The United States sent its forces into Syria in 2014 to hasten the demise of ISIS. After the fall of the “caliphate” capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa three years later, the U.S. remained. It was determined to conduct operations that would bring the government forces of Bashar al-Asad to heel.
In 2018, U.S. forces and U.S.-backed militias from the Kurish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), controlled the Conoco gas field near the town of al-Tabiyeh in eastern Syria. The Americans and SDF were on the eastern side of the Euphrates River, while Syrian government troops and Russian mercenaries were on the other.
As far as the United States knew, there were no official Russian troops operating in this province. Then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made certain of that using official channels to the Russian government, in place to prevent a clash between American and Russian troops. The Russians operating with Bashar al-Asad’s troops were military contractors hired by the Wagner Group.
Pro-Assad forces controlled the nearby major city of Deir-ez-Zor, which allowed them a staging area for nearby attacks and to easily cross the river.
The pro-government forces had begun massing in Deir-ez-Zor for days prior and the American-led Coalition could see every move they made, even if they didn’t know who exactly was making those moves. For all the Coalition forces knew, they could have been ISIS. That’s when a large force departed the city, headed for the headquarters of the U.S.-SDF forces at Khasham.
On Feb. 7, 2018, 500 pro-government Syrian troops, including Iranian-trained Shia militiamen, along with Russian military contractors began their attack on the SDF headquarters. The assault began with mortars and rockets, supported by Soviet-built T-72 and T-55 tanks. Unfortunately for the Syrians, the SDF base just happened to be filled with 40 American special operations forces. After calling to ensure no official Russian forces would be harmed in the making of their counterattack, the operators called down the thunder.
American Special Forces called in AC-130 “Spooky” Gunships, F-15E Strike Eagles, Reaper drones, Apache helicopters, F-22 Raptors and even B-52 Stratofortress bombers. If that wasn’t enough to kill everything coming at them, nearby Marine Corps artillery batteries got in on the action. The attack was turned away, decisively. The only questions that remained were how many were killed in the “fighting” and how was the Syrian government going to cover up this epic mistake?
Coalition forces took one casualty, an SDF fighter who was wounded. The United States estimated the Syrians lost 100 killed. The Syrian government says 55 were killed in the fighting with a further loss of 10 Russian mercenaries. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 68 Syrians dead. Russian media lamented the idea that Russian remains were “abandoned” on the battlefield.
The Russian firm that hired the contractors had a more colorful response.
“Write it on your forehead: 14 volunteers were killed in Syria. I’m fed up with you chewing snot and telling fairy tales in your petty articles. As for your speculations there, what you write about those f****** investigations – no one has abandoned anyone.”