In the early years of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the US coalition forces engaged in conflict with Syrian pro-government militia and Russian private military contractors after they attacked a Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) position near Khasham. The resulting conflict became known as the Battle of Khasham and saw no American troops harmed, despite the barrage of fire.
Occurring in 2018, the media called the incident “the first deadly clash between citizens of Russia and the United States since the Cold War.”
Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) began in 2014
In the fall of 2014, as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the US launched its military intervention efforts in Syria. The purpose was to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forces. By 2017, the Syrian Democratic Forces had successfully captured Raqqa, thanks to US military support, and were pushing toward the Euphrates. Located there was a deconfliction line established by the governments of both the US and Russia.
Since 2015, Russia has participated in air operations in Syria, in support of the Syrian government. Additionally, Russian private military contractors – primarily those with the Wagner Group – have been engaged in Syria. However, their involvement in ground operations was never officially confirmed by the Russian government.
A growing presence of militia fighters
An outpost in Conoco, near Khasham, served as the headquarters for the Syrian Democratic Forces. Stationed there were 30 US soldiers with the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (Delta Force) and the 75th Ranger Regiment (Army Rangers), to provide assistance to the nearby Kurdish forces.
Beyond this, the outpost was supported by US Marines and Green Berets stationed 20 miles away, providing them with both reconnaissance and surveillance information.
On February 7, 2018, these forces were becoming progressively more encircled by a group of over 500 pro-government militia supported by T-72 and T-55 tanks. Drone surveillance gave them advanced warning, allowing them to put together a quick-reaction force to aid in any conflict that might arise.
Battle of Khasham commences
At around 10:00 PM that evening, the Russian and Syrian militia began their assault on the outpost.
Using artillery and mortar rounds in what the US officials called an “uncoordinated attack,” the American soldiers retaliated by firing Javelin anti-tank missiles. As The New York Times reported, “The air was filled with dust and shrapnel. […] For the first 15 minutes, American military officials called their Russian counterparts and urged them to stop the attack. When that failed, American troops fired warning shots at a group of vehicles and a howitzer.”
Prior to the eruption of the Battle of Khasham, military officials at the Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar had spotted the growing Russian and pro-government force and quickly deployed air support.
“American warplanes arrived in waves, including Reaper drones, F-22 stealth fighter jets, F-15E Strike Fighters, B-52 bombers, AC-130 gunships and AH-64 Apache helicopters,” The New York Times wrote. “For the next three hours, American officials said, scores of strikes pummeled enemy troops, tanks and other vehicles. Marine rocket artillery was fired from the ground.”
Late arrival of the quick response forces
The Battle of Khasham had run for about three hours before the quick response force of Marines and Green Berets finally arrived. The drivers had to rely on night vision equipment to navigate the dark terrain, as they didn’t want to give away their approaching position with their headlights.
Additionally, the roads they’d traveled were “littered with felled power lines and shell craters.” In fact, halfway there, the force had to stop as “the barrage of artillery was too dangerous to drive through until airstrikes silenced the enemy’s howitzers and tanks,” The New York Times reported.
The QRF finally arrived at 1:00 AM, just as the enemies’ vehicles were burning and they were transitioning to an on-foot attack.
Aftermath of the Battle of Khasham and transparency
The Battle of Khasham came to a close not long after. when the enemy finally retreated. No American troops were harmed in the engagement, whereas between 200-300 of the enemy fighters were killed.
When it came time to address the situation, US officials were transparent about what had occurred. They explained how the pro-government forces, along with the Russians, had initiated the attack against the Syrian Democratic Forces while the Americans were east of the Euphrates deconfliction line.
The Russian Ministry of Defence provided their own statement regarding the Battle of Khasham, stating how it had been caused by reconnaissance conducted by Syrian militias that hadn’t been cleared by the Russian operations command. They insisted that there were no Russian service members in the designated district of Dei ez-Zor province.
US officials kept in constant contact with the Russians
Following the Battle of Khasham, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, commander of the US Air Forces Central Command, said that, prior, “The coalition observed a slow buildup of personnel and equipment the previous week, and we reminded Russian officials of the SDF and coalition presence via the telephone deconfliction line. This was well in advance of the enemy forces’ attack.”
Throughout the engagement, US officials were in constant contact with the official Russian liaison officer in Deir ez-Zor. They made sure only to open fire once they were told that absolutely no regular Russian troops were participating.
Did the Russians approve of the Battle of Khasham?
While Russian officials claim they had no part in authorizing the attack at Conoco, two sources alleged that a Russian minister was involved. On February 22, 2018, The Washington Post published an article alleging that communications between the late leader of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin and senior Syrian and Kremlin officials had been intercepted.
In these communications, Prigozhim was said to have “secured permission” from an unnamed Russian minister to go ahead with an attack and that all that was needed was approval from the Syrian government. Additionally, the Ukraine-based anti-Russian publication InformNapalm alleged the attack had been cleared by Sergej Kim, the chief of Wagner’s operations department and a former Russian naval infantry officer.
Despite these claims, Russian officials continued to assure the public that they weren’t involved in the attack.