AL-UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar — Russian forces have carried out a series of operations against the US-led coalition in Syria this month, including one this week at a strategically located base in the south of the country , U.S. military officials said.
The Russian actions have alarmed US military officials, who fear a miscalculation could escalate into an unintended conflict between US and Russian forces in Syria. Tensions between the two countries are already high following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February and US efforts to arm the Ukrainian military to defeat Russian forces there.
On Wednesday, Russia carried out airstrikes on the al-Tanf garrison, near the Syria-Jordan border in southeastern Syria, where US troops are on a train-and-advise mission with local fighters to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State.
Russia informed the United States through a communication line set up years ago that it was carrying out airstrikes in response to an alleged attack on Syrian government forces that the Russians are defending, which allegedly could cause injuries and destroy a vehicle.
Shortly after, Russian jet fighters, including two Su-35s and an Su-24, were observed crossing the area above al-Tanf before striking a combat outpost at the garrison, a said a US military official.
Advance notification of the strike suggested to US officials that the Russian military was not actively targeting US troops but was harassing the US mission in Syria – a tactic Russian forces have used before, resulting in close calls over the years.
US military forces were not near the base at the time of Wednesday’s strikes, which were reported earlier by CNN, and there were no US or coalition casualties as a result of the strike. But the operation punctuated what a US military official called a “significant increase in provocation” this month.
The Russian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Also this week, the Russians deployed two Su-34 jet fighters to a site where the United States was carrying out a raid in northeast Syria to apprehend an Islamic State bombmaker. The jet fighters withdrew after the United States dispatched its own F-16 fighters to warn Russian planes to leave the area, US military officials said.
US military officials declined to provide details of other incidents they say have occurred in the past two weeks.
The US is seeking to avoid conflict with Russia in Syria, the top US general in the region has said.
“We seek to avoid miscalculations or a set of actions that could lead to unnecessary conflict: that remains our goal,” Army General Erik Kurilla, head of US Central Command, said in a statement. “However, Russia’s recent behavior has been provocative and escalated.”
As many as 200 US troops have been based at al-Tanf garrison as part of the US campaign to mentor local partners in the fight against Islamic State militants. There are a total of about 900 US troops in Syria, according to military officials. In addition to al-Tanf, US troops are training and advising Syrian Kurdish forces in the eastern sector of the country.
Although the so-called Islamic State caliphate was defeated in 2019, the US mission there is to train coalition forces to help prevent the group from rising again.
US and Russian forces have been operating in Syria for years. A line of communication, used daily, has helped both sides avoid direct conflict in Syria, although there have been some tensions, including over the al-Tanf garrison. The base is located near a major highway that connects Iraq to Syria and which Bashar al-Assad’s government, Russian and Iranian forces have long wanted US troops to abandon.
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In 2016, Russian planes bombed the al-Tanf base. No US personnel were at the base at the time, but several Syrian fighters were among the casualties. The episode happened after two US Navy F-18s patrolling near the base left to refuel. The Russians later said they intended to hit terrorists.
In 2017, a Russian commander, Colonel General Vladimir Zarudnitsky, demanded that the United States withdraw its personnel from the al-Tanf garrison within 48 hours. The US commander of the campaign against the Islamic State at the time, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, refused and after a few tense moments, the Russian general dropped his request.
The series of incidents comes as the Biden administration tries to supply billions in weapons to Ukraine without widening the conflict. Avoiding a direct confrontation with Russia has been a top priority for the United States.
The most serious US-Russian confrontation in recent years in Syria did not involve Russian troops. This happened in February 2018 when fighters from the Wagner Group, a private Russian mercenary organization with close ties to the Kremlin, advanced into eastern Syria and fired on US troops.
After these Russian fighters ignored the US military’s warning to leave, the US launched an intensive counterattack and killed “a few hundred Russians”, Mike Pompeo said in his 2018 confirmation hearing. to be secretary of state. The Russian military said it had nothing to do with the episode.
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