Defense Secretary Jim Mattis revealed to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday why he directed a military strike in February in Syria that reportedly killed hundreds of Russian mercenaries, the Washington Free Beacon reported.
Mattis said that a group of “irregular forces” was directly engaging with U.S. troops, and once it was learned that the forces were not Russian regulars, Mattis ordered a direct counterattack.
“The Russian high command in Syria assured us it was not their people, and my direction to the chairman was for the force, then, to be annihilated,” Mattis said. “And it was.”
The U.S. reportedly has a deconfliction line with Russia to ensure that the two countries communicate with one another in order to avoid direct conflict in the region. The lines of communication were open at the time of the incident, and U.S. forces tried to get an answer about who was responsible for the encounter.
Mattis was not the only one at the time to get confirmation from Moscow that the attackers were not Russian military forces.
U.S. Army Brigadier Gen. Jonathan Braga told an NBC reporter back in March that a phone call from the Russian government confirmed they had no knowledge of the engagement.
“The initial attack led to immediate phone conversations with the Russians to inquire what was going on, to cease this if they had any knowledge of this,” Braga said.
The Russians responded and said: “Those are not our forces, and at that time it was confusing,” the general added.
The force was, however, comprised of hundreds of Russian mercenaries. Then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo – now Secretary of State – announced at the time that the U.S. killed “a couple hundred Russians” in the strike.
Details of the confrontation and subsequent U.S. strike are still unclear, but Mattis stopped short of blaming Russia directly for the incident.
“I cannot target the responsibility to the Russians right now,” he told the committee. “It is a crowded battlefield; it’s also got Iranians there and, of course, the regime forces, as well.”
Russia’s involvement in Syria and alleged support of the Assad regime has pushed the U.S. into further conflicts in the region, much to the dismay of President Trump, who has expressed his desire to pull U.S. forces out of Syria entirely.
On April 14, the U.S. launched another airstrike against Syria – this time a joint effort with France and U.K. – following the devastating chemical attacks in Douma by Syrian President Bashar Assad against his own people.
Russia, a Syrian ally, denied that any chemical weapons were used and dismissed the possibility that Moscow was in any way involved with the attack.