US-Russian troop encounters in Syria are awkward at best

The incident in Tell Tamr reportedly involved US and Russian vehicles being stopped, with the US vehicle blocking the Russians’ passage.
Sunday 02/02/2020
A Russian Army helicopter flies over the town of Tell Tamr in the north-eastern Syrian Hasakah province on the border with Turkey, January 26. (AFP)
A mission with risks. A Russian Army helicopter flies over the town of Tell Tamr in the north-eastern Syrian Hasakah province on the border with Turkey, January 26. (AFP)

With all of the foreign forces operating in Syria, it is not surprising that their soldiers occasionally meet — in times of coordination or by chance on the road or battlefield. For countries whose policies have stood, at least nominally, in opposition to each other, those meetings might be expected to elicit reactions ranging from frosty to hostile.

Encounters on the battlefield are, correspondingly, likely to be bloody.

In February 2018, the United States defended a base near Deir ez-Zor, which contained Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) soldiers and Americans who were assisting them, from an attack by forces from members of the coalition defending the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Among the attackers was a large contingent of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, which analysts say operate as an unofficial arm of the Russian state. With US forces among those under attack, the United States responded with artillery and air power. The advancing column was effectively destroyed and among the dead were many — possible hundreds — Russians.

There are alternative theories of the battle’s chronology but each plausible version of events notes and emphasises the death of many Russian fighters at the hands of US forces.

Much has changed in Syria since then, with the United States contemplating withdrawal and Russia becoming increasingly powerful, allying with Turkey and participating in a three-power negotiation including Turkey and Iran that rivals the UN-sponsored peace process.

The presence of so many uniformed Russian forces moving around openly, as opposed to mercenary units operating beyond the state system, has also changed matters. Correspondingly, US encounters with Russian forces have been on a smaller scale and with less violent consequences than the battle in 2018.

Nonetheless, occasional encounters between US and Russian patrols have evinced tensions between the countries. Media in Syria, including ANHA News and the Rojava Network, both linked to the SDF, reported contentious meetings between troops from both countries.

An incident occurred in Tell Tamr in al-Hasakah province, in north-eastern Syria. Photographs show US and Russian vehicles stopped, with the American vehicle apparently blocking the Russians’ passage.

Soldiers from both countries are seen standing around, as are bystanders.

The Rojava Network claimed the Americans blocked the Russian patrol from driving on to the M4 highway, which crosses northern Syria horizontally. In this telling, the Russians had to retreat to Tell Tamr.

ANHA’s report contended that “Russian vehicles headed to Qamishli district via the international road M4, while the American forces headed towards the road leading to al-Hasakah city.” It connected the encounter to Russian helicopters flying over Tell Tamr a few hours later.

There was no violence but Kurdish media and international monitors picked up on the use of “skirmish” to describe this encounter. The story was further developed by reference to other incidents in which US and Russian forces had awkward encounters.

The two countries are not openly at war but they have separate and distinct objectives in Syria. A patrol that includes a meeting between Russian and US forces cannot be expected to pass without friction.

Ruwan al-Rejoleh, the founder of a geopolitical consultancy in Washington, said: “There has been a lot of reporting regarding skirmishes between Russian versus US patrols.

“I don’t think that such reporting is accurate, as there wasn’t any official position in that regard coming from the Pentagon. I think, if there was any dispute, that it’s just on a level of coordinating patrols, probably individual levels but it’s still high unlikely,” she said.

“The reporting sources need to be checked for such news. Some players might have the interest to disseminate such fake incidents for the benefit of certain groups and create distrust against US troops.”

Although Russian and US forces operate awkwardly in the same territory, real confrontation in the mould of the battle of February 2018 appears out of the question. That Russian forces display flags and their official status, in defence of the Assad regime, is well known. They are not Wagner Group mercenaries whose deeds are unofficial and whose death fail to cause an international incident.

While the United States and Russia disagree in outlook and diplomacy, the two operate in the same space with a coordination many Syrians and activists find distasteful. Phone lines on “de-confliction” and “de-escalation” connect the two. Their movements are not unknown to each other either.

In any case, with US President Donald Trump inconsistently speaking about withdrawal, the United States’ primary ally in the SDF reeling from defeat at the hands of Turkish forces and Turkey’s Syrian rebel allies, and Russian pressure beginning to bear fruit as the Assad regime slowly conquers territory, there is only so much fight the United States can put up.

It has seemingly decided Syria is not worth the effort and there is no reason to risk a skirmish to undermine that position.