The latest reports of Russian casualties in the Syrian war serve to underline the international character of the conflict. It is understood that up to fifteen mercenaries or private security contractors from the Russian Federation were killed when a booby-trap device was triggered in a munitions warehouse close to the town of Tabiya Jazira, near the American-owned ConocoPhillips’ gas field in the north-eastern province of Deir ez-Zor. At the time, the men and their escorts from the al-Baqir Brigade, a militia serving with the pro-regime Local Defence Forces, were removing a number of weapons from the building when the blast killed a total of twenty-three people.
The deaths came as forces loyal to the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad continued their push towards the valuable oil and gas fields on the eastern banks of the Euphrates, a region controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a loose alliance of Arab and Kurdish paramilitaries backed by some Western nations.
On the 7th and 8th of February, dozens of Russian military contractors were reportedly killed during fighting between pro- and anti-regime groups in the oil fields near the city of Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria, a populous conurbation besieged by the Islamic State until last November. Many of the combatants died in a series of airstrikes carried out by the United States Armed Forces. The majority of the these occurred during a failed, two day battalion-strength attack on a local base held by the SDF and US Special Forces, the attackers led by a significant contingent of advisers from the Russian Federation.
The recent clashes represent one of the few times Russian and American military forces have faced off against each other in open combat since the end of the Cold War, albeit mainly through proxy allies. It also illustrates how far Moscow has gone in cloning the same deniable technique of “private armies” employed by Washington over the last two decades. Though, arguably, this disreputable practice was pioneered by both countries during the Bosnian Civil War of 1992-95, a conflict with a more than passing resemblance to the current slaughter in Syria and its neighbours.