Russia keeps having close calls with American forces in Syria
CENTCOM politely said that Russian forces are being "provocative."
Russian jets carried out an airstrike on Wednesday at the al-Tanf garrison where Americans are stationed in Syria, according to The Wall Street Journal. Russia warned the U.S. ahead of the strike, saying it was targeting forces opposed to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and no American forces were present at the time, but it was one of several close calls in June.
Gen. Erik Kurilla, commander of U.S. Central Command, said the goal remains to avoid a “miscalculation” in Syria with Russia, according to The Wall Street Journal, though he called Russia’s actions “escalatory.”
American troops have been using Al-Tanf, a U.S. outpost set up in southeastern Syria near Jordan, as a base of operations for counterterrorism and training local allied Kurdish forces to fight remnants of ISIS. The exact number of troops at al-Tanf isn’t known, but reports put it at around 150 to 200, with the majority of Americans there being part of special operations forces. Just under 1,000 soldiers are in Syria.
The Biden administration has been extremely careful to keep U.S. forces out of Ukraine, even military trainers, for fear of direct conflict with Russian soldiers that could spiral into a larger NATO-Russian war. Although the U.S. is being cautious to avoid direct fights with Russia in Syria – there is even a direct line between the two armed forces to avoid getting into firefights with each other – it still have hundreds of soldiers in the country. And Syria itself is still locked in a bloody civil war and is dealing with multiple other armed conflicts, including Turkish-Kurdish skirmishes and ongoing Western counterterrorism operations. The latter included a major firefight this past week, where American troops detained an ISIS commander. Troops flown in by helicopter landed in northern Syria near the Turkish border, capturing the unnamed commander in a firefight. During the raid, Russians scrambled fighter jets in response to the helicopters; American planes were scrambled to respond to that, and the conflict didn’t escalate.
The bombing of al-Tanf is one of several brushes between Western and Russian forces this year. Since the war in Ukraine started, there have been several moments where NATO planes scrambled over Europe to warn off Russian planes flying close to NATO airspace.
But in Syria there have been several inflection points since the United States had a presence in the country in 2014. In 2020, Russian vehicles briefly blocked an American convoy, which CENTCOM brushed off “less than absolute perfect conduct” at the time. Still, Russia considers America’s presence in the country as illegal and has called for U.S. forces to leave al-Tanf. Russia bombed the same al-Tanf base – located near a major highway – in 2016, again while U.S. troops were away, in a strike targeting anti-Assad elements.
In February 2018, there was a firefight between American troops and a combination of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group and pro-regime fighters. It should be noted that in that battle, around 30 Americans, backed by air support and eventually backup on the ground killed close to 300 of the 500 fighters they were up against.
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