Russia has blamed the US for a military vehicle collision in Syria that injured a number of American troops, in a sign of heightened tensions between the two rival powers and underscoring the risk of escalation in the unstable conflict.
The collision is the most serious clash between the countries’ militaries in Syria since last October’s decision by US president Donald Trump to partially withdraw US forces from the country. This allowed Russia to expand its clout and set up an uneasy stand-off between two sets of troops that support opposing sides in the conflict but operate in close quarters.
The head of Russia’s armed forces accused his American counterpart of causing the collision in north-east Syria in a telephone call on Wednesday, alleging that “in violation of existing agreements, US military personnel attempted to block the Russian patrol. In response to this, the military police of the Russian Armed Forces took the necessary measures”.
Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, told Mike Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, that “in accordance with the current procedure [the US] was notified in advance of the passage of the Russian military police column,” Russia’s Ministry of Defence said in a statement on Thursday.
The US said a Russian vehicle struck a US armoured truck but gave no further details on how that caused the casualties. Unverified videos posted on social media appear to show a US truck blocking a road as Russian vehicles advance, and then a small collision as the Russian vehicles attempt to evade the US truck by driving through an adjacent field.
In a statement released late on Wednesday, the US had said that the impact to the all-terrain vehicle was caused by “unsafe and unprofessional actions” and that “to de-escalate the situation, the coalition patrol departed the area”.
“The Coalition and the United States do not seek escalation with any national military forces, but US forces always retain the inherent right and obligation to defend themselves from hostile acts,” said John Ullyot, spokesman for the US National Security Council.
The clash is the latest close call for US troops in the more than nine-year long war in Syria, which has become an arena for tensions between foreign powers who sent their troops to the country.
The biggest incident was in February 2018, when American soldiers in north-east Syria reportedly ended up in a four-hour firefight with Syrian fighters and Russian mercenaries. There were no official Russian troops involved.
Moscow supports the regime of President Bashar al-Assad while Washington has backed opposition groups seeking his ouster. Both countries say they are seeking to combat terrorism while Russia claims that the US presence in the country is illegal as it does not have the blessing of Damascus.
Mr Trump’s decision last year to implicitly greenlight a Turkish offensive against the Kurds — backed by the US and instrumental in the fight against Islamist militants Isis — pushed the Kurds to strike a deal with Russia and the Syrian regime. The US decision was widely criticised at the time. With the US pulling out hundreds of troops from parts of northern Syria, Turkish, Russia and Syrian troops backed by Moscow moved to expand their presence in the region.
Moscow seized on the partial withdrawal to cement its role as the pre-eminent foreign power in the conflict, broadcasting footage of Russian convoys rumbling into the region as US trucks headed in the other direction, while Moscow-affiliated troops posted social media videos from abandoned formed US bases.
US policy to pressure the Syrian regime is reliant on financial sanctions and the continued presence of American forces to deny Mr Assad access to oilfields in the north-east, said Sam Heller, a security analyst. In the meantime, “it puts these soldiers in harm’s way, and opposite Russians, or other unfriendly forces, that are interested in dislodging them”.
Although neither side appears eager to escalate, Mr Heller said that “there are other asymmetric means [for Russian and Syria] to pressure the US . . . challenging these patrols, ramming US vehicles on roads, that is one way they can do this”.