The convoluted fighting in Syria pits the US and Russia on opposite sides, and a recent battle has resulted in this jarring description from Bloomberg: It may have been "the deadliest clash between citizens of the former foes since the Cold War." But so far, this hasn't become an international incident because of one key word in that description: "citizens." The Kremlin says the fighters killed were mercenaries, not Russian soldiers, and thus this wasn't a clash between the two nations' militaries. The US is going along with that, although defense chief James Mattis called the entire situation "perplexing." It remains unclear how many Russians were killed. Bloomberg quotes Russian sources who say about 200, while the New York Times uses "perhaps dozens" in its account.
“This is a big scandal and a reason for an acute international crisis,” says a former Russian diplomat turned political analyst. “But Russia will pretend nothing happened.” The Russians were apparently helping Syrian forces, or at least Syrian-allied forces, attack a base that is held by Kurdish forces with US support. The Kurds called in a US airstrike, and that airstrike is believed to have accounted for most of the deaths. A spokesman for the US military emphasized there was no risk of direct fighting between US and official Russian soldiers because “coalition officials were in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the thwarted, unprovoked attack." Adding to the murkiness is uncertainty over how much sway Moscow has over Russian contract fighters in Syria. (A new battlefront is emerging in Syria.)