Explosions flashed in the fog hanging over the Euphrates River like a coming summer storm.
The continuous thunder of Russian guns pounded the American positions in a burned-out natural gas refinery in eastern Syria. Tracers crisscrossed the Syrian sky. The Special Forces soldiers felt the rumble of the explosions through the armored cabins of their trucks.
The Special Forces team had been in combat against ISIS fighters for months, but this was different. ISIS, for the most part, was a few mortar rounds or spray-and-pray potshots from an AK-47. This was a trained Russian force with artillery and armored vehicles.
This was a fair fight, and the U.S. troops were driving into it.
"It looked like New York City on New Year's Eve," Chauncey, a former Special Forces team sergeant who helped lead a quick reaction force (QRF) to the refinery, tells The War Horse. "By far, the most chaotic battle scene that I've ever observed, let alone be a part of."
The soldiers' last names have been withheld to protect their identities.
In February 2018, the American Special Forces team deployed to Syria as part of the ongoing campaign against ISIS that began in 2015. But after months of successful operations against ISIS, the team now faced a new adversary. Around 500 pro-Syrian government forces, including Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, launched a nearly four-hour attack on a small group of 40 American Special Operations troops and their Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) allies at a Conoco natural gas refinery in eastern Syria. Among the largest in the area, it had multiple buildings that provided good cover. It offered the Russians a foothold on the east side of the river.
The Wagner Group seized oil and gas fields in Syria to protect them for the Assad government, with mercenaries earning a share of production proceeds, according to American intelligence officials. Documents obtained by The New York Times referred to the fighters at the refinery as a "pro-regime force," loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. While the group included some Syrian government soldiers and militias, American military and intelligence officials determined the majority were private Russian paramilitary mercenaries, likely affiliated with the Wagner Group, a company frequently used by the Kremlin to carry out objectives without appearing to be directly linked to the Russian government.
Exclusive interviews with three former Special Forces soldiers who fought in the battle reveal some of the first details about the clash from American troops on the ground. This is the first public, on-the-record account from participants of one of the deadliest battles the American military has faced in Syria since they deployed to fight ISIS in September 2014 under the Obama administration.
The possibility of Russian military forces and American troops colliding in Syria was a constant concern as the adversaries took opposing sides in Syria's seven-year civil war. In February 2018, this battle became one of the rare occasions that American and Russian combatants exchanged fire.
During a lull in the artillery barrage, the QRF, made up of Green Berets and Marines, finally arrived at the refinery and unleashed a barrage of gunfire, turning the tide of the battle. But the QRF's success was short-lived. Over the ridge, one of the Special Forces soldiers spotted the worst-case scenario:
Russian tanks slowly advanced toward the refinery.
'I Made Peace with What Was About to Happen'
The Wagner Group, a private Russian military company, has been accused of committing war crimes in multiple conflicts around the world.
The accusations against the Wagner Group have been widely reported in the media and have been the subject of investigations by various human rights organizations. Recently, the leader of the Wagner Group said the mercenaries would leave Bakhmut, Ukraine, because they don't have enough ammunition from the Russians to "grind the meat," and that his company has lost "tens of thousands" of people in Ukraine.
The U.S. government has also imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group. In January 2023, the United States named the "Russian proxy" group a "transnational criminal organization."
Despite the accusations, the Russian government has denied any official links to the Wagner Group and has dismissed the allegations of war crimes as baseless.
The Syrian battlefield was a confusing three-way shooting range, with American forces and their SDF allies battling ISIS fighters, even as pro-Syrian forces and their Wagner Group allies also hunted the terrorists. The oil-rich province of Deir al-Zour bordered Iraq. The Euphrates River divided the conflicting factions. Russia was on one side of the river, and the United States--and ISIS--on the other. It was often difficult to discern friend from foe, Josh says.
Andrew, a new team leader on his first deployment as a Special Forces officer, led the Special Forces team, which had cleared an area farther south. But they headed out again after seeing little activity. In the days leading up to the refinery attack, the Russians and Americans remained on opposite sides of the river.
The Russians planned to seize the oil refinery after arriving in Deir al-Zour governorate, Andrew says. A team of about 30 soldiers from Joint Special Operations Command was stationed at the refinery, while Andrew's team and platoon of Marines were located at a mission support site 20 minutes away, monitoring drone feeds of the area.
At three p.m., the Russian-led force began to gather near the refinery, and by early evening, more than 500 troops and 27 vehicles, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, were in position.
The situation confounded military officers and intelligence analysts in the region and in Washington as they watched on drone feeds. Pilots and ground crews across the region went on alert, while Andrew and Chauncey--the Special Forces team sergeant--gathered the team and prepared the QRF.
Soldiers loaded three M-ATV armored trucks and an MRAP armored truck with equipment, ammunition, and food. They staged the convoy so the soldiers and Marines could race to the trucks and leave immediately. They checked their weapons and ensured each had extra ammunition and thermal optics. A Black Hawk with additional medical support arrived with extra blood for transfusions, Andrew says.
By nightfall, everyone was prepared for a fight, but hoped they wouldn't have to be: The Special Forces armored trucks were no match for the Russian tanks.
At 8:30 p.m., three Russian-made T-72 tanks, weighing almost 50 tons and armed with 125 mm guns, moved to within a mile of the refinery. The Americans watched as artillery crews rehearsed firing the gun, but never loaded a shell, and soldiers massed near armored personnel carriers for an attack--alerting the Americans that the fighters were, in fact, Russian.
"I think part of the tell was that Russian doctrine says that they're going to do things that look like exercises right up into the point," says Josh, who monitored the Wagner Group's movements through the drone feeds.
Around 10 p.m., the American soldiers at the outpost saw a column of tanks and other armored vehicles turn and drive toward the refinery from a nearby neighborhood where they had attempted to gather undetected. Andrew and Chauncey raced to where Chauncey's team waited. They'd already loaded the trucks that evening.
"Hey men, the guys down there are getting attacked," Chauncey said. "We have to go and respond."
The five armored trucks peeled out of the outpost and down the road. They drove under blackout conditions--no headlights. An unarmored pickup truck with SDF troops led the team. The SDF forces didn't have night vision, so it was difficult for them to navigate the road, which was littered with debris, crater holes, and giant dirt berms to create serpentine barriers around checkpoints.
"We're hauling in the dark, and then, all of a sudden, you pump on these berms and it's a mad dash to get slowed down and then serpentine through these berms and then get moving again," Josh says.
As the Special Forces convoy approached the refinery, the Russian mercenaries and Syrian forces attacked the outpost, using a mixture of tank fire, large artillery, and mortar rounds. The air was filled with dust and shrapnel. The commandos crouched behind trucks or dirt berms as the Russian mercenaries advanced behind the artillery barrage.
One Predator was on station when the attack started. It fired all of its hellfire missiles, destroying the enemy artillery so the U.S. troops could focus on the ground fight. Then the Predator lingered over the battlefield to provide a video feed of the fighting to battle captains in the command center and officials in Washington.
For the first 15 minutes, American military officials in Washington worked to contact their Russian counterparts and urge them to stop the attack. When the Russians denied it was their forces, American troops fired warning shots at a group of vehicles and a howitzer, but the troops continued to advance.
The Wagner mercenaries had a surface-to-air system that made it impossible for American aircraft to press the attack. Only after officials in Washington talked to their Russian counterparts did the surface-to-air system get shut down, allowing American aircraft to return and attack.
The SDF truck leading the Special Forces convoy stopped short of the compound as artillery shells rained down on the refinery. Up ahead, the sky flashed with explosions and tracer fire. The SDF soldiers in the unarmored truck leading the convoy took one look, turned around, and took off.
Smartest man on the battlefield, Chauncey remembers thinking.
Others had the same reaction. Over the radio, they heard the American commando force in the refinery. Every time the commandos keyed their mics, explosions from incoming rounds drowned out their transmissions. It felt like being in the front row of an arena rock show. The commandos could feel the sound in their chests.
"I made peace with what was about to happen," Josh says. "Because of what was coming over the radio, I was like, 'We have to get there for our dudes.'"
Inside the compound, the commandos and their SDF allies were dug in. Without heavy weapons, they could do nothing but hunker down. During a lull in the artillery barrage, Andrew got on the radio with the commandos' commander, who "sparkled" them into the perimeter using an infrared laser. Jumping from his truck to talk with the commandos' commander, Andrew spotted defensive positions on the berm with commandos or SDF fighters next to six-foot craters where artillery shells had landed.
Miraculously, the small team of American troops emerged unscathed, with only one allied Syrian fighter wounded. The commandos' commander was relieved to see the team.
"We're just hiding behind the trucks eating artillery," he told the Special Forces team.
But that was just the start. The Russians had a combined arms battalion of about 500 soldiers, tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery with support elements close by. The Americans now had a half-dozen trucks and fewer than 50 guys.
"The scale of this thing is a big part of this and why the air support was so critical," Josh says.
Another wave of fighters were inbound, but not on station yet, as the Russians advanced.
"They're not going to be here for a while," the commando commander told Andrew. "Can you guys see?"
The commandos were lightly armed with only machine guns and small arms that lacked the range or punch to do real damage to the Russians. The five QRF trucks, armed with .50-caliber machine guns, could see the whole battlefield and had the range to engage the Russians advancing toward the refinery. The Special Forces trucks lined up behind the berm facing the advancing pro-Syrian troops and Wagner Group mercenaries.
The enemy opened fire with a twin-barrel anti-aircraft autocannon, sending a steady stream of shells into the compound.
As the trucks pulled into the defensive line, Chauncey got on the internal truck radio to rally the team.
"Hey, this is what we get paid for," he remembers telling the three other Special Forces soldiers. "I want everybody to be alert, aware, like eyes open. If you see anything at all, give us a distance, direction, description of what you see. Call out what you see, and then we'll make decisions on the fly and get busy."
'They're Not Hitting Anything'
The Russian mercenaries left their vehicles and moved toward the outpost on foot. The Special Forces team used joysticks to fire the heavy machine guns in remote turrets on the roof.
Hey, these guys must think that they just annihilated this location, Chauncey remembers thinking as he watched the Russians approach. They're just going to walk up and take it.
There were no friendly forces in front, so the gunners didn't have to worry about hitting civilians. If it moved, it was likely an enemy, and they were cleared to engage.
"Let's open up and let 'em know we're here," Chauncey said.
Josh's team in truck two tracked a small group of mercenaries about 1,000 meters from the trucks and closing. The gunner rotated the .50-caliber machine gun robotically stabilized on the roof. It could put thousands of rounds on target from more than 1,000 yards. Even on cyclic, where the gun doesn't stop shooting until it runs out of bullets, it could maintain a grouping that fits on the hood of a small car. A targe
"Laz these guys and shoot 'em," Josh said.
The gunner--an explosive ordnance disposal tech attached to the team--hit the trigger but didn't depress the safety. After a few attempts to fire, Josh reached for the controller. Josh zeroed in on the group of Russian and pro-Syrian fighters and fired. The .50-caliber machine gun on top of the truck roared and the white-hot silhouettes of men approaching the berm exploded into parts scattered across the black sand.
Seconds after Josh cut down the group, the whole horizon lit up with machine gun fire. The rest of the Russian force, dug into hasty fighting positions after the airstrikes, hammered the berm with small arms and machine-gun fire. The Special Forces gunners marked Russian vehicles and fighting positions. It didn't take long for the American machine guns to start "talking," meaning there was no space between bursts as the different guns fired at the Russian positions. The wall of fire was steady and overwhelming, forcing the Wagner mercenaries and pro-Syrian forces to take cover.
"We're a lot more accurate than they are," Chauncey says. "We can see the sparks flying from hitting metal. We can see fighting positions getting shot up. We know that we are having good effects and we're killing personnel."
The terrain was baseball-diamond flat. Dirt from the berm kicked up in front of the trucks as the mercenaries and pro-Syrian forces advanced. But they didn't hit any of the trucks. The Special Forces soldiers figured the Syrian soldiers and Russians lacked night vision.
"They can't be that bad a shot," Josh said. "They're not hitting anything."
Soon, the machine gun on Josh's truck ran out of ammunition. A giant canister that held about 400 rounds sat next to the gun. To reload it, someone had to climb outside the truck amid a maelstrom of shrapnel and machine-gun bullets and feed belts of ammunition into the canister.
Three soldiers, including Josh, sat in the truck. The driver had to stay in case the truck needed to move. The EOD tech wasn't trained to reload the gun. That left Josh. A hatch in the truck's roof could split open. But the seal was so tight that, to open it, Josh would have to lie on his back in the center seat and kick it. And additional equipment and supplies crowded the roof.
He would have to risk the bullets and shrapnel.
Josh popped open his armored passenger side door and climbed onto the truck's roof. The EOD tech handed him ammunition belts so he could connect them into a daisy chain and S-fold them into the container--otherwise the gun would jam.
Josh got to work reloading the canister, but his night vision scopes focused on a set distance, making close-in work difficult. He connected two belts--about 100 rounds--and was reaching for another belt when an artillery round landed nearby. The shockwave hit Josh in the chest, followed by an earth-shattering thud.
He needed to reload faster.
Flipping up his night vision goggles, he flicked on a headlamp with a red lens that hung around his neck so he could load the last belts. A few seconds after he turned on his light, he heard a chopping sound.
Tracers from the anti-aircraft cannon climbed into the air in line with the truck.
Why are they shooting tracers? Josh remembers wondering, just as it dawned on him that the tracers were aimed at his red light.
He flicked off the light and huddled down as the first rounds from the cannon arrived. The noise wasn't the hard snap from a rifle but something deeper.
It was so loud he couldn't hear himself cackling as the shells passed overhead and landed harmlessly behind him. Josh knew he was in trouble. He couldn't count on them to miss again.
He needed to get into the truck.
You idiot, he remembers thinking. You put your headlamp on. They just called your bluff. You put your light on. One could have had your number on it and there wouldn't have been anything left to send back. I need to get the gun back up--and before I eat a Red Bull can-sized slug while I'm doing it.
He folded the last bands of ammunition into the canister and scrambled back into the armored crew compartment.
A few trucks away, Chauncey drew out his team's positions and estimated where the Wagner Group positions were located on a piece of paper. He felt confident because, in his mind, they were winning. Then he got a call from one of the team's trucks.
"Hey Zulu," the Special Forces soldier said, using the team sergeant's call sign.
"What's up?" Chauncey said. "Go ahead. Send your traffic."
"Hey, I got eyes on these really big vehicles."
Chauncey knew what they were, but no one wanted to say it.
Russian tanks were advancing.
'We're Going to Stay and Fight'
Chauncey counted 10 tanks on the horizon. They moved forward slowly, one at a time.
"Gimme five rounds on that really big vehicle," Chauncey said to the truck team that spotted the tanks.
On an older model tank, the .50 caliber might punch some holes through the armor. Not so on newer models. The bullets would bounce right off. If they had the newer models, the Special Forces team was in trouble.
"Roger that," the gunner said over the radio, and opened fire.
Chauncey saw the tracers race across the black sky. Five rounds right on target. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.
Followed by bing, bing, bing, bing, bing.
Chauncey hit his gunner on the leg.
"Hey, gimme five rounds on that tank that's further to the west, further to our right."
"Roger that, five rounds."
The gunner rotated the machine gun above Chauncey's head and fired. Five out. Five rounds bounced.
"Hey, truck two -- get eyes on that center vehicle," Chauncey radioed to Josh.
"Yep. Roger that."
"Gimme five rounds."
They were in trouble.
The Russian tanks were about 2,000 meters away, which in a tank battle means close range. But the Russian crew lacked the night vision capability to move at speed. Andrew and Chauncey came up with a hasty plan: Without aircraft cover, they'd have to abandon the plant.
"Hey, what's up with aircraft?" Chauncey asked Andrew.
He was fighting to get aircraft on station. Andrew called back to the commandos.
"Hey, you guys got anything?" he said.
No one had an answer on aircraft. Andrew didn't know the Russians had an anti-aircraft missile system active, denying the airspace. Meanwhile, on the ground, the Special Forces team would die without help.
They had to slow down the tanks while the team and commandos consolidated and waited for air cover.
But Andrew knew they couldn't leave. That would open the path for a large Russian force to continue north with nothing stopping it from reaching the American support base and controlling the region his team had just spent months clearing of ISIS. It also gave them access to a network of oil and natural gas refineries in the region.
"Keep shooting and marking anything armor with tracers for when aircraft checks in," Andrew said.
Chauncey knew the team was united. They called the team a pirate ship because if anything happened, they were all going down together. And now facing tanks, that was a real chance. Despite recent showings on the battlefields of Ukraine, the tank is still an apex predator on the battlefield. The American Special Forces didn't have a weapon that could stop them. It was like being stalked by a turtle. With every minute, the tanks slowly closed.
Chauncey keyed his mic.
"We're going to stay and fight," he told the team.
No one questioned the order. But privately, for the second time in the battle, Josh considered his chances of survival. He'd already tempted fate with his headlamp. It was only a matter of time before the tanks would be close enough to hit the MAT-V trucks, and despite being armored, they stood no chance against the tank's 125 mm cannon.
"Everything that we've accomplished, and this is where everything ends," Josh tells The War Horse. "Against Russian mercenaries with tanks. Not even the enemy that we came to fight. We had to make peace with the possibility of not making it back, but it was easier to swallow knowing we were defending our friends and doing what needed to be done."
Despite long odds, the American trucks continued to fire at the oncoming tanks and Russian positions. The tank gun barrels flashed under the green hue of the night vision goggles as the shells whistled overhead. The Special Forces trucks sat on the berm, easy targets had the Russians been able to shoot at night. Despite closing, every tank round missed.
But the tanks were getting close, with one less than a kilometer away, despite a steady stream of fire from the American trucks.
From the corner of his eye, Chauncey saw a flash. The first tank, which had closed to less than a kilometer, exploded in a massive fireball.
"What the heck was that?"
He craned his neck to see out of the small, bullet-resistant windows. Before Chauncey got an answer, a tank farther to the west exploded as two pairs of Apache attack helicopters flew overhead. Once they cleared the berm, the attack helicopters opened fire with the chain gun under the cockpit, raking Russian fighting positions. The Special Forces team lit up the advancing tanks with machine gun fire as the Apaches circled for another run.
"As soon as they saw us shoot something, it blew up," Chauncey said. "They cut through tanks, and they just came in and laid waste for the next probably 45 minutes. They just destroyed everything."
The Apaches arrived just in time. Josh vividly remembers hearing the chain gun go off and then more rockets striking the tanks.
"I'm a full believer that without the air that responded to us on station, we all would've been a bunch of grease stains on the earth in a line in an oil field in Syria."
'Just Tighten Your Helmet and Lock the Doors'
Things were looking up when a battle captain in the command center radioed Andrew.
"Hey, just be advised, incoming bomber," the battle captain said.
"Roger," Andrew said, happy to have more air cover.
"No, dude," the battle captain said. "Russian bomber inbound."
American aircraft had superiority over Syria, but if the Russians were sending a bomber, that changed the battlefield calculus. Andrew got on the team net and warned them about the incoming bomber.
"Do what you want with it, but there's nothing you can do," Andrew said. "Just tighten your helmet and lock the doors."
For the next several minutes, Andrew waited for the bomber. Would it drop or just buzz them? He'd survived a tank battle already, but this was worse. A 500-pound bomb would kill his whole team. Just before the bomber was supposed to arrive, the battle captain called back.
The Russians turned back.
An hour later, the Russian fighters started to retreat. Russian and American officials declared a cease-fire, and the Special Forces watched as the mercenaries and Syrian fighters returned to collect their dead. Bodies and burnt vehicles were laid out in front of them.
It was two hours to dawn. The team watched from the berm as the Russians cleared the field. The team ran an ammo check and cross-loaded supplies. Andrew ordered his men to rest and try to eat. Sleep in shifts if they could. But most were too jacked on adrenaline.
The next day, Chauncey saw coverage of the battle on CNN. It sounded clinical and watered down. Nothing like what he'd experienced the night before.
"We went through 4,000 or 6,000 rounds [of .50 caliber] that night," Andrew says. "I think the total [battle damage assessment] after the fact was like 350 [killed]."
The exact casualty count for the Feb. 7 fight is unclear, but sources have estimated between 100 and 300 Russian and pro-Syrian fighters were killed or wounded in the battle. Russian officials claim only five Russian citizens died, but audio recordings of Wagner Group soldiers suggest hundreds of mercenaries were killed. One Wagner Group veteran confirmed the Apache attack in the recordings, describing it as "a f---ing merry-go-round with heavy-caliber machine guns."
"To make it short, we've had our f---ing asses kicked," one Wagner Group veteran says in a recording. "They tore us to pieces. ... They beat our asses like we were little pieces of shit."
Nine of the 10 tanks were destroyed, as well as all six artillery pieces. The Special Forces team destroyed the lone surviving tank a few days later.
"We did not sustain a single injury," Chauncey says. "We didn't sustain a single death. I mean, guys were dinged up. Guys had PTSD from that battle, but everyone made it home."
This War Horse feature was reported by Kevin Maurer, edited by Kelly Kennedy, fact-checked by Jess Rohan and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Headlines are by Abbie Bennett.