Kremlin Is Aloof as Wounded Return After Fighting US in Syria

Saul Bowman
February 14, 2018

Scores of Russian soldiers fighting as mercenaries in Syria were killed last week in an attack on a base held by U.S. and Kurdish forces in the country's Deir Ezzor region, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday.

Stepped-up attacks have led to "hundreds of civilian deaths and injuries, massive displacement and the destruction of civilian infrastructure, including medical facilities", the United Nations resident and humanitarian coordinator in Syria Ali al-Za'tari said on Monday according to Reuters. The attack last week, and the incursion on Saturday were said to be in violation of a de-confliction area around the Euphrates, with the coalition saying it had "been observing a slow build-up of personnel and equipment" over "a week".

The incident shines a light on a little-known weapon in the Kremlin's hybrid-war arsenal.

Most of those killed and injured were Russian and Ukrainian, many of them veterans of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, according to Alexander Ionov, who runs a Kremlin-funded group that fosters ties to separatists and who's personally fought alongside pro-government forces in Syria.

"Another Russian, Kirill Ananyev, was also killed in Syria on February 7, the nationalist Other Russia organization said on its VK social networking page", AFP reported. They have nothing to gain by fighting us.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday that Russia has told the USA there were no Russians in the area of the strike.

The US Defence Department said the air strikes, which included fighter and ground-attack aircraft and Marine artillery, were launched after as many as 500 attackers waged a coordinated assault on a base housing Syrian opposition forces, along with US military advisers in Deir ez-Zor. The fighters had no air cover or mobile air defense to protect them during the fighting, they said. Assad may have hired Wagner to recapture and guard Syrian energy assets in return for lucrative oil concessions, according to Russian media reports. The killed Russians took part in a mission conducted by a Russian private military company.

The river acts as a border between the coalition and Russian and Syrian forces, and the Pentagon also described the SDF location as well-known, and that therefore the attack wasn't a mistake.

Bloomberg reported Russia's military as saying that it had nothing to do with the attack.

"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", said Yury Barmin, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group set up by the Kremlin.

Russian military contractors were among those killed when a US -led coalition drone destroyed a Russian-designed tank in eastern Syria, Russian and USA officials said.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian says the drone saw the tank "that took a shot at us", and that he believes the United States rules of engagement allowed for the tank to be destroyed in self-defense to protect the drone.

Much about the fighting and the associated casualties has been obscured in the fog of war.

Russia, which along with Iran has supported the Assad regime, declined to comment on the casualties. The US-led coalition delivered an airstrike against these pro-government forces.

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