As if the complex relationship between the United States and Russia could not become any more complicated, Bloomberg reports US forces have killed over 200 contract Russian fighters during a massive assault in Syria last week, although (as indicated below, via the New York Times), the true number might reside in the dozens, not the hundreds.
But reports from Russian security groups suggest that many of those hit were Russian mercenaries serving on the side of the Syrian president.
On Thursday, February 8, US Central Command announced that the coalition conducted what it described as "defensive airstrikes" against pro-government forces near the Euphrates River as a response to an alleged attack against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) headquarters.
Pro-regime forces began advancing toward the USA -backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and their US advisers near Al Tabiyeh, Syria, on Saturday, firing mortars and small-arms as they moved. The formation that tried to advance was no smaller than a battalion supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars, according to chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana W. White.
Much about the fighting and the associated casualties has been obscured in the fog of war.
A Russian soldier manning a AGS-30 and a "Pecheneg" machine gun on a GAZ Tigr in Syria.
The New York Times said that Russian and Syrian officials had estimated that dozens of Russians had been killed.
Based exclusively on videos provided by non-governmental organizations and accusations, officials like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have blamed the attacks entirely on Russian Federation and Syria, despite admitting that he isn't sure "who conducted the attacks".
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The report of Russian mercenaries being killed by US-backed forces is just the latest scuffle in Syria between various countries and regional actors. As Bloomberg's story points out, "The Russian assault may have been a rogue operation". Stratfor, an American geopolitical intelligence firm, that Wagner mercenaries had served in Ukraine, Syria, and parts of Africa.
The independent Russian media outlet Fontanka an investigation from 2016 that claimed that as many as 2,500 men from Wagner were operating in Syria.
The associates named the dead as Vladimir Loginov, a Cossack from Russia's western Kaliningrad region, and Kirill Ananyev, a radical nationalist from Moscow.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials on Tuesday said that a U.S. military drone destroyed a Russian-made tank in Syria over the weekend, Reuters said. "It is possible to dispose of a considerable number of bodies without anyone noticing".
"I'm not willing to say that", Mattis said. "There has never been such cynicism in our country".
Last month, Russian Federation signed an energy agreement with Syria pledging to rebuild the country's electricity infrastructure.
The tactic is not unheard of. However, he casts doubts on the reports, noting that the whole column, which was alleged bombed out in the United States attack, counted "a bit more than 500 people". The US continues to rely on PMCs in active warzones around the world.
Still, the combat proximity of American and Russian troops - and increasingly American and Turkish troops - is troubling, and provides further evidence of the danger of ongoing US military activity in the region.