The Syrian conflict is slowly becoming a battleground for old Cold War foes.
Recently, reports have begun to emerge about an American attack on pro-regime forces in Syria that may have resulted in over 100 Russian deaths in the area of Deir al-Zor province.
The first news of the clash came earlier this week when Reuters reported that coalition and local coalition-backed forces repulsed a large overnight attack against a U.S. held base, manned by American and Kurdish personnel, on February 7. Russia’s Defence Ministry acknowledged the incident, stating that pro-government militias had been carrying out reconnaissance, and were subsequently targeted by rebel forces, but claimed no Russian servicemen had been in the area. However, journalists in contact with individuals on the ground reported that at least two Russian men fighting informally with pro-government forces were killed in the skirmish. These were followed later by reports procured by unnamed Russian and US officials that “scores” of contracted Russian fighters were killed. The claim that those killed at Deir al-Zor included Russian fighters was later given more support after several of the injured from the battle were given treatment at military hospitals in Russia. Several wounded were reportedly brought to government defense facilities in Moscow and St. Petersburg, despite denials by officials of any involvement in the battle.
On February 11, Russian forces reportedly clashed for a second time near Al Tabiyeh, marking the second defensive strike against pro-regime forces in less than a week. U.S. officials told media sources that during the clash, an American military drone destroyed a Russian-made T-72 tank, killing the occupants. According to U.S. military sources, the decision to deploy the drone against the tank was taken after it advanced to within firing range of U.S.-backed troops while under artillery cover.
Despite the clear indications that Russian and American troops are now openly fighting in Syria, officials from both countries are trying to play down the significance of these clashes. Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, top U.S. Air Force general in the Middle East, declined to comment when asked during a briefing with reporters about who was driving the destroyed tank. In a similar vein, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis responded to questions about Sunday’s clash saying: “This could just be a local couple of guys doing something. I don’t want to dignify it as a big attack.”
The Russian government has also refused to report on any Russian personnel casualties, leading to demands from public figures to disclose how many Russians had been killed in Syria, and under what circumstances. Grigory Yavlinsky, a veteran liberal politician who is running for president in elections next month, released a statement through his Yabloko party office stating: “If there was large-scale loss of life of Russian citizens, the relevant officials, including the commander-in-chief of our armed forces (Putin), are obliged to tell the country about it and decide who carries responsibility for this.”
The skirting of the issue by both governments is not surprising. While both may have opposing goals in the country and support different sides, the last thing either wants is open conflict with a great power with interests in the region. With any luck, the recent clashes will bring about a bit more coordination between the Russian Federation and the United States. Syria is already a regional battlefield for a slew of nations, from the Kurds, to Iran, to Israel. The last thing anyone needs is for the country to become a faceoff arena between two more superpowers.