This is big.
Scores of Russian soldiers fighting as mercenaries in Syria were killed last week in an attack on a base held by US and Kurdish forces in the country’s Deir Ezzor region, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday.
— Ruth Pollard (@rpollard) February 13, 2018
The Russian contract soldiers were fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Two Russians familiar with the matter said more than 200 pro-government soldiers were killed in the conflict. U.S. officials reported the death toll was about 100, with 200 or 300 injured.
JUST IN: US jet destroys Russian T-72 battle tank in E Syria in 'self-defense' Saturday after 'pro-regime forces' fired on US special ops and allied Syrian fighters near same location of last week's attack, officials say. No US or allied casualties. 3 inside tank killed.
— Lucas Tomlinson (@LucasFoxNews) February 13, 2018
If the numbers are accurate, the strike marks the deadliest exchange between Americans and Russians since the Cold War.
Russia, which along with Iran has supported the Assad regime, declined to comment on the casualties. According to Bloomberg, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with President Trump by phone on Monday, but the incident was not discussed.
The offensive began late Feb. 7, when pro-Assad forces opened fire on the US installation and advanced in a “battalion-sized formation supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars,” US military spokesman Colonel Thomas F. Veale said.
It remains unknown who was paying the Russian fighters, whether it was Russia itself, Syria, or Iran. Russian media reports suggest that Wagner, a private Russian military contractor, sent the soldiers to guard energy assets on behalf of Assad.
Vitaly Naumkin, a Russian government adviser on Syria, said: “No one wants to start a world war over a volunteer or a mercenary who wasn’t sent by the state and was hit by Americans.”
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis called the attack “perplexing.”
“It’s perplexing why [Russia] would do it. They have nothing to gain by fighting us. There’s ISIS to be fought. It doesn’t make sense, and I think that’s probably why the Russians, too, at least appear to be perplexed by it.”
Mattis would not confirm whether Russia did, or did not control the group of mercenaries.
“I’m not willing to say that,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s the same influence. And this is a group that’s off on its own agenda. I’m not willing to say that the Russians have lost influence or gained influence.”
Last month, Russia signed an energy agreement with Syria pledging to rebuild the country’s electricity infrastructure.
As the Islamic State’s dominance in the region has been decimated, state actors have entered the fill the power vacuum.
On Saturday, Israeli fighters bombed Syrian and Iranian military forces after an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace. One of the F-16 jets sent after the drone was shot down over Israeli territory by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile.
On Twitter, Russian opposition politician Grigory Yavlinsky called on his country’s government to reveal the truth about last week’s shocking attack.
“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,” he said.