WASHINGTON – It is a scenario many feared in the fog of Syria’s multi-front war: a confrontation with AMERICAN troops, in response to a provocation, killing Russian soldiers or mercenaries on a busy battlefield.
Russian news reports Tuesday, described just such a scenario, with an unknown number of Russian military contractors are killed in a ferocious AMERICAN counter attack of last week. But Defence Minister Jim Mattis and other U.S. officials said they had no information about the victims, and the Kremlin does not confirm Russian dead. The officials of the V. S. also said that the Russian government had made no complaint about its citizens to be killed.
What is not in dispute is the fast-changing, often confusing nature of the battlefield on which the forces of multiple countries clash against each other, raising the prospect of violent clashes. Whether by accident or intention, such collisions risk plunging Washington and Moscow are in a situation in which they studiously avoided, even during the darkest hours of their relationship: their powers warring with each other.
Russian troops are supporting the Syrian government in the war with the opposition groups that are supported by the United States. Elements of both sides are fighting the last remnants of the Islamic State group in Syria. And the AMERICAN and Russian military officials maintain daily contact to avoid battlefield accidents.
It is beyond doubt the ferocious scale of the AMERICAN attack on Feb. 7, in response to what the Pentagon called a barrage of artillery and tank fire of several hundred “pro-regime” fighters in Deir el-Zour province, an area in the east of Syria, where the last fighters have converged under the oil fields. Lt.-Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of the AMERICAN forces in the Middle East, told reporters a wide range of the US air power is unleashed.
For more than three hours, the American F-15E attack planes, B-52 strategic bombers, AC-130 gunships, Apache attack helicopters and Reaper drones fired at the attacking ground force, which Harrigian said advancing under cover of the fire of artillery, mortars, missiles and tank rounds. The air strikes stopped the attackers’ advance and destroyed an undetermined number of guns and battle tanks, ” he said, but gave no estimate of the number of victims or the full picture of the attackers.
“If the hostile forces, turned west and retreated, and we kept the fire,” Harrigian, speaking from his headquarters in Qatar, said in a video teleconference with reporters at the Pentagon.
In a second episode, the US struck a Russian-made T-72 tank on Saturday after it “was a shot at us” in the vicinity of Deir el-Zour province, Harrigian said, adding that he did not know who was operating the tank.
Russian media said the Russian private contractors were part of the pro-Syrian government forces advanced on the oil fields in the Deir el-Zour province was attacked by the United States. The reports quoted activists who said that at least four Russian citizens were killed in Syria on Feb. 7.
The Russian Defense Ministry charged that the incident is the result of an AMERICAN pressure to intervene in Syria’s economic assets under the guise of the fight against the Islamic State group.
Without mention of the V. S. in the strike, the Russian Minister of Foreign affairs Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday that “the Americans have taken dangerous unilateral steps.”
“Looking for work, more and more as part of efforts to build a quasi-state on a large part of the Syrian territory of the eastern bank of the Euphrates River all the way to the border with Iraq,” he said.
The state news agency Tass on Tuesday quoted Natalya Krylova, a municipal legislature in the town of Asbestos in the Ural mountains, saying local residents Igor Kosoturov and Stanislav Matveyev were killed in Syria on Feb. 7. The news agency Interfax reported that a Cossack group in the most western Kalningrad region, thus a member with the name Vladimir Loginov was killed in combat in the Deir el-Zour province. He also quoted Alexander Averin, the leader of the extreme left-wing group, Other Russia, says that one of the activists, Kirill Ananyev, was killed by the U.S. strike in the near Khusham, where the U.S. said the attack occurred.
The Russian media also cited unconfirmed claims that the total casualties could be as high as 200 and the Russians could have accounted for the largest part of them. Those claims could not be verified.
Early in the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about the Russian dead, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said: “From an intelligence perspective, we have seen in several instances foreign forces with the help of mercenaries in the battle that will begin to see the approach of the United States.” He deferred the details of the incident to the Pentagon.
Mattis, speaking to reporters Tuesday while traveling in Europe, was adamant he knew of no Russian contractors killed in the fighting, which he attributed to a surprising attack in the light of the obvious U.S. advantages, including overwhelming air power.
“I have no reporting” about the Russians being among the victims, Mattis said. “I can’t give you everything. We have not received that word” in major U.S. military headquarters, including the Pentagon.
President Vladimir putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov would not comment on the reports, saying they needed to be verified.
He also said that Putin did not speak about anything related to Syria in a telephone conversation with President Donald Trump on Monday.
Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Josh Lederman in Washington and Lolita C. Baldor in Brussels contributed to this report.