Moscow acknowledged for the first time Thursday that five Russian nationals may have been killed in the U.S.-led airstrike in Syria last week but denied reports the loss of life among its citizens was significantly higher.
Reports have suggested more than 100 fighters supporting the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Assad were killed in the Feb. 7 clash in Syria's eastern Deir al-Zor province. The U.S. has said the airstrike was an act of "self-defense" following hostile action against a base it held with Kurdish-led forces fighting ISIS.
"According to preliminary information, we could be talking about the deaths of five people — presumably Russian citizens — as a result of an armed confrontation whose causes are being examined," Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, told reporters at a press briefing Thursday.
The Russian official insisted those killed in the clash were not members of the Russian armed forces. Even so, this marked the first time Russian fighters have been killed in a U.S. airstrike in Syria.
The Russian fighters killed were said to be mercenaries for the secretive Russian private military group Wagner, which has provided thousands of contract soldiers to help the Assad government.
"The Russians in many areas, including Ukraine, have claimed that their forces are not involved," said Mark Simakovsky, a former Pentagon official and now nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a New York-based think tank. "But it's a fig leaf, because their forces are involved ... [and] have coordination and liaison with Russian intelligence and security forces."
Reuters reported this week the names of at least two Russian men fighting informally with pro-Assad forces who were killed in the incident in Deir al-Zor province, citing interviews with their associates. It said their associates also confirmed that "dozens" of other Russian fighters lost their lives in the same clash.
That said, Moscow has never openly acknowledged that private military contractors have operated in Syria alongside its Russian armed forces. Russian law officially bans mercenary service. Yet it's been widely reported that Wagner and other shadowy private military groups operating out of Russia have sent soldiers to fight abroad in several conflicts.
Simakovsky said he's certain the Russians diplomatically and politically behind the scenes have been "screaming at the United States to be more careful." He said the United States "doesn't want to be killing Russian citizens in Syria. So, I think both sides will be more careful."
Earlier this week, the Pentagon defended the attack by calling it an act of "self-defense … to defeat an unprovoked military attack. The enemy moved in an approximate battalion-sized dismounted formation supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars."
The Pentagon has said the U.S.-backed coalition contacted the Russians through the "deconfliction" telephone line to make them aware of the unprovoked attack.
The U.S. military also said the coalition observed "a slow buildup of personnel and equipment" in the week prior to the clash by the pro-Assad forces and alerted the Russians but received assurances that "they would not engage coalition forces in the vicinity."
In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to a Russian air base in Syria and disclosed plans to send troops home . But Putin has faced setbacks in Syria this year, including Syrian rebels launching drone attacks on Russian bases and militants downing a Russian fighter jet.
Meantime, the Syrian Democratic Forces fighting ISIS were presumably the intended target of last week's attack by the pro-Assad fighters. The SDF is a militia that has proven to be capable of taking key ISIS strongholds in Syria.
The U.S. has said it believes the hostile forces were looking to seize territory the SDF had liberated from ISIS back in the fall of 2017. Also, the U.S. believes the same group sought to seize potentially lucrative oilfields in Khusham that had helped finance the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017.
One SDF soldier was wounded in last week's clash, but there were no coalition casualties. The Pentagon said earlier this week it doesn't know the number of enemy force casualties at this time.
A Pentagon spokesman reached Thursday said they had no additional information to provide on last week's clash.
The U.S. military has about 2,000 troops in Syria fighting against ISIS, including special operations. It has about 5,200 forces in Iraq supporting the Baghdad government in its operations against the terrorists.
— Reuters contributed to this report.