Did Russia and America Almost Go to War in Syria?

June 16, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaMilitaryTechnologyAmericaSyria

Did Russia and America Almost Go to War in Syria?

A scary account of a battle that could have ended in a showdown like no other. 

At 10:30 p.m., tank, howitzer, heavy mortar shells and rockets began raining down around the base at Khasham. The Pentagon claims thirty rounds landed within five hundred meters. The Rangers and Delta Force operators returned fire with machine guns and Javelin missiles, which penetrate the thin top armor of a tank. Russian mercenary accounts claim that at this time the Syrian attack force chased away a forward screen of SDF defender.

Around the same time, Der Spiegel claims that Baqir Brigade militias in Tabiya to the south launched a separate northward thrust, apparently placing the SDF base at Khasham in a pincer.

Death from the Sky

Even after the shooting started, the U.S. military supposedly placed a final call on the deconfliction hotline asking for confirmation that there were no Russian forces amongst the attackers. Once so assured, the JTAC teams called in the full extent of U.S. air power, which had been on standby the entire time.

Meanwhile, a sixteen-man relief force of U.S. Marines and Green Berets began rolling towards Khasham in four mine-resistant trucks known as MRAPs. These were likely M-ATV or Cougars, boxy 4x4 all-terrain vehicles weighing fourteen to sixteen tons each with remote weapon stations and V-shaped hulls affording them greater survivability than a Humvee. However, war-torn roads slowed the progress of the relief column. An hour into their advance, they found artillery fire and tanks on over-watch barring their advance.

It fell to air and artillery support to clear the way. The Marine HIMARS battery unleashed at least twelve rockets targeting Syrian artillery. F-22A Raptor stealth fighters soared overhead to provide air defense, while thirty-six-foot-long MQ-9 Reaper drones spied out ground targets with their sensors and destroyed them with missiles. Twin-engine F-15E Strike Eagle jets capable of lugging over eleven tons of weapons screamed over the battlefield, while huge B-52H bombers manufactured in the 1960s flew high above, dropping precision-guided bombs onto targets designated by observers.

The deluge reportedly destroyed the artillery and twenty vehicles, including nine tanks, including three T-72s. The Pentagon later released footage of air strikes annihilating a T-72 tank just after it fired a shell and smashing an M-30 howitzer. A Russian mercenary claimed that only a single tank and BRDM-2 survived the assault—the rest destroyed “in the first minutes of the fight.” However, according to U.S. accounts, the attackers—who advanced within three hundred to seven hundred meters according to Russian mercenaries—dismounted to launch an infantry assault.

However, the air strikes had cleared the way for the relief force, which arrived at Khasham at 1 a.m. and quickly resupplied the defenders with machine gun rounds and Javelin missiles. Remotely operated heavy machine guns mounted on the vehicles soon began blazing at the attackers.

Though facing hundreds of Syrian attackers possibly stiffened with Russian mercenaries, the roughly forty U.S. operators and the orbiting warplanes and drones were lavishly equipped with night vision goggles. With their armor and artillery destroyed, the Kalashnikov-armed attackers would have been reduced to blindly firing at distant troops well entrenched in foxholes or taking cover behind vehicles and sand berms. Only one SDF fighter and no U.S. soldiers were wounded.

The U.S. Special Forces also called upon their own specialized AC-130W Stinger II or AC-130U Spooky gunships. These are lumbering Hercules transport planes carrying rapid-fire automatic cannons and even a 105-millimeter howitzer, all of which could be precisely targeted at personnel at night using infrared sensors. (The Stinger II can also launch missiles.)

By 2 a.m., the Syrian militias were in full retreat as U.S. air attacks continued to scourge them. According to profanity-laden mercenary accounts, the worst fire came from four U.S. Army AH-64 Apache helicopters that circled the battlefield like vultures, raking retreating fighters with thirty-millimeter chain guns in “a f—ing merry-go-round.” Reportedly, the attackers lacked anti-aircraft weapons with which to return effective fire.

While the New York Times characterized the engagement as lasting four hours, Syrian militia sources told Der Spiegel that the attacks continued until 4:30 a.m. and that several men approaching out of Tabiya were killed attempting to recover the dead and wounded. SDF General Hassan recalled receiving a telephone call requesting a ceasefire to allow the recovery of the dead—from an officer who had said there were no Russian soldiers in the area.

Fighting erupted several more times in subsequent days and weeks. An MQ-9B Reaper drone destroyed a T-72 tank with a missile the area on February 9 after receiving fire from Assad-aligned forces. On February 15, an apparently “booby trapped” warehouse exploded in Tabqah, reportedly killing more than a dozen Wagner mercenaries. Then in March 2, a renewed Syrian attack was apparently averted only after the Pentagon observed the buildup and made calls over the deconfliction line. The United States, SDF and Syrian forces fought smaller-scale skirmishes in April and May.

However, the mystery remains—just who exactly had attacked the U.S. base in Khasham February 7-8, and how many perished in that attempt?

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

Image: Reuters