Russia continues to have close calls with US forces in Syria

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Tensions between the United States and Russia have almost escalated into direct fighting in Syria. The Wall Street Journal reported last week of a Russian airstrike on a US military base in Syria. No American forces were injured or killed in the al-Tanf garrison, as they were not there, and Russia warned the United States in advance, saying it was targeting opposing forces Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. It was one of many close calls in June.

Al-Tanf, an American outpost set up in southeastern Syria near Jordan. US troops use it as a base of operations for counterterrorism and train local allied Kurdish forces to fight remnants of ISIS. Just under 1,000 soldiers are in Syria. The exact number of troops at al-Tanf is not known, but reports put it at around 150-200, with most or most Americans serving as special operations forces.

The Wall Street Journal quoted the head of US Central Command, General Erik Kurilla, as saying that the goal remains to avoid a “miscalculation” in Syria with Russia. Kurilla called Russia’s actions “escalating”.

The Biden administration has been extremely careful to block US forces from entering Ukraine, even military trainers, for fear of a direct conflict with Russian soldiers that could escalate into a larger NATO-Russia war. Although the United States is cautious to avoid direct combat with Russia in Syria – there is even a direct line between the two armed forces to avoid engaging in firefights – it still has hundreds of troops. in the country. And Syria itself is still locked in a bloody civil war and faces multiple other armed conflicts, including Turkish-Kurdish skirmishes and ongoing Western counterterrorism operations. The latter included a major firefight last week, where American troops arrested an ISIS commander. Troops transported by helicopter landed in northern Syria near the Turkish border, capturing the unnamed commander in a firefight. During the raid, the Russians dispatched fighter jets in response to the helicopters; American aircraft were dispatched to respond to this, and the conflict did not escalate.

The bombardment of al-Tanf is one of many clashes between Western and Russian forces this year. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, there have been several times when NATO planes swooped over Europe to warn Russian planes flying close to NATO airspace.

But in Syria, there have been several inflection points since the US had a presence in the country in 2014. In 2020, Russian vehicles briefly blocked a US convoy, which CENTCOM brushed off “less than absolute perfect” at the time. Yet Russia views the US presence in the country as illegal and has called on US forces to leave al-Tanf. Russia bombed the same al-Tanf base – located near a major highway – in 2016, again while US troops were away, in a strike targeting anti-Assad elements.

In February 2018, there was a shootout between US troops and a combination of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries and pro-regime fighters. It should be noted that in this battle, about 30 Americans, supported by air support and possibly ground reinforcement, killed almost 300 of the 500 fighters they faced.

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