In the latest, and most serious, example of Russian military provocation against U.S. forces in eastern Syria, on Tuesday a Russian military police vehicle sideswiped a U.S. military MRAP vehicle, injuring four Americans. Video shows two Russian helicopters also aggressively flew overhead – one as close as 20 meters (70 feet) from the U.S. vehicles.
U.S. troops are usually accompanied by members of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighting terrorists from the Islamic State (IS). Four US soldiers suffered concussions, according to the Military Times (MT). The violent confrontation occurred deep inside the Eastern Syria Deconfliction Zone, where Russian troops should not be operating.
These serious military incidents are unacceptable. The U.S. needs to push back.
Of course, the Russian Defense Ministry blamed the U.S. troops for the incident. “In violation of the existing agreements, the U.S. troops attempted to block the Russian patrol,” the ministry said in a statement reported by MT. “In response to that, the Russian military police took the necessary measures to prevent an incident and to continue the fulfillment of their task.”
However, various videos posted online show the incident was deliberate and unprovoked, despite the spin to the contrary. Several hours later, the Pentagon denied the Russian allegations. Pentagon chief spokesman Jonathan Hoffman stated in a press release reported by Military Times that:
Russian forces breached our deconfliction arrangement in Syria and injured U.S. service members with their deliberately provocative and aggressive behavior. Our military deconflicts operations in time and space with Russian forces in Syria to protect the force and mitigate risk of unintended escalation.
We commend our personnel on the ground for de escalating this unfortunate encounter through professionalism and restraint, which are hallmarks of the U.S. military.
We have advised the Russians that their behavior was dangerous and unacceptable. We expect a return to routine and professional deconfliction in Syria and reserve the right to defend our forces vigorously whenever their safety is put at risk.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot said in a statement reported by the MT that a Russian vehicle struck the American vehicle near Dayrick, in northeast Syria. He blamed the Russian military for “unsafe and unprofessional actions” that breached deconfliction protocols between the two countries.
Military Times added that:
Russia, which has waged a military campaign in Syria that helped President Bashar Assad reclaim control over most of the country following a devastating civil war, long has bristled at the presence of the U.S. troops deployed in the country to fight the Islamic State group and have called for their pullout.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin is testing U.S. resolve and escalating tensions to prompt a U.S. withdrawal. The Trump administration and Pentagon should make it clear to Putin, that provocative and dangerous confrontations with U.S. forces are unacceptable, and that any further incidents will result in serious consequences.
The U.S. needs to push back on Russian bullying in Syria just as it pushes back on Chinese bullying in the South China Sea.