(Wall Street Journal) — Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, who commands U.S. Air Forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan, including those involved in the strike, said at a news briefing on Tuesday that he didn’t want to speculate on the composition of the force, which U.S. officials have said was fighting in favor of the Syrian [government].
But the Pentagon believes Russian contractors were a small portion of the estimated 100 pro-[government] forces killed in the airstrike, a U.S. military official said. The U.S. launched the strike in response to what it called an unprovoked attack by pro-Syrian-[government] forces in a resource-rich portion of the country, near the eastern city of Deir Ezzour.
Russia has used private military contractors to buttress its conventional forces in Syria and reduce its official footprint as it props up the [Syrian governmet]. In Moscow, word of the airstrike fatalities trickled through social media in recent days. On Tuesday, Moscow’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper reported that 13 Russians were dead and 15 wounded.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the fatalities, saying he only had information about Russians serving officially in the armed forces and wouldn’t comment on contractors.
The region of the fighting is covered by a so-called deconfliction agreement that was agreed upon last year to avoid clashes as both sides battle Isis. The Syrian government and U.S.-backed forces have largely observed the pact.
But as the threat from Isis in Syria shrinks, the [Syrian government] has heightened its rhetoric against both the mostly Kurdish militia known as the SDF and the Kurdish semiautonomous region in northern Syria. [The Syrian governmet] sees both groups as a threat to Syria’s territorial integrity.
The Syrian government also would like to recapture oil and gas facilities lost in previous years to militants, and Syrian state media reported that last week’s battle took place near a gas-refinery field the SDF captured late last year.
A Russian official familiar with last week’s battle said members of a Russian private military company were in the Syrian militia unit that fought against U.S. soldiers.
“It’s hard to say how many there were,” the official said, noting that the number was likely higher than the handful reported over social media. “They were part of the column that was moving toward the Kurds. Shots were fired and the rest is history.”
A handful of Russian nationalist groups whose members have joined the ranks of foreign conflicts reported some of their members killed in the fighting last week.
Alexander Averin, a member of the Other Russia nationalist party, said a party member, Kirill Ananyev, had been killed on the banks of the Euphrates around the time of the U.S. strike.
(Photo: Two U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors fly above Syria in February. PHOTO: COLTON ELLIOTT/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK)