularly monitor and even clash with US patrols in eastern Syria. America tries to "de-conflict" from the Russians, and high-level discussions apparently are going well with Moscow. But on the ground, things are more complex.
So who killed the general? It is believed to have been an ISIS bomb. But there have not been so many high-profile ISIS attacks against these kinds of patrols recently. Is ISIS growing its presence in this area? Other groups, such as Iranian-backed militias, are present throughout Albukamal and Al-Mayadin. This is where Iran traffics weapons to the Tiyas airbase and to Hezbollah. It is a key corridor of Iran's influence.
At the same time, Arab tribes on the other side of the Euphrates have been protesting against the US-backed SDF in recent weeks. Is ISIS stirring up discontent among the tribes? Or is the Syrian regime's long hand at work, destabilizing areas on one side of the Euphrates, only to find out that ISIS exploited this power vacuum as well?
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.