WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is deploying a small number of U.S. troops to Syria after a series of escalating encounters between the U.S. and Russian militaries, according to three U.S. defense officials.
The troops and vehicles will serve as a show of presence to discourage the Russian military from crossing into the eastern security area where U.S., coalition, and Syrian Democratic Forces operate, the officials said.
The additional troops will include six Bradley Fighting Vehicles and fewer than 100 soldiers operating in northeast Syria on a 90-day deployment.
A U.S. official said, "These actions and reinforcements are a clear signal to Russia to adhere to mutual de-confliction processes and for Russia and other parties to avoid unprofessional, unsafe and provocative actions in northeast Syria."
While U.S. military and Russian forces have come in contact at checkpoints and along highway M4 in Syria throughout 2020, on Aug. 17 U.S. and Syrian Democratic Forces came under small arms fire after passing through a checkpoint near Tal al-Zahab, Syria. The U.S. and SDF had permission from the pro-Syrian regime forces manning the checkpoint, but then began to take fire from unidentified forces nearby. The U.S. and SDF returned fire and did not suffer any casualties. U.S. officials said the small arms fire likely came from Syrian and Russian forces.
The most serious incident this year occurred several days later, when seven U.S. soldiers were injured when Russia military vehicles sideswiped a U.S. military vehicle in northeast Syria. Three U.S. officials said the Russian vehicles intentionally collided with the Americans and then several Russian helicopters flew low and fast over the scene, which one official said was “extremely provocative.” The Russian vehicles were outside of their agreed-upon operating area without notice, the officials said.
U.S. Central Command spokesperson Capt. Bill Urban characterized their actions as “deliberately provocative and aggressive.”
In an exclusive interview with NBC News, the commander of U.S. Central Command decried the Russian misbehavior and lack of professionalism on the ground, saying it “got us into a dangerous situation where a Russian ground patrol actually came into the eastern Syria security area, an area they were not authorized to be in.”
“We’re very lucky that our guys on the ground were able to keep that from turning into a larger incident," said Gen. Frank McKenzie. "That was a concerning moment. And had it gone another way, we might have been in trouble there and they might have been in trouble, too."
The encounter was the most provocative between the U.S. and Russia in Syria since February 2018, when hundreds of heavily-armed Russian private military contractors, equipped with tanks and artillery, attacked joint an area where both U.S. and Syrian Democratic Forces were operating. The U.S. flew in AC-130 gunships and other attack aircraft to stop the assault, killing as many as 300 of the Russian mercenaries, all believed to be working for the Wagner Group, a private Russian military contractor.
McKenzie said the U.S. continues to conduct security patrols with the SDF but the Syrian partners are actually carrying out the majority of the tactical operations and actual fighting. “Those patrols are always conducted with our SDF partners. You’ll never see a U.S. element out there moving alone, it will always have SDF affiliated with it when they move.”
“The op tempo is pretty high up there and they’re pretty active,” he said.
The decision to add more troops to Syria comes after the Trump administration announced it would withdraw nearly half of the troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming weeks. The U.S. will drawdown from about 5,200 in Iraq to about 3,000 by the end of September, and from 8,600 in Afghanistan to about 4,500 by the November election.
“We constantly evaluate and re-evaluate the tactical position and we make adjustments to posture designed to give the troops on the ground what they need to be better protected as they carry out their mission,” McKenzie said. “Therefore, our forces in Syria, we believe that we give them what they need to execute the missions that they’ve got and we pay keen attention to force protection as they do that.”