An hour later, the enemy fighters had started to retreat and the American troops stopped firing. From their outpost, the commandos watched the mercenaries and Syrian fighters return to collect their dead. The small team of American troops was not harmed. One allied Syrian fighter was wounded.
Who led the ill-fated attack?
The number of casualties from the Feb. 7 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 an American military position. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United States 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.
American 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 Defense Ministry’s bases.
Russian government forces in Syria maintain they were not involved in the battle. But in recent weeks, according to United States military officials, they have jammed the communications of smaller American drones and gunships such as the type used in the attack.
“Right now in Syria, we’re in the most aggressive E.W. environment on the planet from our adversaries,” Gen. Tony Thomas, the head of United States Special Operations Command, said recently, referring to electronic warfare. “They’re testing us every day.”