On February 12 Reuters confirmed that Russian volunteers in the Syrian conflict had been killed in February 7 clashes with the coalition and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. We know the US-led coalition said it was in touch with Russia before, during and after the incident.
“Pro-government militias involved in the incident had been carrying out reconnaissance and no Russian servicemen had been in the area…But at least two Russian men fighting informally with pro-government forces were killed in the incident in Deir al-Zor province, their associates told Reuters on Monday.” Reuters says Vladimir Loginov, “a Cossack from Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave” and Kirill Ananiev were among those killed.
AFP also reported the story and notes “many Russian citizens are fighting in Syria as mercenaries working for a private military company called Wagner, according to numerous reports.” It also says “Conflict Intelligence Team, which monitors social networks for information about Russians in Syria, said at least three other Russians also died in Deir al-Zor on Feb. 7.” Other reports over the last few days have indicated the same. Maxim Buga, of the Cossack community said “dozens” had been killed, according to Reuters.
Wild rumours flying around currently of 600 dead Russian soldiers and contractors in last week's US airstrikes in Syria. Other reports mention 200+ Wagner wounded flown to Saint Petersburg. Suggests the true number of RU casualties will be larger than ~25 when dust settles. https://t.co/w0kCytO1hf
— Neil Hauer (@NeilPHauer) February 12, 2018
Other media have spread rumors about huge death tolls online, claiming dozens or hundreds were killed. The Moscow Times also reported it. A Facebook post gave a list of names.
Then on February 13 Bloomberg claimed that the number could be up to 200 Russians. “More than 200 contract soldiers, mostly Russians fighting on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, died in a failed attack on a base held by U.S. and mainly Kurdish forces in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region, two of the Russians said. The U.S. official put the death toll at about 100, with 200 to 300 injured.” Relying on this report The Daily Beast claimed “US forces killed more than 200 Russian fighters.” With utmost sensationalism, it wrote “Bloomberg News reported more than 200 contract killers — mostly Russian citizens fighting for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — died in what is believed to be the deadliest incident between Russian and U.S. citizens since the Cold War.” Actually Bloomberg hadn’t said that exactly. In this rendition “The reported death toll would be far greater than all of the Russian casualties the Kremlin has acknowledged during its Syrian incursion.” Relying on Bloomberg they also said the Russians had been involved in the attack on the refinery. Bloomberg thought this might have been a “rogue” operation.
The problem with these accounts is not only that they rely on anonymous sources, but that they tend to create a feedback loop. The rumors of several killed led to contacts with local Russian communities who intimated that they had heard “dozens” were killed. These were then “confirmed” by examining Facebook posts. But these posts don’t necessarily indicate so many killed. They indicate casualties, which included injured. Nevertheless, relying on several accounts the media then tended to “confirm” them by relying on the coalition estimate of “100 killed.” But that was an estimate as well. And the coalition didn’t say it was “Russians” but “pro-regime” groups. That might include Russian contractors. But would it have included hundreds of them? To believe up to 200 were killed that would mean 1,000 wounded and that is among a large group. That’s the equivalent of a brigade size unit. Was a Russian contractor brigade in Deir ez-Zor? What evidence is there for that? Perhaps the reporters simply misinterpreted claims of “dozens killed” over a year or “dozens of casualties.” If so many people had been killed it’s impossible to hide 200 killed being transported back to Russia and it seems unlikely no one would comment on it officially in Russia. A few contractors here and there killed is one thing, adding up to 100 a year, but 200 in one spot is something different. It could be that a major battle did take place and some contractors were killed, but it is unlikely so many simply because body counts in modern war rarely reach 200 on a day.
Mercenaries, contractors and aftermath
Stories about Russian mercenaries have grown since last year when two Russian captives were executed in October. According to a December report “The Russian Defense Ministry has said 41 of its troops have died in Syria. But according to Fontanka, another 73 private contractors have been killed there.” It was the capture of several of the Wagner group’s volunteers that led to these articles. But even if there are 1,000s who have volunteered as “mercenaries” it doesn’t answer all the questions about what happened February 7. First of all why were so many Russians in the vicinity in the first place. Was their contractor unit involved or struck by mistake. Did the Russian government inform them after speaking with the coalition. What does it have to do with the nearby gas field?
The death of Russians, even volunteers not in the army, at the hands of the US, or US-backed forces, will add a new level to the Syrian conflict. With revelations of this coming on the heels of the Israeli retaliation for an Iranian drone, it increasingly puts Russia at the forefront in Syria managing several conflicts at the same time. It has to deal with Turkey and Afrin, the talks in Astana and Sochi, and also deal with Israel, the MOU with Jordan and Deir ez-Zor. Iran is stoking the flames as well, and Russians are paying the price, as Iran’s interests and Russia’s do not mesh.
The question now becomes, what next?