Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate nears surprise deal on short-term debt ceiling hike Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon chiefs to Congress: Don't default Pentagon chiefs say debt default could risk national security MORE said Saturday it’s still unclear who directed a strike that killed U.S.-backed forces in Syria earlier this month.
“I still cannot give you any more information on why they would do this. But they took direction from someone. Was it local direction? Was it from external sources? Don’t ask me. I don’t know,” Mattis told reporters while en route to Washington, according to a Pentagon transcript.
U.S. forces killed “scores” of Russians and pro-Syrian government forces in a Feb. 7 airstrike that officials said was carried out in response to an “unprovoked” attack on the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The Russian government said contractors were involved in the initial attack on SDF forces, but denied that their military forces were part of the initial attack, Mattis said.
“So whatever happened, we’ll try to figure it out. We’ll work with, obviously, anyone who can answer that question,” Mattis added.
Days after the Feb. 7 attack, a U.S. drone destroyed a Russian-made T-72 tank in eastern Syria, reportedly killing three people, after the aircraft came under fire.
Reuters reported that Russia is using contractors in Syria because it allows them to put boots on the ground to carry out missions assigned to them by the Russian military.
The U.S. and Russia are backing opposite sides in the Syrian conflict.