Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga reported to NBC News last week that American troops likely killed “hundreds” of Syrian forces during a successful air strike this month.
The artillery fire was a response to the surprise attack on a U.S.-held base in the Deir el-Zour region in early February.
Between 200 and 300 pro-regime fighters are thought to have died in the American bombing. While Syrian fighters were the primary target, many of those killed are also believed to have been Russian mercenaries. Moscow has downplayed the situation and insists that none of its regular soldiers were involved in the confrontation.
However, Braga said he was “absolutely concerned” the conflict could have escalated into a much larger confrontation with Russia.
The clash between U.S. forces and the alleged Russian mercenaries is believed to have been the deadliest meeting between the two countries since the end of the Cold War.
Russia so far as only confirmed the deaths of “several dozen” of its citizens, but has insisted that its military was in no way involved with the situation. The statement by the Kremlin contradicts earlier reports that originally suggested it had no information on the deaths of any Russian mercenaries in the region.
“We only deal with the data that concerns Russian forces servicemen,” said President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “We don’t have data about other Russians who could be in Syria.”
“It’s notable that both Russia and the U.S. tried to downplay it, especially given the casualties involved,” said Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. “The U.S. doesn’t see any interest in escalating with Russia,” Bonsey said.
The Pentagon confirmed that the air strikes were retaliation for the “unprovoked” advance on land controlled by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces back on Feb. 7. That confrontation also included Russian private military contractors along with Syrian forces. No embedded U.S troops were believed to have been wounded or killed in the attack.
“Those [incoming] artillery rounds could have landed and killed Americans and that’s why we continue to prepare our defences,” Braga told NBC News.
U.S. officials said the Feb. 7 incident was the largest attack that American forces had faced in the region since they entered the conflict. The goal of the attacking forces was likely to attempt to capture several oil and natural gas fields currently being held by U.S. allies, according to multiple U.S. military officials with direct knowledge of the incident.