One week after U.S. forces engaged with pro-government troops attacking an established SDF location in Syria, an American jet was forced to engage with and destroy a Russian built T-72 Main Battle Tank in the same general vicinity.

Reports have emerged since the 500 strong Pro-Assad offensive led against Syrian Defense Forces took place indicating that at least four, but perhaps as many as dozens, of Russian mercenaries were among those killed and wounded when U.S. tanks, aircraft, and artillery launched a counter-offensive aimed at routing their approach. One Syrian officer claimed that as many as 100 Russians were killed over two days of fighting, but the Kremlin has been slow to respond to such claims.

Russian officials have downplayed any formal involvement in the offensive, however, they have backed Syrian statements suggesting that the American victory over pro-Government troops was intended to aid terrorists from the Islamic State, which Assad claims were the real target of their advance. American officials, however, believe it was far more likely the offensive was intended to capture valuable oil fields the SDF liberated from ISIS control in recent months.  Then on Saturday, another American airstrike was called in to neutralize a T-72 tank engaging SDF forces.

“The tank had been maneuvering with coordinated indirect fire on a defensive position occupied by Syrian Democratic Forces and coalition advisers,” said Col. Ryan S. Dillon. “The defensive position was within effective range of the hostile weapons systems. Coalition officials maintained regular contact with Russian counterparts via established deconfliction lines to avoid misperceptions and miscalculations that could endanger each other’s forces.”

The Pentagon has not released what type of aircraft was involved, but reports from the region indicate the tank had fired on U.S. Special Operations troops and allied fighters before the fighter was called in to engage. Three bodies were recovered from the destroyed tank.

That deconfliction line, along with Russia’s claims that no Russian troops have been killed in recent clashes, supports the idea that any Russian citizens killed in last week’s fighting must have been contractors and mercenaries, rather than Russian troops. Likewise, it is not immediately clear who was operating the T-72 that was destroyed, or under what flag.

“We only handle the data that concerns Russian forces servicemen,” Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said at a news briefing on Tuesday. “We don’t have data about other Russians who could be in Syria.”

However, Russia’s claims of no formal involvement in the offensive against American backed and Coalition troops may be nothing more than a bit of geopolitical theater. During the 2014 military annexation of Crimea, Russia repeatedly claimed troops fighting to capture the territory from Ukraine were nothing more than volunteers and “men on vacation.” It wasn’t until after the annexation was complete that the Kremlin acknowledged the role played by the Russian Army in the offensive.

It seems likely that Russia would deny the involvement of Russian troops in the ill-fated offensive for any one of a litany of reasons. Russia does not have a habit of claiming responsibility for embarrassing defeats, nor would they want to exacerbate the already heightening tensions between the United States and Russia in Syria and elsewhere around the globe over a patch of Syrian territory, even if it contained valuable oil fields. By claiming Bashar al-Assad is directly receiving military support from Russian mercenaries, rather than troops, Putin can provide Assad with firepower against American and American-backed groups without risking war with the United States.

In recent years, Syria has devolved into a quagmire of competing internal groups further complicated by the influence of foreign powers. The Russian government has provided diplomatic and military support to the reigning regime headed by Bashar al-Assad, while the United States has backed groups like the SDF that aim to see Assad deposed. Last year, President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against an Assad-controlled airfield believed to be responsible for chemical attacks against civilians in rebel held territory, though other engagements, such as an American F/A-18 shooting down a Syrian Su-22 in September, have been primarily defensive in nature.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.