US Troops Syria
(Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images )

US soldiers were injured in an escalation with Russian forces in Syria. This is one of many incidents involving US patrols in eastern Syria being harassed by Russian forces. The confrontations are often filmed by Russians or by Syrian regime members on the ground or others and appear to be designed to embarrass the US by showing that Russia is able to derail US patrols in Syria by either running US vehicles off the road or now harassing the US with helicopters. 

The White House, unusually in this instance, put out a statement by National Security council spokesman John Ullyot. “At approximately 10 a.m. (Syria Time), Aug. 25, a routine Defeat-ISIS Coalition security patrol encountered a Russian military patrol near Dayrick, in northeast Syria.  During this interaction, a Russian vehicle struck a Coalition Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV) causing injuries to the vehicle’s crew.” The site of the incident was in a town called in Arabic Al-Malikiyah but called Derrick or Dayrick in Kurdish. 

The US operates patrols in eastern Syria and since October 2019 Washington has said it shifted to secure oil fields in eastern Syria, after withdrawing from an area along the border with Turkey. The US in Syria has backed the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group of fighters who defeated ISIS in Raqqa in 2017. The SDF was spearheaded by Kurdish fighters and has grown to include Arabs, Christians and other groups. However the US-led Coalition that is fighting ISIS and has helped arm and train some 80,000 SDF fighters is facing a crossroads in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq the Coalition left the large Taji base and a half dozen other smaller bases in six months as tensions with Iranian-backed groups grew and rocket attacks against US forces became a weekly threat.

In Syria the US seems to have a new company doing an oil deal but the Trump administration is unclear about a long-term commitment. US President Donald Trump says he wants to end “endless wars” in what he calls far-away places. He told West Point military academy graduates recently in June that the US was reticent to continue its role in these places. 

Enter the Russians into the equation. Moscow, sensing that the US wants to leave, is seeking to pressure the US in Syria the way Iran pressures the US in Iraq. Moscow already has agreements with Turkey to partition parts of northern Syria and Russia is selling Turkey its S-400 system. Turkey got the US to leave the border areas in October 2019 and now Russia hopes to muscle the US out of other areas. The Russian footprint in Syria is small, with a handful of vehicles in eastern Syria. The US footprint is also small. So the US and Russian contingents do a game of cat-and-mouse with these patrols.

The US says it wants to “de-escalate the situation” and that after the recent confrontation the  “Coalition patrol departed the area.” For Moscow this likely looks like a propaganda win. It tends to send people to video these incidents on ride-alongs, hoping to capture an incident with the US that will make the US look weak or embarrassed. That could mean showing pro-Syrian regime protesters confronting the US, or showing a helicopter harassing a patrol.

The US has said that its patrol faced “unsafe and unprofessional actions like this represent a breach of de-confliction protocols, committed to by the United States and Russia in December 2019.” The US says its forces “retain the inherent right and obligation to defend themselves from hostile acts. The international Coalition’s mission in northeast Syria is to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS.”

However, the US statement took a long time to put out and it was put out from Washington to represent the seriousness that the White House takes this situation. There were injuries this time, unlike in the past. Images of a Russian helicopter harassing the US patrol have been on social media since August 26. Video also shows the Russian and US vehicles chasing eachother through a field. US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs also spoke to his Russian counterpart. Although the US provided no details of the conversation, it appears to relate to Syria. 

The injuries could cause more tensions with Russia but also could just as likely lead to a quiet agreement to reduce these clashes with patrols for a period of time. Russia has a way of pushing the envelope on various issues in Syria, often in concert with Turkey even when they seem to be at odds. The goal of Moscow is to appear stronger than it is, using just a few vehicles with the Russian flag to illustrate its commitment to the Syrian regime an securing areas in Syria. The clash with the Russians comes amid a visit by US Syria envoy James Jeffrey, who is pro-Turkey, to Turkey this week. At the same time the US State Department has sidelined its own SDF partners from any meetings as part of a diplomatic process to end the Syrian conflict. While Jeffrey claims the Syrian opposition includes voices from eastern Syria, it appears that Kurdish voices have been systematically discriminated against due to pressure from Ankara. Turkey claims the SDF is linked to the Kurdish PKK which it calls a terrorist group. Some voices in the US want the US to withdraw from eastern Syria, arguing that the successful war on ISIS and work with the Kurds was part of an Obama-era policy that should be ditched. Others fear that if the US leaves the Syrian regime will enter the vacuum.