American soldiers have been injured in a tense confrontation with Russian troops in northeastern Syria, stoking tensions between the two powers in a fiercely-contested part of the country.
Videos have emerged of Russian military vehicles and attack helicopters surrounding and harassing two American armoured cars while they carried out patrols near the borders with Iraq and Turkey earlier this week.
At one point during the skirmish, a Russian Kamaz Typhoon armoured personnel carrier collided with an American M-ATV mine-resistant vehicle, in an incident which left four US troops injured, the White House said on Wednesday night.
In a statement, the US National Security Council (NSC) did not provide further details of the soldiers’ injuries, but accused the Russian forces of “unsafe and unprofessional” behaviour against troops who were carrying out patrols on Tuesday as part of the US-led military Coalition against the Islamic State terror group.
"The coalition and the United States do not seek escalation with any national military forces, but US forces always retain the inherent right and obligation to defend themselves from hostile acts," John Ullyot, an NSC spokesman, said.
In another video posted online, a Russian Mi-8AMSTh “Terminator” assault helicopter flies low over vehicles clearly displaying the American flag, buffeting them with prop wash from its rotor blades.
However on Thursday the Russian defence ministry blamed the Americans, saying they had been warned that Russian forces were passing through the area, close to the city of Dayrick.
The latest incident occurred in Hasakah province, where Syrian government forces, Kurdish paramilitaries and Islamic State jihadists all battled each other until the latter were defeated and a ceasefire was signed in 2016.
Russia, which has deployed around 4,000 troops in Syria and provides military air power in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, has since carried out numerous “peacekeeping” patrols along the country’s northern border.
"In spite of this, in breach of the existing agreements the US troops attempted to block the Russian patrol," Moscow’s Defence Ministry said today, adding that Russian military police took "necessary measures" to end the incident and carry on their mission.
So the Fighter Bomber Instagram channel that posted this video claims the Russian Mi-8AMTSh helicopter in this video was hovering over American forces, presumably to try to disperse them or force them to move. 318/https://t.co/0iBHe4GlnT pic.twitter.com/LDebd2HlLP— Rob Lee (@RALee85) August 26, 2020
Rob Lee, a researcher at the Department of War Studies at Kings College London who posted videos of the incident online, said that the incident was the most serious between American and Russian forces in Syria since January, when the two sides had had several minor altercations.
He added that Russian officers appeared to condone the provocative tactics, despite the risk of causing an international incident.
“I think the Russians realise that US forces won't use lethal force to stop them, so they're just going to continue patrolling wherever they want to in Syria,” he said. “Russia also feels as though their presence in Syria is legitimate (because Assad invited them), whereas US forces' presence is unlawful.”