By Jonathan Davis
Some foreign policy analysts said it was bound to happen and it has: Having U.S. and Russian troops in such close proximity, with overlapping — and competing — missions, is creating problems in Syria.
Recently a U.S. military patrol blocked a Russian military convoy from using a main highway in northeast Syria. In particular, according to open source reporting, U.S. forces didn’t allow Russian military vehicles to use a major road between two Kurdish-held towns in Syria’s northeast.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Russians were attempting to reach a border crossing between Syria and Iraq that is currently under the control of U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
Now, for the competing missions. Voice of America reports:
After Turkish military and allied Syrian militias launched an offensive against SDF fighters in October 2019, Russia, a staunch supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, stepped in to increase its military presence in northeast Syria following a U.S. decision to withdraw troops from parts of the border area between Syria and Turkey.
After mounting pressure from the U.S. Congress and U.S. foreign allies, President Donald Trump decided to keep about 500 U.S. troops in the area to protect the region’s oil fields, and prevent Islamic State and Syrian regime troops from accessing them.
Now, both the U.S. and Russia have military outposts throughout the region.
The highway ‘confrontation’ is just one of several other levers of rising tensions that exist between U.S. and Russian forces. Trump’s instinct was to pull all American troops out of Syria and frankly, that instinct is probably the correct one.
Aside from assisting U.S. allies who helped fight ISIS, America has no long-term interests in Syria. Russia, on the other hand, has a major naval port in Tartus, Syria, in the Mediterranean. The base has been there since 1971, when Syria was a client state of the USSR. So Moscow has history with Damascus.
“This is the third incident that occurred within a week,” said Nishan Mohammad, a local reporter who said he witnessed another recent standoff between U.S. and Russian troops in northeast Syria.
“I was there last weekend when U.S. soldiers stopped Russian military vehicles and forced them to head back to their base,” he told VOA.
Obviously, both forces are under orders to avoid each other as much as possible, but with competing missions, there are bound to be more incidents.
“Our message every single time is to try to de-escalate the situation, not to take any provocative action and ask them to adhere to the protocols. Most of the time, that’s what ends up happening,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander of US operations in Syria, said, according to this report.
He added that Russia “is testing the U.S.” in Syria.
Washington retreated from any frontline involvement over the Assad regime’s suppression of the Syrian uprising. Instead, under the Obama and then Trump Administrations, it focused on the removal of the Islamic State from the country.
As part of that mission, the US and Russia established “de-confliction” arrangements. Moscow would have freedom, without American interference, in the pro-Assad aerial and ground assaults to overrun opposition areas, while Washington backed the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to take control of much of northeast Syria.
But potential for clashes has remained with the Assad regime insisting that it will regain “every inch” of Syria, and with most of the country’s oil and gas fields overseen by the SDF.