On February 7th the US bombed the Syrian army and allied forces in eastern Syria. The Americans claimed they had killed about 100 fighters, presumably mostly Syrians.
Yet in the coming days and weeks in the various corners of the internet, including on pages of Reuters and Bloomberg, there was talk of 200-300 Russian citizens killed in US Deir Ezzor strikes.
What really happened was that that anti-Putin Russians, liberals and nationalists alike, latched onto the credible reports that some Russians were among the dead and in the days that followed blew it out of all proportions, claiming that hundreds, possibly as many as 600 Russians had been killed in that one US airstrike.
Observing this the western media then started to echo their claims (and quietly gloated), albeit as said Pentagon itself only ever claimed their strike had killed about 100 people.
Well, Der Spiegel did actual journalistic legwork, talking to survivors on the ground and found no corroborating evidence for such claims. In fact all the evidence points that no more than 10-20 Russian (or other former Soviet) fighters were killed:
A team of DER SPIEGEL journalists spent two weeks interviewing both witnesses to, and participants in, the battle. The team also spoke to a staff member at the only hospital in Deir ez-Zor as well as an employee of the local military airport in an attempt to get a clear picture of exactly what took place during the three-day battle.
The accounts largely corroborate each other and the image of events that emerges is one that contradicts what has been reported in the Russian and international media.
At 5 a.m. on Feb. 7, around 250 fighters south of Deir ez-Zor attempted to cross from the west bank of the Euphrates to the east using a military pontoon bridge. They included members of the militias of two tribes, the Bekara and the Albo Hamad, who are fighting for Assad’s regime with Iranian backing, soldiers of the 4th Division as well as Afghan and Iraqi fighters with the Fatimiyoun and Zainabiyoun brigades, which are under Iranian command. A soldier with the 4th Division recounted that the units had spent a week gathering on the property of the military airport. Witnesses say that no Russian mercenaries took part in the attempted crossing.
The Americans and the Russians agreed last year to make the Euphrates River a “deconfliction” line. Assad’s troops and its allies are west of the river while the east side is controlled by SDF under the protection of the Americans. The east side is home to a chain of productive natural gas fields generally known as the Conoco field.
As such, the Americans on the eastern banks viewed the advance as an attack and fired a series of warning shots toward to bridge. Nobody was injured and the attackers withdrew.
But they didn’t give up. Long after darkness, around twice as many men from the same groups crossed another makeshift bridge a few kilometers north, close to the Deir ez-Zor military airport. They drove without their lights on to prevent U.S. drones from spotting them. Undetected this time, they made it to the village of Marrat on the eastern side. When they advanced further south at around 10 p.m., toward the SDF base in Khusham, the Americans, whose special forces were also stationed there, once again opened fire. And this time they weren’t warning shots. The U.S. said in a statement given to CNN that after “20 to 30 artillery and tank rounds landed within 500 meters” of the SDF headquarters, the coalition forces “targeted the aggressors with a combination of air and artillery strikes.”
That was putting it mildly. Because right around the same time late that night, another group of Syrian tribal militia members and Shiite fighters came from the village of Tabiya to the south and also attacked the SDF base. And the Americans struck back with their entire destructive arsenal. They deployed rocket-equipped drones, combat helicopters, heavy AC 130 aircraft, nicknamed “gun boats,” to fire on targets on the ground, rockets and ground artillery.
They struck in the night, followed by an attack the next morning on a group with a tribal militia in Tabiya that had only come to retrieve the bodies. And on Feb. 9, they once again attacked a unit of the same fighters who had popped up on the eastern side of the river.
A Different Version of Events
It was primarily the second night-time attack from the village of Tabiya that triggered the American paroxysm, said two men belonging to the al-Baqir militia of the Bekara tribe. Because in addition to the deconfliction line, there was also a second agreement which allowed up to 400 pro-Assad fighters, who remained on the east side of the Euphrates following the 2017 battle against Islamic State, to remain. At least as long as their weren’t more than 400 of them and they remained peaceful. But exactly that was no longer the case.
Among those stationed in Tabiya was a small contingent of Russian mercenaries. But the two militia sources said they did not participate in the fighting. Still, they said, 10 to 20 of them did in fact lose their lives. They said a total of more than 200 of the attackers died, including around 80 Syrian soldiers with the 4th Division, around 100 Iraqis and Afghans and around 70 tribal fighters, mostly with the al-Baqir militia.
It all happened at night, and the situation became extremely complicated when the fighters from Tabiya entered the fray. A staffer at the only major hospital in Deir ez-Zor would later say that around a dozen Russian bodies were delivered. An employee at the airport, meanwhile, later witnessed the delivery of the bodies in two Toyota pickup trucks to a waiting Russian transport aircraft that then flew to Qamishli, an airport near the Syrian border in the north.
In the days that followed, the identities of the Russians killed would be revealed — first of six and ultimately nine. Eight had been verified by the Conflict Intelligence Team, a Russian investigative platform, and another was released by the radio station Echo Moscow. All were employees of the private mercenary company Evro Polis, which is often referred to by the nom du guerre of its head: “Wagner.”
At the same time, however, a completely different version of events has gained traction — disseminated at first by Russian nationalists like Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, and then by others associated with the Wagner unit. According to those accounts, many more Russians had been killed in the battle — 100, 200, 300 or as many as 600. An entire unit, it was said, had been wiped out and the Kremlin wanted to cover it up. Recordings of alleged fighters even popped up apparently confirming these horrendous losses.
It was a version that sounded so plausible that even Western news agencies like Reuters and Bloomberg picked it up. The fact that the government in Moscow at first didn’t want to confirm any deaths and then spoke of five “Russian citizens” killed and later, nebulously, of “dozens of injured,” some of whom had died, only seemed to make the version of events seem more credible.
The German magazine confirms a substantial part of the American narrative. (Make of that what you will.) It says a large group of Syrian soldiers, local tribal fighters, and Iraqi and Afghan Shia volunteers did indeed move towards US-Kurdish positions and in some cases supposedly fired first:
“…another group of Syrian tribal militia members and Shiite fighters came from the village of Tabiya to the south and also attacked the SDF base. And the Americans struck back..”
However, it also say that in at least one case the Americans fired first:
“When they advanced further south at around 10 p.m., toward the SDF base in Khusham, the Americans, whose special forces were also stationed there, once again opened fire.”
Moreover in another instance the Americans attacked tribal militias that had only come to retrieve the bodies of their fallen:
“…followed by an attack the next morning on a group with a tribal militia in Tabiya that had only come to retrieve the bodies.”
This would go some way towards explaining how they were able to kill 100 on the other side while on their side only one Kurdish fighter was founded.
But there are other hints:
Witnesses say that no Russian mercenaries took part in the attempted crossing.
Among those stationed in Tabiya was a small contingent of Russian mercenaries. But the two militia sources said they did not participate in the fighting. Still, they said, 10 to 20 of them did in fact lose their lives.
10-20 Russians were not part of attempted Syrian advance (whatever its nature) and did not take part in any fighting. — Yet the US military somehow killed them. How?
It is obvious that whether the story of the Syrian advance and attack holds up or not* the Americans did much more than just halt a Syrian advance in their own country. They must have accompanied them with massive ‘revenge’ strikes against Syrian positions miles away, which had not been on the move at all — or else how did Russian mercs who were not involved ended up dead?
The situation on the ground between Khusham and Tabiya on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, described by a half dozen witnesses and people who were party to the events, does not confirm Russian mercenary participation in the attack or even that they joined the fighting at all.
Ahmad Ramadan, the journalist who founded the Euphrates Post and has since emigrated to Turkey, comes from Tabiya. One of his contacts fights for the al-Baqir militia and took the video at the site of the bombings. “If it had been a Russian attack, with many Russian dead, we would have reported about it,” he said. “But it wasn’t. The Russians in Tabiya just had the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
*The Pentagon itself described the “attack” as being no more than 20-30 tank rounds falling “within 500 meters” of a Kurdish base (a tank gun is a direct fire weapon, it does not misses by 500 meters).