As if the complex relationship between the United States and Russia could not become any more complicated, Bloomberg reports U.S. 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. One U.S. official and three Russian officials familiar with the incident all corroborated it with Bloomberg, telling the outlet of the Syrian forces’ failed attack against a U.S.-held military base and refinery. This may be the deadliest encounter between American and Russian citizens since the Cold War.
More than 200 mercenaries, mostly Russians fighting on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, died in a failed attack on a base and refinery held by U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region, two of the Russians said. The U.S. official put the death toll at about 100, with 200 to 300 injured.
The Russian military subsequently disavowed the operation and the citizens who participated it. The U.S. military accepted the claim, while Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the whole affair “perplexing.” In a statement, military spokesperson U.S. Colonel Thomas F. Veale said, “Coalition officials were in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the thwarted, unprovoked attack.” He added, “Russian officials assured coalition officials they would not engage coalition forces in the vicinity.”
UPDATE #1 – 11:38 am ET: While Bloomberg’s original report put last week’s death toll at over 200, the New York Times and other American news outlets are reporting far more conservative numbers. The Times specifically confirms that four Russian nationals were among the pro-Syrian government forces killed by the U.S.-led coalition of rebel fighters. “[P]erhaps dozens more” were among the dead, they admit, but the Times seems to be steering closer to Russian news outlets’ even more conservative estimations.