By Barbara Starr, CNN correspondent at the Pentagon
Russia warned the US military earlier this week that it would carry out airstrikes against local US-allied fighters in southeast Syria, according to two US defense officials.
This led to the United States giving early warning to the fighters to move their positions and ensuring that no American forces were in the vicinity. US forces didn’t have to move because they were far enough away, but local fighters did, officials told CNN.
The Russian airstrikes appear highly calculated, coming as tensions run high between Washington and Moscow over the war in Ukraine and the Pentagon tries to ensure tensions do not escalate with Russian forces, including in Syria, where the two sides have operated in close proximity to each other for several years.
The initial US assessment is that Russian forces were likely ordered to inform the US in advance and carry out the airstrikes knowing that they would not hit US troops and that the Americans would warn their allies, the officials said.
But the Russians have likely achieved their goal of “sending a message” to the United States that they can strike without worrying about retaliation, an official said.
Russia’s notification came through the long-standing bilateral deconfliction line that has operated for several years, where each side notifies the other of military operations and movements that risk miscalculation if either side is unaware. activities of the other. The American view is that the Russians were downplaying the risk of a crisis, knowing that the United States would notify local fighters.
The incident happened near the Al-Tanf garrison in southeastern Syria, where US and Syrian opposition forces have long operated. The strikes were carried out against positions where US-backed Maghawir al-Thawra fighters were operating. No casualties were immediately reported, but property is believed to have been damaged.
US officials said the Russians claimed the group carried out a roadside bomb attack against Russian forces. The United States believes that this did not happen and that the Russians simply used it as a reason to carry out airstrikes.
This kind of Russian provocation is rare but not unprecedented.
In February 2018, an encounter quickly escalated and turned deadly when a 500-man force made up largely of Russian contractors and a Christian militia loyal to the Syrian regime crossed the Euphrates near Deir Ezzor. The Russians worked for a paramilitary company called Wagner, which had hundreds of contractors on the ground in Syria, helping the Russian military and pro-regime forces.
The mission of that night’s operation remains unclear, but forces were advancing towards a valuable oil and gas field, Coneco, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed militia fighting ISIS in Syria. When pro-regime forces began shelling a base held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the United States responded with heavy airstrikes and artillery fire, which continued for about three hours. US commanders attempted to reach their Russian counterparts through deconfliction channels to alert them of their response. But by the time communications were established, the counterattack was underway.
And in August 2020, several American soldiers were injured in a collision with a Russian military convoy in eastern Syria.
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