Russia warned the US military earlier this week that it was going to conduct airstrikes against local fighters allied with the US in southeastern Syria, according to two US defense officials.
That led the US to quickly warn the fighters to move their positions and also ensure that no US forces were nearby. US forces did not have to move, as they were far enough away, but the local fighters did, the officials told CNN.
The Russian airstrikes appear highly calculated, coming when tensions are high between Washington and Moscow over the war in Ukraine and the Pentagon is trying to ensure tensions don’t escalate with Russian forces, including in Syria, where the two sides have operated in proximity to each other for several years.
The initial US assessment is the Russian forces were likely ordered to notify the US ahead of time and conduct the airstrikes knowing they would not hit US troops and that the Americans would warn their allies, the officials said.
But the Russians still likely achieved their goal of “sending a message” to the US that they can strike without being worried about retaliation, one official said.
The notification by Russia 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 a miscalculation if each side is not aware of the other’s activities. The US view is the Russians were minimizing the risk of a crisis, knowing the US would notify the local fighters.
The incident happened in the vicinity of Al-Tanf garrison in southeastern Syria, where US and Syrian opposition forces have long operated. The strikes were conducted against positions where the US-backed Maghawir al-Thawra fighters were operating. There were no immediate reports of casualties, but property is believed to have been damaged.
The US officials said the Russians claimed the group had conducted a roadside bomb attack against Russian forces. The US believes that did not happen and the Russians simply used it as a reason to conduct airstrikes.
This kind of Russian provocation is rare but not unprecedented.
In February 2018, an encounter rapidly escalated and became deadly when a 500-strong force largely made up of Russian contractors and a Christian militia loyal to the Syrian regime crossed the Euphrates river near Deir Ezzor. The Russians were working 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 the forces were advancing toward a valuable oil and gas field, Coneco, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed militia that has been fighting ISIS in Syria. When the pro-regime forces began shelling a base held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US responded with heavy airstrikes and artillery fire, which continued for about three hours. US commanders tried to reach their Russian counterparts through deconfliction channels to warn of their response. But by the time communications were established, the counterattack was underway.
And in August 2020, multiple US troops were injured in a collision with a Russian military convoy in eastern Syria.