Pentagon, Kremlin tight-lipped over deadly Syrian assault

Pentagon, Kremlin tight-lipped over deadly Syrian assault

"The Kremlin - seeking to play down its involvement in the fighting in Syria and seemingly hoping to avoid escalating tensions with the United States - has sidestepped questions about the episode", the New York Times wrote of Sunday's drone strike on a Russian-made tank.

The attack on the base in an oil refinery may have been a rogue operation by the Russian forces, highlighting the complex civil war in Syria that has involved a hodgepodge of fighters from the US, Russia, stateless Kurds, the Islamic State and local powers Iran, Turkey and Israel, the report said.

The Pentagon said coalition advisers had been with SDF forces when the base was assaulted and said its actions against the attackers were in "self-defense".

"We have details of servicemen of the Russian armed forces, who are taking part in the Russian military operation in support of the Syrian army", Dmitry Peskov said.

Speaking to the 15-member body Wednesday in New York, Staffan de Mistura said: "Civilians have been killed on a horrific scale: Reports suggest more than 1,000 civilians in the first week of February alone".

Now, it turns out that Russian citizens were part of the attacking force, and a significant number became casualties of the USA counter-attack.

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"It was self-defense. Obviously, we are not getting engaged in the Syrian civil war", Secretary of Defense James Mattis said of the USA strikes over the weekend.

In December a Russian business and political delegation visited Damascus to discuss investment and reconstruction with Assad, including oil and gas projects but also electricity, phosphates, transport and trade.

However, there seems to be little doubt that a significant number of Russians died in the U.S. counter-strike, given the multiplicity of accounts, including on social media.

The drone strike marks the second time in a week that U.S. forces have carried out "defensive" airstrikes against government forces in Syria, leading some to speculate about the likelihood of a major military confrontation between the United States and Syrian forces and their allies. Twitter is starting to report the names of the Russians killed in the attack, and the twittering is in the Russian language which means everyone in Russia knows.

The sources, identified as one USA official and three Russians, said the Russians died in a failed attack on a base held by the United States.

The most obvious and probably the real one is that the Russians saw a cheap chance to chase the United States out of Syria by trapping a couple of thousand US Special Forces troops.

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The incident came three days after the US-led coalition killed more than 100 forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after shelling and using tanks to fire at the SDF and coalition advisors.

Vitaly Naumkin, a leading expert on the Middle East who has collaborated closely with Russia's Foreign Ministry on Syria, was somewhat more frank.

A US strike in Syria earlier this month may have killed five Russians, the country's foreign ministry said Thursday - marking the first time Russians have died at USA hands in the Middle Eastern conflict.

He especially urged the three countries that have brokered localized cease-fires - Russian Federation and Iran, which back the government, and Turkey, which supports the opposition - "to use their influence to help reduce violence".

De Mistura spoke at a Security Council meeting and was followed by US Ambassador Nikki Haley and Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, who traded accusations about responsibility for the violence and for blocking the path to peace. "I think that's still the case but we don't have full clarity on what the regime forces are doing there", Mattis said.

Prior to the strike, USA commanders reached out to their Russian counterparts via a standing "deconfliction" agreement, to ensure both sides were on the same page before American warplanes struck, Gen. Harrigan said.

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