NEW YORK, (BM) – According to US military and diplomatic officials, Russia is stepping up a campaign of pressure on US forces in northeastern Syria after the withdrawal of US troops from most of the area last fall on the eve of the Turkish offensive on Syrian territory.
Russian troops are increasingly clashing with US forces on highways in the region, violating the agreement between the two countries, according to which their troops should keep their distance from each other.
Russian helicopters fly closer to the locations of American troops. And on Wednesday, US-led coalition forces in the convoy returned fire after they were attacked by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad near the checkpoint, supported by Russia.
US officials say these actions by Russian forces and their Syrian allies are aimed at creating many constant problems, threatening security, testing the enemy’s willingness and determination, invading its territory in order to gradually create new realities in the war zone and weaken US military presence in the country.
In Syria, there is still an American contingent of 500 troops, whose task is to protect oil fields and assist in the fight against the remnants of the armed forces of the Islamic State (a terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation – approx. Ed.).
“Such cases do not occur on a daily basis, but their number is growing, which is worrisome,” James Jeffrey, the US State Department’s special envoy for Syria, told reporters last week.
The confrontation risks escalating into a serious hostile clash between Washington and Moscow in the north-east of the country, while Russian-backed Syrian government forces stepped up the offensive against enclaves held by opposition groups in Idlib, in northwestern Syria.
“We know that they are exerting pressure,” Vice Admiral Tim Szymanski, former commander of the US Navy special operations force, said in an interview. He agrees with the opinions of other government and independent analysts, according to which Russians will continue to seek advantage in northeastern Syria, even in areas patrolled by US forces and allies, Syrian Kurds, as well as in territories where Russian military personnel should not be.
On Wednesday, a convoy led by members of the U.S. Army was stopped at a Syrian army checkpoint east of Kamyshly. On the social media photos and videos taken at the scene of the incident, and later confirmed by the Pentagon, armored vehicles with American, Russian and Syrian flags standing next to each other are visible. Some residents threw stones at American armored vehicles.
One local resident poured a bucket of dirt into the back seat of one of the armored vehicles. And the other, according to the representative of the Ministry of Defense, tried to set fire to several armored vehicles.
A short skirmish ensued, during which one Syrian died. There were no casualties among the Americans, but in the confusion that occurred, one of them was slightly injured – he has a deep scratch on his arm, the official said.
“After coalition troops issued a few warnings and tried to defuse the situation, unidentified individuals fired on a small arms patrol,” said Colonel Myles Caggins, an official spokesman for the US-led coalition in Baghdad, which controls the operation in the northeast Syria. “For self-defense, the coalition forces returned fire.”
The representative of the Russian Defense Ministry said that “preventing the further escalation of the conflict” was allowed by the arrival of Russian troops at the scene of the incident, TASS reported. Later, US officials denied this statement.
This “skirmish” was sharply criticized by Brett McGurk, the former special envoy of President Trump in a coalition fighting the Islamic State.
“We in Syria have American soldiers who have not clearly indicated their mission (“oil protection”) after Trump ordered them to leave, leaving three quarters of the once stable territory. And now they are forced to “maneuver”, moving along roads controlled by Russian forces and the forces of the Syrian regime,” McGark wrote on Twitter. “They demand too much from our brave warriors.”
In October last year, Donald Trump unexpectedly ordered the complete withdrawal of thousands of American troops who helped Syrian Kurdish groups fight isolated groups of Islamic State militants. Thus, he opened the way for a bloody offensive by the Turkish troops that invaded Syria. Then Trump just as suddenly changed his mind and allowed to leave about 500 troops in Syria (but in a much smaller area of operations).
Since then, according to US military officials, Russia and its Syrian allies have gone beyond the agreements reached by Russia and the United States about whose armies will patrol and which territories. To avoid clashes with each other in the war zone, both sides established special communication channels, a process that the Pentagon calls deconfliction.
But Trump made it very clear that he was skeptical of the mission in Syria, and, according to analysts, Moscow considers this an invaluable opportunity.
“A full-scale confrontation between Russian and American troops is dangerous because Trump can lose his temper and take decisive action. But if Russia and its local allies can maintain a constant and inactive campaign, creating problems, challenging, a campaign in which events and relationships are manipulated, and the red lines are fuzzy, then it’s not known what can happen,” says a senior researcher at the Institute Middle East Charles Lister.
“A few random, unpredictable clashes or skirmishes, like the one that occurred in the area of the city of Kamyshly, can easily get into Trump’s field of vision and create the prerequisites for the complete withdrawal of American troops,” Lister says.
US Army officers and diplomats point to a series of disturbing events that have occurred in recent weeks. The Russians occupy a deconfliction channel created for direct communication between American and Russian troops in order to avoid confrontation, with numerous requests to allow them to operate in areas patrolled by the Americans.
Then the Russians ignored the objections of the Americans and still went there. The American patrols then blocked the roads, causing these Russian patrols to turn around. In addition, the Russians independently carry out ground patrols, although it was assumed that in areas controlled by Turkey after its invasion, they would patrol together with the Turks.
The predominance of Syrian and Russian troops is a problem not only on the ground, but also in the air, where, according to one US military official, due to the significant number of reconnaissance drones and other aircraft, the United States loses air superiority.
US officials have expressed concern that these clashes may escalate after the end of the Idlib campaign, and Russia and the Assad government will completely shift their attention to the northeast.
US officials predict that these potentially dangerous confrontations with Russians and their Syrian allies will escalate. In an interview last November, shortly after the Turkish invasion, General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the U.S. Central Command, said that protecting oil fields could ultimately provoke opposition from the Syrian army rather than by the Islamic State.
“I believe that at some point the regime will appear in these territories,” said General Mackenzie.
The last time, when in February 2018, government forces and allied Russian mercenaries attacked American troops near oil fields, the United States launched an artillery attack and aerial bombardment, killing 200 to 300 fighters who launched the attack.
After the U.S. and Russian command agreed at the end of 2017 to fly on opposite sides of the 70-kilometer zone along the Euphrates to prevent clashes in the sky over eastern Syria, Russian military aircraft violated this arrangement five to six times a day, representatives said US forces command.
According to the Americans, this is Moscow’s attempts to test the readiness and determination of the United States, provoke U.S. Air Force pilots to reckless retaliation and help the Syrian army strengthen its positions in the conquered territories before diplomatic negotiations aimed at ending the civil war lasting seven years.
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