With all of the foreign forces operating within Syria, it is not surprising that their soldiers occasionally meet – in times of coordination, or by chance on the road or battlefield. For nations whose policies have stood, at least nominally, in opposition to each other, these meeting 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 Ezzor, which contained Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) soldiers and the Americans who were assisting them, from an attack by forces from members of the coalition defending the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Among the attackers was a large contingent of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group, which analysts say operates as an unofficial arm of the Russian state. With American 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, possibly hundreds, of Russians.
There are alternative theories of the battle’s chronology, but each plausible version of events notes and emphasises the deaths of many Russian fighters at the hands of US forces.
Much has changed in Syria since then, with America contemplating withdrawal, and Russia becoming increasingly powerful, allying with Turkey and participating in a three-power negotiation including Turkey and Iran which rivals the United Nations-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, American encounters with Russian forces since have been on a smaller scale and with less violent consequences than the battle in 2018.
Nonetheless, occasional encounters between American and Russian patrols have evinced tensions between the countries; and local media in Syria, including ANHA News and the Rojava Network, both linked to the SDF, have reported contentious meetings between troops on patrol from both countries.
An incident occurred in Tel Tamr in al-Hasakah province, in Syria’s north-east. Photographs show American and Russian vehicles stopped, with the American vehicle apparently blocking the Russians’ passage.
Soldiers from both countries are standing around, as are watching 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 Tel Tamr.
ANHA’s report contends 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 connects this encounter to Russian helicopters flying over Tel 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 American and Russian forces had awkward encounters.
The two countries are not openly at war, but they have separate and distinct objectives, which contradict. A patrol which includes a meeting between Russian and American cannot be expected to pass without friction.
Ruwan al-Rejoleh, the founder of a geopolitical consultancy based in Washington, said: ‘There have been a lot of reporting regarding skirmishes between Russian verses 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 dissent such fake incidents for the benefit of certain group and create distrust against US troops.’
Although Russian and American forces operate awkwardly within the same territory, real confrontation in the mould of the battle of February 2018 appears out of the question. Russian forces display flags and their official status, in defence of the Assad regime, is known. They are not Wagner Group mercenaries whose deeds are unofficial and whose deaths 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.
And in any case, with America’s president inconsistently speaking about withdrawal; America’s 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.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.