US troops in Syria are digging in and preparing for future attacks after a massive battle played out in the country's east that ended with up to 300 Russian mercenaries killed by US artillery and airpower.
Reporting from the ground in Syria, NBC News' Richard Engel and Kennet Werner spoke to Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga, whose forces beat back the pro-Syrian government advance on a well known US position near valuable oilfields.
The Pentagon said the pro-Syrian forces, including many Russians hired by private military contractors, made an "unprovoked attack" on their positions with artillery fire. The US response included airstrikes and artillery shelling that sources say wiped out much of the advancing column in just minutes.
"Those artillery rounds could have landed and killed Americans, and that's why we continue to prepare our defenses," Braga, who directs the US-led operations against ISIS, told NBC News.
US Marines with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit fire an M777 Howitzer during a fire mission in northern Syria. (Photo by Lance Cpl. Zachery Laning)
Braga also confirmed that it was largely Russian nationals that took part in the fighting, though the Kremlin denies this.
But despite the overwhelming victory that saw zero casualties on the US side, Braga said he's "absolutely concerned" about further clashes in the future.
After the massive battle, Russian job listing sites were seen as advertising security work in Syria, in what is likely a recruitment play for more mercenaries. A man claiming to recruit Russians to work as private military contractors said that the recruits he now met were joining up to take revenge on the US after the battle shook their national pride.
Possible round two
An AH-64D Apache attack helicopter flies in front of a wall of fire during the South Carolina National Guard Air and Ground Expo at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, South Carolina. (Photo by Air National Guard)
Now, according to NBC News, the forces that once attacked the US sit just three miles away, and Braga is uneasy.
"There is no reason for that amount of combat power to be staring at us this closely," Braga said. "I don't think that's healthy for de-escalation."
As a result, Braga's forces are digging in and preparing for what could be a future clash.
Russia stands accused of using military contractors, or Russian nationals without proper Russian military uniforms, to conceal the true cost of fighting in places like Ukraine and Syria.
But when the Russian mercenaries were crushed by US airpower, they reportedly had no anti-aircraft weaponry.
It's unclear how the Russian mercenaries and pro-Syrian government forces expect to stand a chance against the US without the involvement of the proper Russian military, or at least weapons that can take down the US Apache helicopters that are said to have strafed and mopped up the mercenaries towards the end of the battle.