New details have emerged regarding clashes between a U.S.-led coalition and an alliance of Syrian and Russian forces fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a new, dramatic report.
Citing interviews and documents obtained by the newspaper, The New York Times revealed how a four-hour firefight erupted February 7 in eastern Syria, leaving hundreds of pro-Syrian government fighters—including Russians—dead. Syria has blamed the U.S. for the bloodshed, which the U.S. argues was in self-defense. Russia has distanced itself from the incident, telling the Pentagon that the Russians involved were volunteer fighters, not part of Russia's armed forces.
When the dust finally settled, the article cited a Pentagon estimate of 200 to 300 "pro-regime" forces killed. Only one member of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and none of the roughly 40 U.S. Special Forces involved were injured.
The U.S. and Russia are both involved in operations against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in eastern Syria. The U.S. backs the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mostly Kurdish alliance that includes Arabs and ethnic minorities, while Russia supports the Syrian military and various pro-government groups, including Iran-backed militias. The two offensives have occasionally clashed but no instance was as serious as the one that occurred February 7.
The report claimed that, prior to the battle, U.S. officials observed a gathering of hundreds of troops along with armored vehicles on the western side of the Euphrates River that divides the two anti-ISIS campaigns. The U.S. military contacted Russian defense officials using a deconfliction line established to avoid incidents between the two powers, but Moscow maintained it had nothing to do with the pro-Syrian government formation.
By evening February 7, more than 500 fighters and 27 military vehicles were approaching the U.S.-held Conoco gas plant, according to the article. Green Berets and Marines in a nearby outpost about 20 miles away prepared to provide back-up should the pro-Syrian government forces launch an attack. The first shells reportedly flew around 10:30 p.m.
U.S. commandos ran for cover as mortars and artillery pounded their positions. The oncoming attack advanced as the U.S. troops attempted to repel it with anti-tank missiles and machine guns, according to the Times. Shortly after the incident, the U.S.-led coalition told Newsweek that U.S. air power intervened "after 20 to 30 artillery and tank rounds landed within 500 meters [about 547 yards] of the SDF headquarters location."
When attempts at reaching Russia proved fruitless, the U.S. summoned major back-up, including Reaper drones, F-22 stealth fighter jets, F-15E Strike Fighters, B-52 bombers, AC-130 gunships and AH-64 Apache helicopters. The back-up reaction team entered the fight as well once hostile artillery strikes had died down.
The pro-Syrian government forces were annihilated by U.S. airstrikes over the next three hours. The incident caused an uproar among Assad supporters, who accused the U.S. of instigating the attack. Russian Senator Frants Klintsevich said, "The actions of the U.S. coalition do not comply with legal norms. Beyond all doubt, it is an unprecedented act of aggression."
The Syrian Foreign Ministry was also extremely critical, calling the attack "a brutal massacre" and an "aggression" that "reveals again, beyond any doubt, the real function of this coalition and the role played by Washington in supporting ISIS" in a letter addressed to the United Nations.
The U.S. has stuck to the official story that the decision to use deadly force was taken in self-defense, as it was again days later when a pro-Syrian government T-72 tank was bombed by a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone, also called Predator B. Defense Secretary of Defense defended the U.S.'s actions and told Congress in March that a third incident was avoided after the U.S. contacted Russian forces via the deconfliction line.
President Donald Trump and his administration have also used the incident as evidence that he has adopted a hard-line stance against Moscow. During his nomination hearing last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said "the Russians met their match. A couple hundred Russians were killed." A week later, Trump himself referenced a "very severe" and "very sad" fight "between our troops and Russian troops" in which "many people died."
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