Armed Services chair: US should be 'alert' about Russian mercenaries in Syria

Armed Services chair: US should be 'alert' about Russian mercenaries in Syria
© Greg Nash

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Tuesday the United States needs to be “alert” about Russia using mercenaries to hide its activities in Syria and elsewhere.

“I do think that we ought to be alert for the potential that Russia uses some sort of mercenary forces as a way to camouflage their activities, not only in Syria, but we may well see it in other places,” Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryPentagon chief denies White House hand in 'war cloud' contract probe U.S. and U.K. divide increases on Iran Republican lawmakers issue dueling letters over Pentagon 'war cloud' contract MORE (R-Texas) told reporters.

Thornberry’s comment came after a committee hearing with Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, in which he repeatedly refused to identify the composition of the force that struck U.S.-backed forces in Syria this month, prompting a U.S. airstrike that reportedly killed and injured hundreds.

At issue is an incident in Deir ez-Zour province, where forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and U.S.-backed forces have been converging to eliminate Syria’s last remaining pockets of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters. The United States and Russia have agreed to “deconflict” the area by having each of its forces stay on separate sides of the Euphrates River.

But on Feb. 7, the pro-Assad forces crossed the river and launched an “unprovoked” attack on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is backed the United States. The U.S. military responded by striking the pro-Assad forces.

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Russia has distanced itself from the incident, acknowledging that some of its citizens were killed and injured but stressing that its military was not involved in the attack.

Reports citing friends of the dead and injured and unnamed officials have said “scores” of Russian mercenaries were killed or hurt. The mercenaries were apparently working for a firm called Wagner, which has been linked to a Russian oligarch who was recently indicted by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerMueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony MORE for an alleged role in Moscow's meddling in the 2016 presidential election

Like other U.S. officials since the incident, Votel would say only Tuesday that the force that struck the SDF was a “pro-regime force,” despite repeated questions from lawmakers on the composition of the force.

“I think we have kind of characterized that as pro-regime forces,” Votel told Rep. Marc VeaseyMarc Allison VeaseyLawmakers clash after Dem reads letter on House floor calling Trump supporters 'racist,' 'dumb' Democrats face voters clamoring for impeachment Current, former lawmakers celebrate release of new book on Jack Brooks, 'The Meanest Man in Congress' MORE (D-Texas).

Asked about the incident later in the hearing by Rep. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyGabby Giffords participating in gun violence town hall in El Paso following mass shooting Poll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona Anti-gun violence organization endorses Kelly's Senate bid MORE (R-Ariz.), Votel said Russia’s denial of involvement “speaks for itself.”

“What I can tell you is throughout this entire event, we were in communications on our communication channel with the Russians before, during, after, and what they told us is these are not their forces, not their military forces,” he said. “So I think that kind of speaks for itself here in terms of what they are.”

Pressed by McSally on intelligence that confirms or refutes Russian mercenaries were involved, Votel said he would not discuss that in an open setting, but promised to answer her in the classified briefing after the hearing. 

Asked again for his own personal belief as to whether there were Russian mercenaries, Votel reiterated that “we have characterized them as pro-regime forces.”

Asked after the hearing about Votel’s reticence to identify the makeup of the force, Thornberry said he thinks facts are still being gathered.

“I think they have to be very careful about what they say,” Thornberry said. “It’s got to be based on facts, and I think they’re still gathering the facts. Some of the press reporting, I’ve got to say, has been remarkable in its specificity, even some quotes from some of those involved.”