“There have been various engagements, some involving exchange of fire, some not.”
The U.S. special representative for Syria engagement, Ambassador James Jeffrey, confirmed that American troops have engaged in several clashes with Russian fighters in Syria and some cases included an exchange of gunfire. The U.S. official revealed the information during an interview with Russian journalists last week, the transcript of which was posted on the U.S. embassy in Russia’s website.
The journalists had asked Jeffrey to confirm there was a firefight between U.S. and partner troops stationed in Syria and Russian mercenaries and pro-Assad forces in the region last February. The reporter also wanted to know the number of casualties on both sides.
“Can I ask you for some details on that firefight? Did it actually happen and how many casualties were recorded?” a Russian journalist asked Jeffrey.
“There have been various engagements, some involving exchange of fire, some not,” Jeffrey said. “Again, we are continuing our mission there and we are continuing to exercise our right of self-defense.”
The reporter pressed for more information but Jeffrey cited the need for confidentiality.
“We don’t comment on specific military actions of that nature. U.S. forces are legitimately in Syria, supporting local forces in the fight against Daesh,” Jeffrey said. “As appropriate — and this has occurred about a dozen times in one or another place in Syria — they exercise the right of self-defense when they feel threatened. That’s all we say on that.”
The incident in February was in the Deir es-Zor province of eastern Syria. The U.S. stated they believed Russian mercenaries and Syrian fighters attempted to seize terrain already captured by U.S. allies to gain access to oil fields that had provided funding for Islamic State rebels from 2014 to 2017. The U.S. troops called for close-air support to prevent the outpost from falling into enemy hands, and up to 200 attackers reportedly lost their lives.
No casualties were recorded on the American side, but one ally fighter sustained a significant injury.
The Military Times reported that the Russian mercenaries involved in the February clash were private forces hired by Wagner Group, a private military company in Russia. However, the mercenaries forces have been accused of being used by the Kremlin as an expendable paramilitary unit. The mercenaries have reportedly fought in the Syrian Civil War and the Donbass war in Ukraine.
Also according to the Military Times, before the February airstrike, U.S. local commanders warned Russian commanders of the military presence in Deir es-Zor way “well in advance of the attack” and Russia responded they would not engage in that area.
American commanders called in the airstrikes when the Russian mercenaries and their pro-regime fighters deployed T-55 and T-72 battle tanks and multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars.