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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, February 14, 2018 1:00 am

Russian death reports in Syria troubling

Associated Press

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 soldiers or mercenaries 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. But Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other U.S. officials said they had no such information on casualties, and the Kremlin did not confirm any Russian deaths. U.S. officials also said the Russian government had lodged no complaint.

What is not disputed is the fast-changing, often confusing nature of a battlefield in which multiple countries bump up against one another, raising the prospect of violent collisions. Such clashes risk plunging Washington and Moscow into a situation they avoided even during the darkest hours of their relationship: their forces directly warring with each other.

Russian forces are supporting the Syrian government in its war with opposition groups, some of which are backed by the United States. Elements of both sides are fighting the last remnants of the Islamic State group in Syria. And U.S. and Russian military officials maintain daily contact to avoid battlefield mishaps.

Beyond doubt is the ferocious scale of the U.S. attack on Feb. 7, in response to what the Pentagon 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 the last IS fighters have converged. 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.

American F-15E attack planes, B-52 strategic bombers, AC-130 gunships, Apache attack helicopters and Reaper drones fired on the attacking ground force, which Harrigian said was advancing under covering fire from artillery, mortars, rockets and tank rounds. The air power stopped the attackers' advance and destroyed an unspecified number of artillery guns and battle tanks, he said, but gave no casualty estimate.

In a second episode, the U.S. struck a Russian-made T-72 tank Saturday after it “took a shot at us” in the same area of Deir el-Zour province, Harrigian said.

Russian media said Russian private contractors were part of pro-Syrian government forces that advanced on oil fields in the Deir el-Zour province and were targeted by the United States.

The Russian Defense Ministry charged that the incident reflected a U.S. push to grab Syria's economic assets under the cover of fighting the Islamic State group.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday that “Americans have taken dangerous unilateral steps.”

Russian media cited unconfirmed claims that overall casualties could have been as high as 200 and Russians could have accounted for the bulk of them. Those claims couldn't be verified.