‘Deadliest Clash’ Since Cold War: US Military Just Killed 100 Russian Fighters in Syria
“U.S. forces reportedly killed “scores” of Russian contract soldiers in Syria last week “in what may be the deadliest clash between citizens of the former foes since the Cold War”
American, rebel forces repel attack by mercenaries in the east
The 200-plus deaths dwarf official Russian toll in the war
But why did U.S. forces killed scores of Russian mercenaries in Syria? (Trump told reporters in September that the US has “very little to do with Syria other than killing IS.”).
There is no IS element in this round of killing, are we missing something here?
Could it be U.S. forces are fighting for Israel again?
– Who it supports: Washington had given moderate rebel factions fighting against government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad weapons and military training, but ended military aid in July. More recently, the US has provided air support and weapons to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces fighting against “Islamic State” (IS) militants in northern Syria. Several hundred US special forces are deployed alongside the SDF. Separately, the US backs Syrian rebels fighting IS and has a base in al-Tanf, near the Iraqi border.
– Who it’s fighting against: The US has been leading an international coalition of nearly 60 countries, including Germany, targeting IS and other extremist groups with airstrikes since late 2014. The US has largely avoided direct conflict with pro-regime forces, but in April US President Donald Trump ordered airstrikes on a Syrian airbase in response to a government chemical weapons attack against civilians.
– What it wants: The US has remained steadfast in trying to destroy IS in Syria and Iraq. But its intentions on other issues have become unclear. Trump told reporters in September that the US has “very little to do with Syria other than killing IS.” But in July, it had been deeply involved in brokering a ceasefire between government and opposition forces. The new administration has also given conflicting signals as to whether the US would oppose a peace deal keeping Assad in power. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, had said that “Assad must go” for any peace deal to work. The US also seeks to block Iran and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah from establishing permanent presence in Syria that could threaten Israel.
– Which peace talks it supports: Washington has supported UN peace talks held in Geneva since 2012 between representatives from the Assad government and the Syrian opposition. But those talks have so far failed to reach a breakthrough. Both sides have disagreed about whether Assad’s departure should be a precondition for any final settlement.
U.S. Strikes Killed Scores of Russia Fighters in Syria
Syria — Following up to last night’s bombshell report that at least two Russian mercenary fighters in Syria had been killed by US-led coalition forces, this morning Bloomberg is out with an exclusive, according to which the body count is far greater than had been disclosed: U.S. forces reportedly killed “scores” of Russian contract soldiers in Syria last week “in what may be the deadliest clash between citizens of the former foes since the Cold War“, Bloomberg reported.
According to the unnamed US and Russian sources, “more than 200 mercenaries, mostly Russians fighting on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, died in a failed attack on a base and refinery held by U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region” In terms of total body count, the U.S. official put the death toll at about 100, with 200 to 300 injured.
A few caveats: the Russian operation was not officially mandated, and the 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.”
In a bizarre deflection of responsibility, Russia’s military not only did not demand an explanation from the US for the deaths, but said it had nothing to do with the attack and the U.S. military accepted the claim. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has called the whole thing “perplexing,” but provided no further details.
The deadly fight began about 8 kilometers (5 miles) east of the Euphrates River de-confliction line late on Feb. 7, when adversaries fired rounds and advanced in a “battalion-sized dismounted formation supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars,” Veale said. No fatalities were reported on the coalition side and “enemy vehicles and personnel who turned around and headed back west were not targeted.”
Shortly after the attack, al-Masdar reported that the pro-government “ISIS Hunters” released an official statement on Sunday condemning the US Coalition’s airstrikes that killed several members of the Syrian Armed Forces on February 7th.
The ISIS Hunters specifically condemned both the US Coalition and the Kurdish forces that are currently in control of the majority of the northeastern countryside of Deir Ezzor. There was, however, no mention that many of the fighters killed were Russian mercenaries.
Echoing the sentiment, the government in Damascus called the U.S. action “barbaric aggression” and a “war crime.”
In troubling news for Putin, however, the death toll from the incident, already about five times more than Russia’s official losses since it entered the war in 2015, is still rising, according to one mercenary commander. He said by phone on condition of anonymity that dozens of his wounded men are still being treated at military hospitals in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Many of the Russians killed or injured were veterans of the Ukraine conflict, according to Alexander Ionov, the head of a Kremlin-funded organization that fosters ties to separatists who’s fought alongside pro-Assad forces in Syria. It’s not clear who was paying the soldiers of fortune, whether it was Russia directly, its allies in the war, Syria and Iran, or a third party.
Bloomberg has also identified the mercenary outfit involved in the attack. According to reports in local media, Wagner – a shadowy organization often referred to as Russia’s answer to Blackwater, the U.S. military company now called Academi – was hired by Assad or his allies to guard Syrian energy facilities in exchange for oil concessions.
There’s a refinery in Deir Ezzor that once funded Islamic State operations that’s now “crucial” to Assad’s plans to finance the reconstruction of Syria once a peace deal is finally reached, according to Yury Barmin, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow.
In its statement about the attack, Russia’s Defense Ministry seemed to refer to the refinery, accusing the U.S. of using its “illegal presence” in Syria as an excuse to “seize economic assets” instead of fighting terrorists.
Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat and lawmaker who’s now an independent political analyst in Moscow, said the clash marked the first such armed exchange between the two powers since the Vietnam War.
“This is a big scandal and a reason for an acute international crisis,” Frolov said. “But Russia will pretend nothing happened.”
Indeed, and as we noted last night, if and when the deaths are officially confirmed, it could turn into a political scandal for Putin, with the public demanding why the government is keeping military deaths under wraps. Already Grigory Yavlinsky, a veteran liberal politician who is running for president in elections next month, has called on Putin to disclose how many Russians had been killed in Syria and in what circumstances.
“If there was large-scale loss of life of Russian citizens, the relevant officials, including the commander-in-chief of our armed forces (Putin), are obliged to tell the country about it and decide who carries responsibility for this,” Yavlinsky said in a statement released by his Yabloko party.
Of course, if indeed Russian fighters were killed while fighting under covert circumstances – in the same way as killed US “military advisors” are kept under seal – that is the last thing Moscow would like to publicize. Unless of course the political calculus shifts, and Putin decides that it is time for a full-blown military escalation, in which case the deaths will be used as the justification behind any armed conflict.