The Cable

Russians Warn of More Strikes on U.S. Troops in Syria

Days after an attack almost killed U.S. commandos, both sides are trying to stake their ground.

US troops sit atop an armoured vehicle on a road near the northern Syrian village of Ain Issa on June 3, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN        (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US troops sit atop an armoured vehicle on a road near the northern Syrian village of Ain Issa on June 3, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

A Russian general threatened on Thursday to strike U.S. special operations troops and their Syrian allies in Syria, deepening a growing crisis just days after Russian jets bombed Americans and their allies near the Islamic State-held city of Deir Ezzor.

American special operations forces embedded with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Russian commandos working alongside pro-Syrian government fighters are only miles apart in and around the Islamic State stronghold, and there is growing concern that they could turn their weapons on each other as the two sides race to claim the oil-rich province.

The Russian airstrike on Saturday injured six SDF fighters. No Americans were hurt.

In a blunt statement, Russian Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov accused the SDF of attacking Syrian troops with mortars and rockets in recent days, and a warning was issued to the United States. “Attempts to open fire from SDF-controlled areas would be immediately met with retaliation,” he said. “The firing positions in those areas will be immediately destroyed with all the arsenal at our disposal.”

A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad wouldn’t respond to the Russian threat but told reporters at the Defense Department on Thursday that American and Russian generals held an unprecedented meeting this week to share information about where their troops are located near Deir Ezzor.

The meeting occurred somewhere in the region, spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said, declining to say exactly where since more meetings are likely. During the conference, the two sides “laid down maps and graphics to establish where those deconfliction measures would take place,” Dillon said.

He also revealed that yet another hotline has been established between U.S. and Russian ground commanders in Syria. There’s already an existing line for command centers that run the U.S. and Russian air campaigns and yet another where generals running their respective campaigns can talk to one another.

It’s unclear why close calls, including Saturday’s Russian airstrike, continue to take place despite multiple avenues of communication and why the Kremlin is issuing public threats as opposed to using the private channels.

The Pentagon says there are currently approximately 500 American troops in Syria operating out of a handful of small bases. But the actual number may be hundreds more, as troops deployed on a temporary basis are not counted against the total, according to Pentagon policy.

Deir Ezzor is a prize for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian backers, given its oil assets and proximity to the Iraqi border. If Hezbollah and Syrian, Iranian, and Russian forces can consolidate control of the province and the border region, it also gives Tehran a land bridge through Iraq into Syria and then Lebanon.

 Photo credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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