American media are reporting that hundreds of fighters, including Russian mercenaries, were killed in a failed attack on a base held by U.S. and mainly Kurdish forces in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region.
Russian sources told American media that the fighters were mercenaries fighting on behalf of Syria and were not part of the Russian military. However, if true, the 200-plus deaths would be the deadliest clash between the former foes since the Cold War.
U.S. military officials put the official death toll at around 100, with 200-300 wounded.
American media reported further:
The Russian assault may have been a rogue operation, underscoring the complexity of a conflict that started as a domestic crackdown only to morph into a 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 U.S. accepted the claim. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the whole thing “perplexing,” but provided no further details.
The Russian government has not officially acknowledged the deaths, saying it only tracks those belonging to its regular armed forces.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked by phone on Monday — confirmed in Russian media — but reportedly did not discuss the attack or the Russian mercenary deaths.
“This is a big scandal and a reason for an acute international crisis,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat and lawmaker who’s now an independent political analyst. “But Russia will pretend nothing happened.”
The offensive last week began when a battalion-sized element backed by artillery, tanks, mortars and multiple rocket-launch systems.
U.S. military officials said they were in constant contact with “Russian counterparts before, during and after the thwarted, unprovoked attack.” Officials added that “enemy vehicles and personnel who turned around and headed back west were not targeted.” [source]
Why it matters: At present, it isn’t clear who was paying the Russian mercs, though American media suggested it could be Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. One merc commander told American media that scores of his men are still recovering and being treated in hospitals in Moscow and St. Petersberg.
It wouldn’t be beyond the pale for Moscow to have hired these mercs as a sort of ‘proxy’ army to accomplish Putin’s goals while giving him plausible deniability. This is in line with previous Strategic Intelligence Summary reporting that some analysts believe Russia may “accidentally on purpose” strike U.S. troops in Syria if Putin believes he can get away with it as part of a larger strategy of getting Trump to withdraw American troops.