The outgoing director of the CIA appeared to confirm reports that around 200 Russian mercenaries were killed in February during a clash with U.S. Coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces near Deir Ezzor in Syria.
“In Syria, a handful of weeks ago, the Russians met their match and a couple hundred Russians were killed,” Mike Pompeo said during a Thursday, April 12 Senate hearing on his nomination to become U.S. secretary of state.
Russians killed in attack on the Syrian Democratic Forces
The Defense Post reported on February 10 that over 200 Russian citizens may have been killed by the Coalition and SDF near Deir Ezzor on February 8. A Coalition spokesperson told The Defense Post at the time that it had responded to an unprovoked attack on a well-established SDF headquarters by forces aligned with the Syrian regime.
The SDF and Coalition responded “with a combination of air and artillery strikes” after 20-30 artillery and tank rounds landed within 500 meters of the SDF headquarters, CJTF-OIR Public Affairs Officer Colonel Thomas F. Veale said.
They “were likely seeking to seize oilfields in Khusham that had been a major source of revenue for Daesh from 2014 to 2017,” Veale said.
A February 10 post on Russian social networking service VKontakte says 253 Russians were sent into a fight near Deir Ezzor, and 196 of them died in the attack. The force consisted of Russian Special Operations Forces alongside Russians employed by private military contractor PMC Wagner, equipped with artillery and tanks.
The Coalition and SDF attack lasted for four hours. The engagement began with artillery strikes, followed by Lockheed AC-130 Spectre and helicopter attacks.
“The wounded are already in Russia, most of them in serious condition. The injuries are terrible. Many have horribly mutilated faces and head injuries. Almost all have either lost their limbs or have them terribly wounded. We are not going to guess how many of them will stay alive, hoping for the best,” the post reads, noting that it is impossible to identify those who have been killed.
Moscow acknowledged at the time that five of its citizens were killed. Washington said the coalition had killed at least 100 “pro-regime” forces and a group of Russian investigative bloggers established the identity of dozens of named Russian fatalities.
“We have intelligence information that we cannot disclose, but we leave it to the Russians to speak to what they knew,” a Defense Department official told The Defense Post.
Audio recordings of phone calls made by unidentified men circulated on WhatsApp, purporting to describe the circumstances of the attack.
“Look, 177 killed – that is just the Fifth Company. The Second remained basically intact. The Fifth one was all destroyed,” one man is heard to say in an audio recording. “The guys had no chances.”
He blamed the attack on “the Kurds and the Americans.”
Multiple reports have suggested Wagner operates a shadowy private army in Syria with the tacit assent of the Kremlin, which has also deployed Russian regulars to back Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
PMC Wagner, as it is known, was started by a former lieutenant colonel of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU). Analysts Kiril Avramov and Ruslan Trad have reported that Wagner makes heavy use of mercenaries and likely has about 2,500 employees distributed in different operational units that provide security for key Syrian infrastructure and energy sites.
With reporting from AFP