United States still unsure who directed attack on U.S.-backed forces in Syria: Jim Mattis

Vastavam web: The United States is still unsure who directed a Feb. 7 attack on U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in Syria, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Saturday, even as he acknowledged accounts that Russian civilian contractors were involved.The U.S. has estimated about 100 pro-Syrian government forces were killed by U.S. strikes to repel the Feb. 7 attack.

Russian military officers told the United States during the incident that Moscow was not involved. The Pentagon has declined to comment on the exact makeup of the attacking forces and Mattis appeared at a loss to explain the incident 10 days later.Mattis said he “understood” that Moscow had acknowledged contractors were involved, without elaborating on whether that understanding came from press reports. Russian officials have told reporters that five Russian citizens may have been killed in clashes with U.S.-led coalition forces.

Still, Russian officials deny they deploy private military contractors in Syria, saying Moscow’s only military presence is a campaign of air strikes, a naval base, military instructors training Syrian forces, and limited numbers of special forces troops.The contractors, mostly ex-military, carry out missions assigned to them by the Russian military, the people familiar with the deployment said. Most are Russian citizens, though some have Ukrainian and Serbian passports.

The United States and Russia, while backing opposite sides in the Syria conflict, have taken pains to make sure that their forces do not accidentally collide. But the presence of the Russian contractors adds an element of unpredictability.The U.S. military has said the attacking forces were aligned with the Syrian government and were backed by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars.“I doubt that 257 people all just decided on their individual own selves to suddenly cross the river into enemy territory and start shelling a location and maneuvering tanks against it,” Mattis said.