Russian and American troops are coming face to face in Syria, and some major accusations are already flying

15:54, 21 september 2017

The Syrian military outside Deir ez-Zor, September 15, 2017

Mikhail Alaeddin / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

Moscow is accusing the United States of supplying Syrian terrorists with sensitive information that allegedly allowed them to surround a platoon of Russian military police earlier this week. According to Defense Ministry officials, the U.S. leaked the data in order to impede an offensive by Russian-supported Syrian troops in Deir ez-Zor, the country’s “last terrorist stronghold.” The United States, in turn, has accused Moscow of carrying out airstrikes against its allies in Syria, and attacking targets dangerously close to American military personnel on the ground.

Since May 2017, Russia, Iran, and Turkey have been trying to establish zones of de-escalation in Syria. On September 15, negotiators held a sixth round of talks, managing to agree on boundaries for four ceasefire zones. It wasn’t until September that negotiators decided to include the Idlib province (in northwestern Syria) in a fourth de-escalation zone. Part of this agreement included deploying Russian military police to the province.

On September 20, Russia’s Defense Ministry reported that terrorists from the Al-Nusra Front had launched an offensive in the Idlib province. According to Moscow, one of the terrorists’ goals was to capture the Russian military police platoon (made up of 29 soldiers) recently deployed to the area. In response, Russia sent a unit of special forces to Idlib to break through Al-Nusra’s encirclement and then return to territory controlled by the Syrian government. Three special forces soldiers were reportedly injured in the operation.

Russian officials say the United States is either directly or indirectly responsible for this attack by the Al-Nusra Front. A Defense Ministry source told the newspaper Kommersant that U.S. special forces deliberately or accidentally shared information about the locations of Russian and Syrian troops in Idlib. Moscow claims this information was shared to influence the situation in another part of Syria (the city of Deir ez-Zor), and not to destabilize the Idlib province.

Syrian government troops (red) and “Syrian democratic forces” (yellow) in Deir ez-Zor

In Deir ez-Zor, military forces supported by Russia have advanced very close to militants supported by the United States. Earlier this month, Syrian government troops have managed to break through into the city from the west, with help from the Russian military. Areas on the eastern bank of the Euphrates are still controlled by the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), together with U.S. special forces and medical staff from an international coalition. On September 21, Moscow noted that the United States has even scaled back its operation to liberate Raqqa from the Islamic State, in order to allow the SDF to transfer more men and resources to Deir ez-Zor. Both the Syrian government and the Syrian Democratic Forces say their aim in Deir ez-Zor is the defeat of ISIS. Russian officials say Deir ez-Zor is Syria’s “last terrorist stronghold,” promising that it will fall within a week.

The Pentagon has denied accusations that U.S. forces played any role in the attack on Russian military police, arguing in turn that Moscow has carried out airstrikes against SDF positions where international coalition personnel could be located. Moscow says it provides the United States with advanced warning about all its airstrikes, which Russian officials insist are directed only at Islamic State targets.

Russian text by Mikhail Zelensky, translation by Kevin Rothrock