Private Russian contractors killed in American airstrike in Syria
First publicly known case of such an attack
MOSCOW — An unknown number of private Russian military contractors were killed by a U.S. strike in Syria, Russian media reported Tuesday in a development that could further inflame Russia-U.S. tensions.
The incident that spotlighted the risk of a dangerous escalation appears to be the first publicly known case of the U.S. military firing on and killing Russians fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Officials in both Moscow and Washington remained coy about the deaths, which would be an embarrassment for both countries if it turns out that Russian fighters were part of a unit that attacked a military force with American troops.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, refrained from commenting on reports about the incident last week, saying they need to be verified.
U.S. officials also said the Russian government had lodged no complaint about its citizens being killed.
Asked during a conference call with reporters if Mr. Putin raised the episode during a phone conversation Monday with President Donald Trump, Mr. Peskov said the situation in Syria wasn’t discussed during the call.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis
said Tuesday that Russia has told the U.S. there were no Russians in the area of the strike. Mr. Mattis said he saw the news reports about Russian contractors possibly being casualties of the bombing.
He called the whole thing “perplexing.”
“I don’t have any reporting that some non-Russian Federation soldiers, but Russian contractors were among the casualties,” Mr. Mattis told reporters traveling with him in Europe. “I can’t give you anything on that. We have not received that word at Central Command or the Pentagon.”
Russian media said the Russian private contractors were part of pro-government forces that advanced on oil fields in the eastern Deir el-Zour province and were targeted by the United States. The reports cited activists who confirmed that at least four Russian citizens were killed in Syria last Wednesday — and perhaps dozens more, according to one U.S. official and three Russians familiar with the matter.
It’s not clear who was paying the Russian contingent, whether it was Russia directly, Syria, Iran or a third party.
“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,” Vitaly Naumkin, a senior adviser to Russia’s government on Syria, said in an interview.
During the war in Syria, Russia and the United States have maintained a communications channel to avoid collisions between their warplanes and soldiers in the chaotic battlefield. If Russian deaths from the U.S. strike are confirmed, it would mean the two countries were on the verge of a direct military confrontation in Syria.
Wednesday’s assault may havebeen 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, Turkeyand now Israel.
The episode could further strain ties between the two countries, which have plummeted to the lowest levels since the Cold War over the Ukrainian conflict, the war in Syria and the alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The U.S. military said last week it unleashed air and artillery barrage on Syrian government-backed troops after some 300 attackers launched what appeared to be a coordinated assault on Syrian opposition forces accompanied by U.S. advisers in the province of Deir el-Zour. It said it was in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the attack, and Russian officials assured coalition officials they would not strike coalition forces.
It said the U.S. strikes, which reportedly killed about 100 of the attackers, were in self-defense.
A Syrian military officer said that dozens of its soldiers had been killed in the fighting last Wednesday and Thursday, but news about Russian casualties has dribbled out only slowly, through Russian news organizations and social media.
The Russian Defense Ministry has insisted that its troops weren’t involved in the incident, saying 25 Syrian volunteers were wounded in the U.S. strike.
It also noted pro-government forces that advanced toward the area under control of the U.S.-supported forces had failed to coordinate their action with the Russian military in Syria.
And a U.S. military spokesman said that at no point was there any chance of direct conflict between U.S. and Russian forces.
Mr. Mattis last week dismissed any suggestion that Russia had any control over the attacking force, whose nationalities, motives and makeup he could not identify.