[Editor’s note: This story was updated on February 12, 2018 with additional information about the origin of the audio and identities of some of the men reported killed; on February 13, 2018 to include a video released by U.S. Central Command; and on February 14, 2018 to include information about the circumstances of the attack.]
As many as 215 Russian citizens may have been killed earlier this week by the Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces in Deir Ezzor, according to information shared on Russian social media.
The U.S.-led Coalition against Islamic State said on Thursday that it responded to an “unprovoked attack” on a well-established SDF headquarters by forces aligned with the Syrian regime.
Military officials said Coalition aircraft including F-22A Raptors, MQ-9B Reapers, F-15E Strike Eagles, AC-130 gunships, U.S. Army Apache helicopters and U.S. Marine artillery ground forces engaged the pro-regime fighters.
A February 10 post on Russian social networking service VKontakte says 253 Russians were sent into a fight near Deir Ezzor, and 196 of them died in the attack. The force consisted of Russian Special Operations Forces alongside Russians employed by private military contractor PMC Wagner, equipped with artillery and tanks.
The Coalition and SDF attack lasted for four hours. The engagement began with artillery strikes, followed by Lockheed AC-130 Spectre and helicopter attacks.
“The wounded are already in Russia, most of them in serious condition. The injuries are terrible. Many have horribly mutilated faces and head injuries. Almost all have either lost their limbs or have them terribly wounded. We are not going to guess how many of them will stay alive, hoping for the best,” the post reads, noting that it is impossible to identify those who have been killed.
Audio recordings detail Russian casualties
Audio recordings of phone calls made by unidentified men have circulated on WhatsApp. The calls purport to describe the circumstances of the attack.
“I just called the guys. They formed a column and they didn’t make it to the position … some 300-700 meters to the position. One platoon went ahead, but the column wasn’t moving,” a man says, using a lot of expletives. “Those [forces] raised the American flag, and the artillery started hitting them hard, and then choppers arrived…”
According to the man, the SDF then began firing artillery at the column, and 200-215 people died in the assault.
“Look, 177 killed – that is just the Fifth Company. The Second remained basically intact. The Fifth one was all destroyed,” a different man says in a separate recording. “The guys had no chances.”
He blamed the attack on “the Kurds and the Americans.”
Mark Feygin, a Russian lawyer and politician who served as a deputy of the State Duma in 1994-1995, seemed to corroborate the account. Feygin tweeted on Saturday that, according to an individual in touch with PMC Wagner, the number of contractors who died east of the Euphrates river has reached 215.
Сообщил человек общающийся с людьми из «Вагнера», что число погибших контрактников ЧВК в долине Ефрата в Сирии достигло 215 человек. Подошли к курдскому укрепрайону, развернули артеллерию, дали залп и тут же их накрыли американцы.
— Mark Feygin (@FeyginMark) February 10, 2018
However, Roman Saponkov, a Russian reporter in Syria, said that PMC Wagner lost 20-25 fighters, and questioned the veracity of information shared about the incident.
Russian reporter in Syria Roman Saponkov says he believes Russian PMC Wagner lost "20-25 fighters" in yesterday's US airstrikes on regime forces in NE Syria. Raises question of what these forces were doing there/thinking in the first place. pic.twitter.com/6evjl9yID7
— Neil Hauer (@NeilPHauer) February 10, 2018
The Russian Ministry of Defence has not mentioned any Russian casualties in its statements.
“A pro-government militia unit, conducting surveillance and research activities near the al-Isba oil refinery (17 kilometers southeast of the Salhiyah settlement) to eliminate a militant group shelling the positions of government troops, was shelled with mortars and multiple-launch rocket systems,” the defense ministry said.
“The attack was followed by an air raid by the U.S.-led Coalition’s helicopters. As a result, 25 Syrian militiamen suffered wounds,” it added.
Update February 12
The audio recordings of phone calls were originally posted on the Telegram channel WarGonzo. The channel is run by former Life News war correspondent Semyon Pegov.
Another Russian military correspondent, Aleksandr Kots, who is with Komsomolskaya Pravda, wrote on his Telegram account Kotsnews that he had received the recordings from his own sources on Friday.
There were many theories of where the recordings have originated, ranging from “this can be a provocation by ISIS” to “it’s all made up by Ukrainians.”
The latter version was “supported” by the fact that Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, a Russian army veteran who played key roles in the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine, wrote multiple posts about the incident on his VKontakte page. Strelkov said there were hundreds of people injured and killed in the attack, with up to 644 people dead, according to some sources he himself doubted.
“I’m 100 percent sure in the defeat of the PMC,” he later wrote, noting that he received the information from “several channels” in Syria.
After publishing the recordings, Pegov wrote that the floodgate was opened and his military sources began sending him more information.
“Artillery was unable to help the destroyed Wagner column not without reason – it was attacked by the U.S. drones almost immediately and disabled. The guys had almost no chances, after artillery fire the remnants of the column were hit from helicopters,” he wrote quoting anonymous participants in the fight.
On Monday, Conflict Intelligence Team released four names of people who died in the Deir Ezzor attack: Alexey Ladygin from the Russian city of Ryazan, Stanislav Matveev and Igor Kosoturov from Asbest, and Vladimir Loginov, born in Khabarovsk.
— CIT (en) (@CITeam_en) February 12, 2018
Kirill Ananyev, a member of the unregistered Other Russia party, has become the fifth person known to have died near Deir Ezzor. Information on his death was published on Monday on the party’s VKontakte page.
Update February 13:
U.S. Central Command on Tuesday released a video of one of the strikes.
The video is captioned: “Syrian Democratic forces acted in self defense with support from the Coalition to defeat an unprovoked Syrian pro-regime forces attack in eastern Syria late Feb. 7 and early Feb. 8, 2018.”
Update February 14
Another member of the unregistered Other Russia party has disappeared in Syria, party chairman Eduard Limonov wrote on his LiveJournal page on Wednesday.
“One more of our National Bolsheviks disappeared in Syria, cannot get in touch [with him]. We hope he will be found,” Limonov wrote, adding that the death of Russian citizens in the country was the result of a “betrayal.”
“It was not only PMC Wagner that was there, there were people from four PMCs, but the names [of the PMCs] will not add anything to your understanding [of the situation]. There were about two Companies there. They were really heading toward an oil field. But they were betrayed,” he added.
Limonov said all the people were experienced fighters who had participated in wars, “professionals,” and noted that it was still hard to say how many people actually died.
“Russian authorities did not send them there. In this case, Russian authorities bear irreparable damage to their reputation. That’s why they went far into defense. Our Ministry of Defense did not send them under fire either. They were betrayed by one of their own,” he argued.
Alexander Averin, another member of the Other Russia party and its spokesman, told The Defense Post that the National Bolshevik who disappeared served along with Kirill Ananyev, information about whose death was shared on Monday.
“In Syria, we are trying to reconnect with another National Bolshevik – he was in the same ‘Vesna/Karpaty [Spring/Carpathians]’ assault detachment as Kirill Ananyev. What happened to him is still unknown,” he said.
According to Averin, the wounded in the fight have been brought to Russia.
“I can confirm the arrival of the wounded from Syria in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In particular, in the hospitals of Burdenko and Vishnevsky. I am not ready to comment on their numbers, partially for ethical reasons – not all the relatives have been informed,” he said.
Meanwhile, a source in the Russian Foreign Ministry told TASS on Wednesday that the reports of mass casualties were not true.
“Reports on hundreds, dozens fatalities in Syria disseminated by some Western media outlets are classic misinformation,” the source said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry told Kommersant, however, that it is probing the incident.
“We are now checking the information on the victims, including CIS citizens. If the information is confirmed, we will surely publish it,” the ministry said.
According to the outlet’s source in the Russian military, the incident took place because local “big businessmen currently supporting Bashar Assad” attempted to seize oil and gas fields controlled by the Kurds.