WASHINGTON – It’s a scenario many feared in the fog of Syria’s multifront war: a confrontation in which U.S. forces, responding to a provocation, kill Russian mercenaries or contractors on a crowded battlefield.
Russian news reports Tuesday described just such a scenario, with an unknown number of Russian military contractors killed in a ferocious U.S. counterattack last week, although Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other U.S. officials said they had no such information on casualties and the Kremlin did not confirm it. U.S. officials also said the Russian government had lodged no complaint about Russian nationals having been killed.
What is not disputed is the fast-changing, often confusing nature of a battlefield in which forces of multiple countries are bumping up against one another, raising the prospect of violent collisions, whether intended or not, that could further inflame tensions between Moscow and Washington. Russian forces are supporting the Syrian government in its war with opposition groups while staying in daily contact with the U.S. to avoid deadly battlefield collisions. Separately, the U.S. is supporting a group of Syrian Kurds and Arabs, dubbed the Syrian Democratic Forces, fighting the Islamic State.
Also beyond doubt is the ferocious scale of the U.S. attack on Feb. 7, in response to what the U.S. military called a barrage of artillery and tank fire from several hundred “pro-regime” fighters in Deir el-Zour province, an area in eastern Syria where remnants of the Islamic State have converged among oil fields. Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of U.S. air forces in the Middle East, told reporters a broad range of U.S. air power was unleashed.