After pro-regime forces closed in on a U.S.-backed Kurdish base in Syria’s eastern Deir al-Zor province on Feb. 7, the U.S.-led forces took defensive action with an airstrike that reportedly killed over 100 Russian mercenaries.
In a stunning development, Moscow’s Foreign Ministry admitted on Thursday that as many as five “Russian citizens” embedded with soldiers loyal to the Syrian government of Bashar Al Assad may have been killed by the American airstrike.
“According to preliminary information, we could be talking about the deaths of five people — presumably Russian citizens — as a result of an armed confrontation whose causes are being examined,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters at a press briefing Thursday.
The admission is the first official acknowledgment that American forces have killed Russian nationals in the Syrian theater.
Zakharova insisted that the slain fighters were not from the Russian armed forces, leading U.S. military officials to speculate that they belonged to a Russian mercenary group.
However, former Pentagon official Mark Simakovsky believes that these private contractors are working in league with Russian military planners. He explained:
The Russians in many areas, including Ukraine, have claimed that their forces are not involved. But it’s a fig leaf, because their forces are involved…[and] have coordination and liaison with Russian intelligence and security forces.
The private Russian security firm Wagner is known to operate with pro-Assad forces in Syria, clandestinely deploying thousands of contract soldiers to the region to fight rebel groups and the remnants of the Islamic State. Russian law formally bans mercenary service, and Moscow has never publicly acknowledged the role of private security operations in the Syrian theater.
Earlier this week, a Reuters report listing the names of two Russian contractors killed in the Deir al-Zor incident likely compelled Moscow officials to acknowledge their deaths in following days. However, sources also told Reuters that “dozens” of other Russian fighters were also killed in the blast, a narrative disputed by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
The fog of war
The Pentagon has defended the airstrike, arguing that it was an act of “self-defense…to defeat an unprovoked military attack.” Officials elaborated on the incident, claiming, “The enemy moved in an approximate battalion-sized dismounted formation supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars.”
In an attempt to avoid inadvertently eliminating any Russian support elements that were attached to the approaching forces, the U.S.-backed Coalition attempted to contact Russia through a “de-confliction” telephone line to advise them of the unprovoked attack.
Simakovsky believes that both the U.S. and Russia have no interest in either purposefully or inadvertently attacking one another. While their goals in the region are different, the analyst argued that the U.S. “doesn’t want to be killing Russian citizens in Syria. So, I think both sides will be more careful.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Syria in December and signaled his intent to begin sending Russian forces home. However, 2018 has included many setbacks for Moscow, including drone attacks on Russian air bases and the loss of a Russian jet and its pilot earlier this month.
The U.S. coalition is supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) opposed to the Assad regime and the dwindling Islamic State. Approximately 2,000 U.S. service members are present in the country, mostly special forces operators supporting the SDF.
Benjamin Baird is a senior staff writer for the Conservative Institute. He is a veteran infantryman of Iraq and Afghanistan with over 1000 days in combat and holds a degree in Middle Eastern studies from the American Military University. Ben is a regular contributor at the Middle East Forum and has written for dozens of conservative publications, including The Daily Caller, American Spectator, American Thinker, New English Review and Yahoo News.