This certainly seemed like big news at the time. Three weeks ago, Western news agencies reported that American forces had killed a large number of Russian troops in Syria, with estimates ranging “dozens” (Reuters and the NYT) to 200 or more (Bloomberg). The Putin regime emphasized that they had no uniformed troops in the area but that the Assad regime had a significant number of Russian contractors in the area. The news created tensions in Russia, with critics accusing Vladimir Putin of covering up losses.
But just how large were those losses? According to Der Spiegel’s Christoph Reuter, the actual number may be nine. And those may have been merely collateral damage:
It all happened at night, and the situation became extremely complicated when the fighters from Tabiya entered the fray. A staffer at the only major hospital in Deir ez-Zor would later say that around a dozen Russian bodies were delivered. An employee at the airport, meanwhile, later witnessed the delivery of the bodies in two Toyota pickup trucks to a waiting Russian transport aircraft that then flew to Qamishli, an airport near the Syrian border in the north.
In the days that followed, the identities of the Russians killed would be revealed — first of six and ultimately nine. Eight had been verified by the Conflict Intelligence Team, a Russian investigative platform, and another was released by the radio station Echo Moscow. All were employees of the private mercenary company Evro Polis, which is often referred to by the nom du guerre of its head: “Wagner.”
At the same time, however, a completely different version of events has gained traction — disseminated at first by Russian nationalists like Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, and then by others associated with the Wagner unit. According to those accounts, many more Russians had been killed in the battle — 100, 200, 300 or as many as 600. An entire unit, it was said, had been wiped out and the Kremlin wanted to cover it up. Recordings of alleged fighters even popped up apparently confirming these horrendous losses.
It was a version that sounded so plausible that even Western news agencies like Reuters and Bloomberg picked it up. The fact that the government in Moscow at first didn’t want to confirm any deaths and then spoke of five “Russian citizens” killed and later, nebulously, of “dozens of injured,” some of whom had died, only seemed to make the version of events seem more credible. It has generally been the case, after all, that when something in the Syrian war is denied by the Kremlin, or when the Russians admit to it bit by bit, then it is probably accurate. Besides, Russian losses in Syria are constantly played down.
According to Reuter, the conflict may have happened precisely because the Russians weren’t involved. At the time, US officials seem puzzled about how that many Russians could have gotten killed on the American side of the Euphrates in that area, which had been established as a deconfliction line between the US and Russia. Defense Secretary James Mattis chalked it up to a lack of Russian control over Russian contractors:
U.S. military officials said the coalition was in contact with Russia before, during and after Wednesday’s attack and had alerted Russia to the presence of SDF forces in that area…
He called the attack a “perplexing situation,” adding that he could not give “any explanation for why” the pro-government forces would attack a well-established SDF headquarters…
When pressed on why the U.S. considered the communication a success when it did not prevent the pro-government force attack, Mattis told reporters on Thursday, “You can’t ask Russia to deconflict something they don’t control.”
“The fact that somebody chose to attack us, and the Russians are saying, ‘’It’s not us,’ and we are firing on them to stop the artillery fire, that, to me, is not a failure of the deconfliction line,” Mattis explained.
However, Reuter explains that the forces that attempted three attacks across the Euphrates were comprised of Syrian tribal forces and Iranian-controlled militia forces, not Russian contractors. Their first attempt barely got started before American forces started firing warning shots across the river, causing them to withdraw. That produced no casualties, but a later crossing succeeded farther north. As those forces approached the SDF base in the US zone on the eastern side of the Euphrates, American special forces opened fire in earnest, including artillery and tank fire. When a third penetration came from the village of Tabiya to the south, Reuter reports, US forces “struck back with their entire destructive arsenal,” resulting in most of the casualties. Hostilities continued for another day or so until the tribal and Iranian-backed forces stopped trying to come across the river.
Reuter’s account is corroborated by other reporting, which indicates that the nine dead Russians just had the unfortunate luck of getting stuck in the firing zone:
Ahmad Ramadan, the journalist who founded the Euphrates Post and has since emigrated to Turkey, comes from Tabiya. One of his contacts fights for the al-Baqir militia and took the video at the site of the bombings. “If it had been a Russian attack, with many Russian dead, we would have reported about it,” he said. “But it wasn’t. The Russians in Tabiya just had the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
It’s possible that this could be propaganda too, purposed to alleviate criticism of Vladimir Putin, but it seems less likely than the other way around. US-Russian deconfliction efforts have generally allowed both sides to avoid these kinds of mistakes, and the Russians would have known better than to fight straight up against the entrenched American and SDF forces. Neither side has anything to gain from a shooting war with each other anyway. However, it would certainly be in the interest of Iran to attack American forces and potentially drive a bigger wedge between the US and Russia, and the same goes for Bashar al-Assad, both of whom want to drive the US out of Syria and the region.
Some have wondered why there hasn’t been more focus on this incident, but Der Spiegel’s report appears to show the reason. Perhaps the actual number of Russians killed in this action will eventually be higher than nine, but it seems unlikely that it’d be 200 or more. The total Reuter gives for KIA in the action is around 250, split relatively evenly between Syrian army soldiers, Iraqis, Afghans, and Iranian-backed militia fighters. The Russians transported their dead back home and have not had much comment since, presumably because there wasn’t much to say.