More than 200 private Russian military contractors were killed by US forces in Syria last week, in what could amount to the deadliest clash between citizens of the two countries since the Cold War.
The mercenaries, mostly Russians fighting on behalf of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, lost their lives in a failed attack on a base held by US and US-backed forces in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region.
What began as a peaceful uprising seven years ago has morphed into a violent proxy war involving Islamic extremists, stateless Kurds and regional powers Iran, Turkey and now Israel.
Russia’s military said it had nothing to do with the attack and the US military accepted that claim. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the whole thing “perplexing,” but provided no further details, according to Bloomberg.
“Coalition officials were in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the thwarted, unprovoked attack,” US 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.”
The offensive began late on February 7 when the enemy fired rounds and moved toward the base in a “battalion-sized dismounted formation supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars,” Col. 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.”
The death toll from the incident, already about five times more than the official losses suffered by Russia’s military since it entered the war in 2015, is still rising, according to one mercenary commander.
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 fought alongside pro-Assad forces in Syria.
Grigory Yavlinsky, a longtime Russian opposition politician who helped steer democratic reforms after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, called on the authorities to come clean about what happened.
“If there has been mass deaths of Russian citizens in Syria, then the relevant authorities, including the general staff of the Russian armed forces, have a duty to inform the country about this and decide who bears responsibility,” Yavlinsky said on Twitter.
Violence in Syria intensified last week, with the United Nations saying on Monday that the suffering of civilians has worsened since it called for a ceasefire in a humanitarian initiative that was rapidly derailed by an even more intense bombardment.