US Troops Clash with Russian/Syrian Troops for Conoco Plant

May 30, 2018

Compiled by Lisa Phillips of

Background Information:

Why won’t Secretary Mattis say the US controls Syrian oilfields?

April 13, 2018

by Jared Szuba

Bob Corker, Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he doesn’t think “enough has been said or made” of the Conoco gas field incident that left hundreds of Russian fighters dead. He’s right.

On the night of February 7, hundreds of fighters from various countries, backed by artillery, multiple rocket launcher systems and Soviet tanks, emerged from a row of villages near the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor and advanced towards the one of the country’s largest natural gas fields.

Somewhere, an American Special Operations commander picked up a phone. But the Russian liaison on the line said the troops weren’t his. The resulting three hours of U.S. airstrikes killed and wounded hundreds of pro-regime fighters, reportedly including some 300 Russian paramilitary contractors, making it the deadliest engagement between American and Russian forces in at least half a century.

During CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s secretary of state confirmation hearing on Thursday, Bob Corker, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he doesn’t think “enough has been said or made” of the Conoco gas field incident that left hundreds of Russian fighters dead. He’s right.

The attack was by all indications a probe of the American military’s willingness to defend strategic territory with force. If so, Damascus and Moscow got their answer: Over the following weeks, U.S. Special Operations Forces and their Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Arab allies began rapidly expanding defensive positions at the site after observing pro-regime units near the adjacent villages amassing again. Fortunately, on March 27, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis declared those tensions placated after both sides agreed to draw back slightly. But the secretary has yet to offer an explanation as to why any of this happened.

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This July 30, 2017 photo, shows an oil field controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in Rmeilan, Hassakeh province, northeast Syria. The SDF, with air support from the U.S.-led coalition, said Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017 that they had captured the Al-Omar field, Syria’s largest oil field, from the Islamic State group, marking a major advance against the extremists and for now keeping the area out of the hands of pro-government forces. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Mattis first spoke publicly on the incident in a press conference the day after it occurred. Calling the situation “perplexing,” the former Marine general stated four times that he had no idea why the pro-regime force would assault the site, a known Syrian Democratic Forces base on the Coalition’s side of the Euphrates river geographic deconfliction line.

That line “has never broken down,” he affirmed, “no matter what you heard in the – in the news out of other places.” Yet he suggested that Russia-backed pro-regime forces had been maintaining positions on the U.S. side of the water.

“Why were they there? Because it was a headquarters OK? They began shelling it with artillery,” Mattis said. “We are there to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, that’s what those [U.S.] troops were doing in that position: coordinating strikes” against Islamic State. He did not mention the site was a major natural gas field, or the reports that both sides had been sporadically exchanging fire over it since U.S.-backed fighters captured it in September.

“So that’s what happened. It was self-defense, we are not getting engaged in the Syrian civil war … And why they chose to initiate this attack – you’ll just have to ask them, I just – we don’t know.”

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Defense Secretary James Mattis and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., update the media on the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria during a joint press conference at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., May 19, 2017. (DOD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

Earlier that day, Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. mission in Syria Colonel Thomas Veale told The Defense Post in an email that he suspected pro-regime forces had attempted to seize territory which “the SDF had liberated from Daesh,” including oilfields “that had been a major source of revenue” for the group.

But Mattis had not shifted his original position last he spoke on the topic in late March: “You remember I could not answer for you the questions you had about why did the Russian mercenary element move against our forces at Deir Ezzor,” he said. “We – I still cannot answer that question.”

By then it had been reported in the media for weeks that the assault was indeed an attempt by elements of the Syrian Army, Iran-backed militia members, and Russian paramilitary contractors to seize the Conoco natural gas field from SDF and U.S. forces, possibly with the approval of the Russian Ministry of Defense. Damascus considers the re-acquisition of those oilfields to be a “strategic intent” to finance the country’s reconstruction, and Moscow has been more than willing to help. Iran, incidentally, is determined to establish a land route to its Mediterranean allies via the Iraqi border and Deir Ezzor.

Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared in January that the U.S. intends to block Iranian ambitions, and in February said that the U.S. considers control over Syria’s oilfields “leverage” against the Assad regime in postwar negotiations.

So why have Secretary Mattis and other Pentagon officials been unwilling to acknowledge the obvious: that SDF forces and their American SOF advisors are defending strategic Syrian gas and oilfields?

Crossing the line

The U.S. Department of Defense generally declines to release battlefield details out of concern for the safety of its forces and success of ongoing and future missions, but how American forces and their SDF allies captured the Conoco gas field offers real clues as to what might be going on.









Deir Ezzor lies on the southwest bank of the Middle Euphrates River Valley in eastern Syria. The area was ISIS’s final stronghold in the country after the encirclement of Raqqa in the summer of 2017, but it holds another strategic advantage. Along the river’s northeast side is a stretch of desert leading to the Iraqi border that holds a majority of Syria’s known oil and gas reserves.

Also known as Tabiyeh, the Conoco natural gas field and facility, named for its former owner, produced 13 million cubic meters of natural gas per day before the war, the largest of any in Syria. It is also the first in line across from Deir Ezzor.

On September 9, elements of the Russian-created and -advised Syrian Army Fifth Corps, alongside Russian special forces and their other foreign backers reached the ISIS-held city from the southwest with every intention of crossing the Euphrates river to seize those fields.

Before they could do so, the Coalition-backed SDF announced a new “anti-ISIS clearing operation” named Jazeera Storm. SDF forces located roughly 50 kilometers (31 miles) to the north of the area would, according to the official statement, move southeast towards the Khabur River Valley, “a strategic axis of advance towards the Middle Euphrates River Valley, one of the last holdouts of ISIS.” Such a move would have led them away from Deir Ezzor and Conoco, leaving a few of the area’s gas and oilfields to be taken by pro-regime forces.

Instead, they initiated a breakneck drive straight south towards Deir Ezzor and the Conoco gas field first. Coalition spokesperson Colonel Ryan Dillon denied on September 14 that they would cross to enter the city, but declined to discuss “the plans, and why we, you know, conduct them.” The operation’s official objective, Dillon had previously announced, was to seize the valley’s “villages and towns from ISIS.” But SDF commander Delsos Derrik told The Wall Street Journal another motive for the maneuver, citing concern the regime intended to cross the river to seize the oilfields. “For that reason we have advanced in order to block them.”

The move triggered a race for the Conoco gas field. Russian engineers hastened to construct a pontoon bridge to ferry pro-regime troops and armor to the far side of the river in hopes of cutting off the SDF and Coalition advance. In what should have been a violation of the deconfliction line, pro-regime forces began amassing on the east side of the Euphrates just south of the Conoco gas field on September 15, but heavy ISIS resistance in the riverside villages blocked them from moving inland towards their objective.

As the Coalition and SDF closed in on the prize from the west, political and media advisor to Bashar al-Assad Bouthaina Shaaban accused them of intending to seize the oilfields and declared the Syrian Army was prepared to fight to stop them.

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The cotton ginnery east of Deir Ezzor, site of September 2017 airstrike blamed on Russia that injured 6 SDF fighters. Image: YPG/Twitter

Russia strikes first

Soon after midnight on September 16, a Russian aircraft bombed Coalition troop positions just west of Conoco. No American personnel were reportedly hit, but six SDF fighters were wounded. Both the Russians and Syrians denied responsibility, but the U.S. affirmed it was a Russian plane and that Coalition positions were known to them. Coalition commander Lieutenant General Paul Funk released a statement emphasizing his forces’ commitment “to the defeat of ISIS and continued deconfliction with Russian officials.” An Arab SDF field commander accused the Russians of “stopping our progress.”

The airstrike triggered a quiet international incident that raises serious questions about the official U.S. narrative about the geographic deconfliction line at Deir Ezzor. Several major links in the American chain of command phoned their Russian counterparts, as did Tillerson, but subsequent official statements about the agreement over the battlefield barrier have been evasive and appear in some cases contradictory.

After a phone call with his Russian counterpart following the airstrike in September, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford publicly said that he told General Valery Gerasimov to stick to the deconfliction line agreed upon in 2015. However on March 27, Mattis explicitly stated that the U.S. had “agreed with the Russians” that they could operate east of the river – though it is unclear from the statement when that was agreed. And while Mattis and other U.S. military officials have acknowledged the pro-regime positions on the Coalition’s side of the river, they seem reluctant to say this constitutes a violation of the line.

Instead, as the two forces began to converge, Mattis and others started referring to troop situations near Deir Ezzor as “complex.” Dunford called the battle space there “crowded,” and said after the airstrike that the line “didn’t work.” “Deconfliction is more difficult in that area than it was a few months ago,” he said after his phone call with his Russian counterpart Gerasimov. “We haven’t resolved all the issues. We’ll get through that.”

On September 21, as its forces were continuing to advance inland, the Russian Ministry of Defence announced that they and the Syrian Army would retaliate if fired upon. Mattis told reporters he was not worried: “We’ll sort this out.”

The Department of Defense may have been covering for bold battlefield opportunism in the place of failed diplomacy. Shortly after the airstrike, there were multiple reports that there had been no such deconfliction line agreement at Deir Ezzor. An anonymous U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal in September that attempts to pressure Russia to commit to the line in the summer of 2017 “stalled,” and as a result, both sides dashed for the area’s oilfields.

The decision to divert from the then-ongoing fight against ISIS in Raqqa apparently took at least Delsios Derrick by surprise. If true, the Pentagon’s obfuscation may have reflected both the seriousness of the situation and their confidence in the abilities of commanders on both sides to manage it.

U.S.-backed forces seized the Conoco facility and began securing the surrounding gas field from ISIS fighters on September 23. Speaking to reporters in Washington via video link from Baghdad, Coalition spokesperson Colonel Ryan Dillon denied that there was any ongoing “race” for Syria’s oilfields: “From the Coalition’s perspective it has not been a race, we are not in the land-grabbing business.” It was an expression he had used before. “Our goal as I have said a dozen times is fighting ISIS. We don’t have a fight with the [Syrian] regime. We are not in a fight with the Russians. We are there to fight ISIS and that’s what we are going to do.”

“If ISIS was the only target, this idea of positional warfare against a mobile enemy wouldn’t wash,” a retired U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division lieutenant colonel and West Point graduate who oversaw operations in Kosovo and Iraq told me recently via email, after reviewing official press releases and satellite imagery of the battlefield. “The U.S. has bypassed oilfields before without giving them a second look in Iraq. Of course, our focus then was solely on an enemy force, not on pieces of ground,” he wrote.

“In my experience, everything we do is well planned, briefed, war-gamed and rehearsed. I don’t think seizing the oilfields was anything less than a deliberate plan,” he said. “I also believe if the Russians had gotten there first, the U.S. would not have contested it. That causes diplomatic problems on a grand scale.”

The capture of the Conoco and adjacent al-Izba fields elicited an accusatory statement from the Russian Ministry of Defence and, according to pro-Damascus Al-Masdar News, an expression of frustration from the Syrian Army. Then, only days after Russian and American commanders sat down for a rare face-to-face meeting in which they had “laid down maps and graphics” to resolve the standoff, coordinated pro-regime artillery struck Conoco and two other SDF positions on September 25, killing an SDF fighter.

The SDF announced they had been struck by Russian and regime aircraft and artillery, but a Coalition spokesperson said the Syrian regime had carried out the strike “in the vicinity of” SDF forces near Deir Ezzor.

This time, the SDF said it retaliated with heavy weapons. Pro-YPG Firat News Agency (ANF) would subsequently report another artillery strike on nearby SDF positions in October, as well as small arms skirmishes between the two sides over the next few months. By December, U.S. Air Force Central Command was complaining that Russian aircraft were violating the deconfliction line over the Middle Euphrates up to eight times per day to harass American planes in apparent attempts to trigger an incident.

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Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon and spokesmen for the Iraqi Security Forces brief the media on the Liberation of Mosul in the Pentagon Press Briefing Room, Washington, D.C., July 13, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

As the race continued towards the Iraqi border, the SDF launched another surprise breakout and narrowly beat pro-regime forces to the Omar oilfield – the largest in Syria with nearly a quarter of the country’s reserves – some 30 miles downriver from Conoco on October 22. Dillon did not obfuscate the fact that U.S. forces assisted their SDF allies in the operation, and revealingly told reporters the move was necessary to surprise ISIS before they could sabotage the oilfields’ infrastructure, which Coalition bombing had already significantly damaged.

ANF news reports and a video purportedly of SDF fighters shared on social media continued to allege fire exchanges – possibly probing attacks – by pro-regime forces in the adjacent villages on their positions near the Conoco gas field. As ISIS was pushed to the southeast in late October, the lines of the rival forces converged at the southern edge of the Conoco field. Around that same time, the SDF began expanding physical defenses at the gas facility. By the time of the February 7 Conoco assault, the ISIS frontline was some 60 kilometers away.

The deconfliction line standoff was concerning enough that Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump privately discussed the matter on the sidelines of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam on November 11. Their joint statement expressed both sides’ “satisfaction with successful U.S.-Russia enhanced deconfliction efforts” between the two militaries. Trump told reporters later that day that he had “very quickly” made an undisclosed agreement with Putin about Syria that would save “a tremendous number of lives.”

Sometime in the next two months, an unidentified Russian minister allegedly approved the February 7 assault.

Russian Defence Minister General of the Army Sergei Shoigu at a meeting with General Hulusi Akar, Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces and Hakan Fidan Director of Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) in Moscow to discuss an operation in Efrin, Syria, January 18, 2017. Image: @mod_russia/Twitter

Saving face

On February 8, the Russian Ministry of Defence denied responsibility but accused the United States of “taking control of the country’s economic assets and not at fighting the ISIL international terror group.” Dillon may have been obliquely responding to such accusations in a February 26 prepared statement: “We remain singular in our focus to defeat Daesh terrorists in Syria. Any unrelated issues or operations are an unwanted distraction to the defeat of Daesh, pulling attention away from that.”

Although he had freely acknowledged in October that U.S. forces had provided combat advice and intelligence support for the SDF seizure of the Omar oilfield, he then went on, “To be very clear, the Coalition only supports military efforts strictly related to defeating Daesh, and we urge all parties in the region to maintain the same focus.”

The U.S. response to the February 7 assault, he said, was undertaken “purely in self-defense.”

The Pentagon clearly considers the confiscation of these sources of ISIS’s revenue a key leg of the mission to defeat the group. In that light, the public announcement of false battlefield objectives at the outset of operations such as Jazeera Storm is astute planning. But their reluctance to acknowledge the gas and oilfields for months afterwards raises serious questions.

The Department of Defense may simply consider it bad publicity to admit sustained control over foreign oilfields against the will of the local government. Even more likely, given the stakes, U.S. denials may be an attempt to avert further hostilities with Russian and Syrian forces. That might explain Mattis’s dubious overtures to avoid blaming the Kremlin for the February 7 incident – although he knows the Ministry of Defence has been using deniable forces and suspects that Putin is aware. But might the talking-point insistence on self-defense and fighting ISIS when speaking publicly about the Conoco incident be rooted in another motivation?

In December 2017, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia wrote a letter to the Departments of Defense and State inquiring as to the legal basis for sustained military presence in Syria given that the U.S. had struck Syrian Army units before, which constituted the targeting of a non-ISIS force.

Deputy Undersecretary of Defense David Trachtenberg replied in late January, making clear that the Trump administration, like the Obama one before, holds that U.S. military operations in Syria require no congressional approval as long as they are aimed at the “defeat” of ISIS, defined as when local forces are able to contain the group and it is “unable to function as a global organization.” This is all based on a highly questionable interpretation of the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force, a resolution originally passed to permit the Bush administration to go after those who planned 9/11.

The State Department’s response to Kaine affirms that, although the U.S. seeks no fight with the Syrian Army or other pro-regime forces, under U.S. law, the military reserves the right to strike them in defense of “U.S., Coalition, or partner forces engaged in operations to defeat ISIS and degrade al-Qaeda.” It also tacitly implies awareness that American military presence in Syria without Damascus’ consent is a not in accordance with international law. In other words, to be legal at all, American military actions in Syria must be directed in one way or another towards ISIS’ defeat.

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Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon, hold a joint press conference at Lancaster House in London, United Kingdom, March 31, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

Seizing revenue-producing territory from ISIS may arguably be, as Mattis insists, “not getting engaged in the Syrian civil war,” but defending it against the combined forces and will of Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran is far less clear-cut. And while the Pentagon has denied it directs SDF operations, it at least actively supported Jazeera Storm, the first objective of which was securing the Conoco facility.

In February, the Secretary of Defense tamped down a journalist’s suggestion that the mercenary assault might have been a strike at the American postwar “leverage” strategy. In any case, by mid-March, the refinery at Conoco had been turned back on, no doubt a sign of U.S. mission shift to stabilization and building of local governance capacities.

But from Damascus’s perspective, allowing the SDF a majority of Syria’s hydrocarbon reserves is asking for armed conflict. Last Friday, a pro-regime Shiite militia that suffered casualties in the February 7 assault – reportedly under the command of Iranian Revolutionary Guard – declared “jihad” on U.S. forces in Syria after being freshly equipped by Iran. And in response to Washington’s threats to strike the Assad regime for Saturday’s chemical attack in Douma, Russia’s ambassador to the U.N. warned the United States of “grave repercussions.” According to Mattis’ latest statement, pro-regime forces are still situated south of the Conoco gas field. The potential for further attacks will likely depend on the will of pro-regime forces to risk U.S. air power again, but this is a precarious position for the U.S. to maintain, for however long the administration decides to do so.

And the oilfield race may not yet be over. Defense Department officials have expressed alarm at the halting of Operation Jazeera Storm’s drive to the Iraqi border due to the “flood” of SDF fighters from Deir Ezzor to Afrin. The fight is not finished against ISIS – which, by the way, still controls an oilfield on the northeast riverbank across from the regime-held town of Al Bukamal.

That one is jointly owned by companies run by the Syrian Petroleum Ministry and the government of the Russian Republic of Tatarstan.

An experimental playground: The footprint of Russian private military companies in Syria

Source:  Why won’t Secretary Mattis say the US controls Syrian oilfields?


The truth about the brutal four-hour battle between Russian mercenaries and US commandos in Syria

Up to 300 Russian and Syrian fighters killed in the attack

May 26, 2018

by Eric Schmitt, Ivan Nechepurenko, C J Chivers

Reaper drones and other aircraft were called in to support US fighters Ethan Miller/Getty

The artillery barrage was so intense that the US commandos dived into foxholes for protection, emerging covered in flying dirt and debris to fire back at a column of tanks advancing under the heavy shelling. It was the opening salvo in a nearly four-hour assault in February by around 500 pro-Syrian government forces – including Russian mercenaries – that threatened to inflame already simmering tensions between Washington and Moscow.

In the end, 200 to 300 of the attacking fighters were killed. The others retreated under merciless air strikes from the US, returning later to retrieve their battlefield dead. None of the Americans at the small outpost in eastern Syria – about 40 by the end of the firefight – were harmed.

The details of the 7 February firefight were gleaned from interviews and documents newly obtained by The New York Times. They provide the Pentagon’s first public on-the-ground accounting of one of the single bloodiest battles the US military has faced in Syria since deploying to fight the Isis.

The firefight was described by the Pentagon as an act of self-defence against a unit of pro-Syrian government forces. In interviews, US military officials said they had watched – with dread – hundreds of approaching rival troops, vehicles and artillery pieces in the week leading up to the attack.

The prospect of Russian military forces and US troops colliding has long been feared as the Cold War adversaries take opposing sides in Syria’s seven-year civil war.

At worst, officials and experts have said, it could plunge both countries into bloody conflict. And at a minimum, squaring off in crowded battlefields has added to heightened tensions between Russia and the US as they each seek to exert influence in the Middle East.

Commanders of the rival militaries had long steered clear of the other by speaking through often-used deconfliction telephone lines. In the days leading up to the attack, and on opposite sides of the Euphrates River, Russia and the US were backing separate offensives against the Isis in Syria’s oil-rich Deir el-Zour province, which borders Iraq.

US military officials repeatedly warned about the growing mass of troops. But Russian military officials said they had no control over the fighters assembling near the river – even though US surveillance equipment monitoring radio transmissions had revealed the ground force was speaking in Russian.

The documents described the fighters as a “pro-regime force,” loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. It included some Syrian government soldiers and militias, but US military and intelligence officials have said a majority were private Russian paramilitary mercenaries – and most likely a part of the Wagner Group, a company often used by the Kremlin to carry out objectives that officials do not want to be connected to the Russian government.

“The Russian high command in Syria assured us it was not their people,” defence secretary Jim Mattis told senators in testimony last month. He said he directed Gen Joseph F Dunford Jr, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, “for the force, then, to be annihilated.”

“And it was.”

The day began with little hint of the battle that was about to unfold.

A team of about 30 Delta Force soldiers and Rangers from the Joint Special Operations Command were working alongside Kurdish and Arab forces at a small dusty outpost next to a Conoco gas plant, near the city of Deir el-Zour.

Roughly 20 miles away, at a base known as a mission support site, a team of Green Berets and a platoon of infantry Marines stared at their computer screens, watching drone feeds and passing information to the Americans at the gas plant about the gathering fighters.

At 3pm the Syrian force began edging towards the Conoco plant. By early evening, more than 500 troops and 27 vehicles – including tanks and armoured personnel carriers – had amassed.

In the US air operations centre at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, and at the Pentagon, confounded military officers and intelligence analysts watched the scene unfold. Commanders briefed pilots and ground crews. Aircraft across the region were placed on alert, military officials said.

Back at the mission support site, the Green Berets and Marines were preparing a small reaction force – roughly 16 troops in four mine-resistant vehicles – in case they were needed at the Conoco plant. They inspected their weapons and ensured the trucks were loaded with anti-tank missiles, thermal optics and food and water.

At 8:30pm, three Russian-made T-72 tanks – vehicles weighing nearly 50 tons and armed with 125-millimeter guns – moved within a mile of the Conoco plant. Bracing for an attack, the Green Berets prepared to launch the reaction force.

At the outpost, US soldiers watched a column of tanks and other armoured vehicles turn and drive towards them around 10pm, emerging from a neighbourhood of houses where they had tried to gather undetected.

Half an hour later, the Russian mercenaries and Syrian forces struck.

The Conoco outpost was hit with a mixture of tank fire, large artillery and mortar rounds, the documents show. The air was filled with dust and shrapnel. The US commandos took cover, then ran behind dirt berms to fire anti-tank missiles and machine guns at the advancing column of armoured vehicles.

For the first 15 minutes, US military officials called their Russian counterparts and urged them to stop the attack. When that failed, US troops fired warning shots at a group of vehicles and a howitzer.

Still the troops advanced.

US warplanes arrived in waves, including Reaper drones, F-22 stealth fighter jets, F-15E Strike Fighters, B-52 bombers, AC-130 gunships and AH-64 Apache helicopters. For the next three hours, US officials said, scores of strikes pummelled enemy troops, tanks and other vehicles. Marine rocket artillery was fired from the ground.

The reaction team sped towards the fight. It was dark, according to the documents, and the roads were littered with felled power lines and shell craters. The 20-mile drive was made all the more difficult since the trucks did not turn on their headlights, relying solely on thermal-imaging cameras to navigate.

As the Green Berets and Marines neared the Conoco plant at about 11:30pm, they were forced to stop. The barrage of artillery was too dangerous to drive through until air strikes silenced the enemy’s howitzers and tanks.

At the plant, the commandos were pinned down by enemy artillery and burning through ammunition. Flashes from tank muzzles, anti-aircraft weapons and machine guns lit up the air.

At 1am, with the artillery fire dwindling, the team of Marines and Green Berets pulled up to the Conoco outpost and began firing. By then, some of the US warplanes had returned to base, low on either fuel or ammunition.

The US troops on the ground, now roughly 40 in all, braced their defences as the mercenaries left their vehicles and headed towards the outpost on foot.

A handful of Marines ran ammunition to machine guns and Javelin missile launchers scattered along the berms and wedged among the trucks. Some of the Green Berets and Marines took aim from exposed hatches. Others remained in their trucks, using a combination of thermal screens and joysticks to control and fire the heavy machine guns affixed on their roofs.

A few of the commandos, including Air Force combat controllers, worked the radios to direct the next fleet of bombers flying towards the battlefield. At least one Marine exposed himself to incoming fire as he used a missile guidance computer to find targets’ locations and pass them on to the commandos calling in the air strikes.

An hour later, the enemy fighters had started to retreat and the US troops stopped firing. From their outpost, the commandos watched the mercenaries and Syrian fighters return to collect their dead. The small team of US troops was not harmed. One allied Syrian fighter was wounded.

The number of casualties from the 7 February fight is in dispute.

Initially, Russian officials said only four Russian citizens – but perhaps dozens more – were killed; a Syrian officer said around 100 Syrian soldiers had died. The documents obtained by the Times estimated 200 to 300 of the “pro-regime force” were killed.

The outcome of the battle, and much of its mechanics, suggest that the Russian mercenaries and their Syrian allies were in the wrong part of the world to try a simple, massed assault on a US military position. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US Central Command has refined the amount of equipment, logistics, coordination and tactics required to mix weapons fired from both the air and ground.

Questions remain about exactly who the Russian mercenaries were, and why they attacked.

US intelligence officials say that the Wagner Group, known by the nickname of the retired Russian officer who leads it, is in Syria to seize oil and gas fields and protect them on behalf of the Assad government. The mercenaries earn of a share of the production proceeds from the oil fields they reclaim, officials said.

The mercenaries loosely coordinate with the Russian military in Syria, although Wagner’s leaders have reportedly received awards in the Kremlin, and its mercenaries are trained at the Russian Defence Ministry’s bases.

Russian government forces in Syria maintain they were not involved in the battle. But in recent weeks, according to US military officials, they have jammed the communications of smaller US drones and gunships such as the type used in the attack.

“Right now in Syria, we’re in the most aggressive EW environment on the planet from our adversaries,” Gen Tony Thomas, head of US Special Operations Command, said recently, referring to electronic warfare. “They’re testing us every day.”

Source:  The truth about the brutal four-hour battle between Russian mercenaries and US commandos in Syria


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