Deir ez-Zor, Syria— Numerous Russian mercenaries were reportedly killed last week in U.S. attack that has the potential to destabilize an already tumultuous situation. A U.S. official and three Russians “familiar with the matter” told Bloomberg that the incident may be the deadliest interaction between Russia and the United States since the Cold War.
According to the exclusive report by Bloomberg:
“More than 200 contract soldiers, mostly Russians fighting on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, died in a failed attack on a base held by U.S. and mainly Kurdish forces in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region, two of the Russians said. The U.S. official put the death toll in the fighting at about 100, with 200 to 300 injured, but was unable to say how many were Russians.
The Russian assault may have been a rogue operation, underscoring the complexity of a conflict that started as a domestic crackdown only to morph into a proxy war involving Islamic extremists, stateless Kurds and regional powers Iran, Turkey and now Israel.”
The incident reportedly took place in the Deir ez-Zor province, on the eastern banks of the Euphrates river, which is currently held by Kurdish forces working alongside U.S. coalition forces, ostensibly to fight against Islamic State. The Russian contractors had no air cover or mobile air defense to protect them during the fighting, according to two Russian sources, as reported by Bloomberg.
Reports indicate that on Wednesday, a pro-Syrian ground force of 500-600, which included T-55 and T-72 tanks, howitzers, and mobile rocket launchers, engaged in an attack on the rebel held base. The Syrian advance was rebuffed by an immediate and intense U.S. response, which included a three-hour assault by AC-130 Hercules gunships, F-15 strike fighters, F-22 stealth fighters, Apache helicopters and US Marine artillery. The intense response by the U.S. is, in part, thought be due to U.S. military “advisors” being embedded with the Kurdish rebel forces.
“The Russians may have allowed the attack to take place simply to make it clear to Assad that you can’t do things without coordination with Moscow,” Yury Barmin, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group set up by the Kremlin, told Bloomberg.
It’s important to note that the U.S. is operating in Syria as an occupying force without any international mandate, whereas the Russian military is operating in Syria at the behest of the Syrian government, as recognized by the United Nations.
The response by the United States was in part due to the “presence of a detachment of U.S. military ‘advisers’ within the largely Kurdish rebel stronghold” according to the Fraser Coast Chronicle; the publication added that the Pentagon “states this was a well-known fact to Russian and Syrian forces. Therefore the attack was not likely to have been a ‘mistake’.”
“Coalition officials were in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the thwarted, unprovoked attack,” U.S. Colonel Thomas F. Veale, a military spokesman, said in a statement. “Russian officials assured coalition officials they would not engage coalition forces in the vicinity.”
Interestingly, the Russian Defense Ministry said it had nothing to do with the attack and the U.S. accepted the claim— with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis calling the entire episode “perplexing,” but not elaborating further.
“The Russians told us they had no forces there initially. I think that’s still the case but we don’t have full clarity on what the regime forces are doing there,” Mattis said. “The Russians professed that they were not aware when we called them about that force that had crossed the Euphrates. As it came closer they were notified when the firing began.”
In fact, in a strange twist, not only did the Russian military claim to not have been involved, but oddly, they did not demand an explanation from the U.S. for the reported Russian deaths.
Chairman of the Russian State Duma (lower house of parliament) Defense Committee Vladimir Shamanov told reporters on Wednesday that media reports about a large number of Russians killed in a US attack on February 7 are deliberate misinformation.
“Judging by the intelligence agencies’ assessments, there are many signs showing that someone is deliberately overstating the actual situation,” Shamanov said. “The information is being verified. However, there is no true and reliable information, unfortunately.”
Reports in Russian media indicate that a number of the Russians killed in the U.S. attack are private military contractors working for the Moscow-based firm Wagner, Russia’s answer to the U.S.’s Blackwater. Unconfirmed Russian social media sources claim that two units of private military contractors were “massacred,” with one reportedly being completely wiped out, while the other was “cut to pieces” by the U.S. onslaught. It is believed that Assad may have hired Wagner to recapture and guard Syrian energy assets in return for lucrative oil concessions, according to Russian media reports.
The Russian government denies any official involvement in the incident. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters during a conference call Wednesday that while there may have been Russian citizens in Syria involved, “they don’t belong to the Russian armed forces.”
Realistically, the aspect appearing to prevent this from becoming a dangerous international incident is the apparent understanding on both sides that Russia admitting to a massacre of its troops could necessitate a powerful response. Thus, the only thing preventing a full-blown diplomatic crisis that pits the U.S. and Russia directly and firmly against one another, is the use of labels such as “contractor” and “adviser.”