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14 February 2018, 06:53 | Simon Arnold
US forces drive their armored vehicles near the northern Syrian village of Darbasiyah
Stepped-up attacks have led to "hundreds of civilian deaths and injuries, massive displacement and the destruction of civilian infrastructure, including medical facilities", the United Nations resident and humanitarian coordinator in Syria Ali al-Za'tari said on Monday according to Reuters.
Lavrov also reiterated that Russian Federation remains in favor of Kurdish participation in the Syrian peace process.
The incident shines a light on a little-known weapon in the Kremlin's hybrid-war arsenal. The mercenaries were said to be mostly Russian nationals fighting under contract for Assad. Because of Russia's formal support for Assad's regime, combined with a history of misrepresenting Russian troops as mercenaries when the Kremlin wants to avoid being implicated in military action, have led many to postulate that the troops killed or wounded in the assault across the Euphrates river last week, as well as the crew of the T-72 destroyed on Saturday, may indeed have been Russian, rather than militia fighters. Russia, Iran, Israel and Turkey have all had aircraft shot down in or near Syria this month.
President Trump (L) with Russia's President Vladimir Putin.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis also said he has no information that Russian army servicemen were among the casualties following the US airstrike.
On Tuesday, US Central Command said US forces came under fire from a tank, and that they responded with strikes from drones and B-52 bombers against the attackers. The Guardian reported air force Lt Gen Jeffrey Harrigan as saying that US advisers had been in an operating base when they came under tank fire. They said the deconfliction line was still operating and Russian Federation so far hadn't protested the decision to launch the air strikes. "The US official put the death toll in the fighting at about 100, with 200 to 300 injured, but was unable to say how many were Russians", Bloomberg reported.
Two sons of a prominent tribal leader were also killed, according to social-media posts from Syria.
They are believed to have been employed by a private Russian company called Wagner. The Pentagon said no U.S. or SDF forces were killed by the tank. It also quoted Alexander Averin, the leader of extreme leftist group Another Russia, as saying that one of its activists, Kirill Ananyev, was killed by the US strike near Khusham.
"The Russians may have allowed the attack to take place simply to make it clear to Assad that you can't do things without coordination with Moscow", said Yury Barmin, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group set up by the Kremlin.
As we reported at the time, USA military officials say they were in contact with Russian counterparts during the attack and were assured that Russia would not engage coalition forces in the vicinity.
The Kremlin and the Pentagon do not have any information on the alleged deaths of Russians during a U.S. attack in Syria, respective officials have told journalists.
Much about the fighting and the associated casualties has been obscured in the fog of war.
The use of mercenaries, which remains illegal in Russian Federation despite some talk of regulating it, allows Russian Federation to avoid reporting casualties, according to Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.
Two Russians familiar with the matter said more than 200 pro-government soldiers were killed in the conflict.
A representative of the Syrian Foreign Ministry, Ayman Soussan, said during Tuesday's press conference "we are not bound by anything that is formed by foreign sides, whatever their name or state, we are not bound by it, and it is of no concern to us". "We're dealing with an unusual situation", though it shouldn't be blown out of proportion, he said.
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