WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said Thursday that it believes no Russian mercenaries were involved in a Feb. 7 attack against U.S. and coalition forces in eastern Syria that left more than 100 attackers dead.
“We were assured by the Russians that there were no Russians involved,” Pentagon spokesperson Dana White told reporters.
However, White said that “we still do not know the [final details] of the composition of that group” and that she “won’t speculate on the full composition” of those who attacked.
She did not answer questions about how and if the Pentagon is seeking clarity on that composition.
Published reports have outlined between 50 and 200 Russian mercenaries being killed in the attack. If confirmed, that would be the sharpest exchange between U.S. and Russian fighters since the end of the Cold War.
According to the Russian newspaper Vedomosti, 50 mercenaries were killed and around 70 injured during the battle. The Russian Foreign Office initially confirmed there had been five deaths. Later, a statement said “several dozen” from Russia and CIS states — a group of former Soviet states — had been wounded and killed.
According to published interviews with family members, the mercenaries all were in Syria on contract with a Russia-based private military company called the Wagner Group.
Most military analysts estimate there are 2,000 mercenaries in Syria working for Wagner.
One of Wagner’s sponsors is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin-connected entrepreneur. Known as “Putin’s chef,” Prigozhin owns a St. Petersburg internet troll factory called the Internet Research Agency; they were indicted Friday by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III and charged with illegally using social media platforms to sow political discord in the U.S.
The Feb. 7 battle occurred in Deir el-Zour Province, with the Syrian forces penetrating 10 miles over the Euphrates River with an apparent target of the oilfields in Khusham. The attack was carried out by between 300 and 500 troops backed by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars. No Americans were killed or wounded, the Pentagon said then.
The Euphrates River is the “deconfliction line” between Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the east side, who are supported by the U.S. and others, and Syrian regime forces on the west, backed by Russia and Iran.
White repeated earlier Pentagon statements that the U.S. and coalition forces acted in self-defense, which is what Defense Secretary James Mattis also said.
White also repeated that U.S. military personnel were on the “deconfliction phone” with their Russian counterparts as the attack got underway as well as during the counter-attack. The phone is a hotline between U.S. and Russian officers used to avoid accidental confrontations.
Right after the attack, Mattis said he did not know if any Russians were wounded or killed in the action. “Russia is telling us they did not have forces there.”