U.S. coalition and Russian military patrols narrowly avoided a serious mishap in northern Syria Tuesday when vehicles from each side appeared to have tried to outrun each other in a wheat field in northeastern Hasakah province.
"The Russians did not use established deconfliction measures to request passage of a Russian convoy through the Eastern Syria Security Area (ESSA) near Dayrick on Aug 25, 2020," Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesperson for U.S. Central Command said in a statement late Thursday. "The Russian convoy encountered a joint U.S.-SDF patrol following their unauthorized incursion into the ESSA and proceeded to aggressively and recklessly pursue the Coalition convoy including a sideswipe of a U.S. vehicle and the extremely low level overflight by a Russian helicopter."
Urban said seven U.S. soldiers were treated for injuries received during the incident and all of them "have returned to duty."
Chief Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said Thursday, "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."
Hoffman added, "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."
Arab news channels broadcast Russian video of the incident between U.S. and Russian patrols, in which American armored vehicles appeared to drive alongside Russian vehicles, with a collision occurring at one point. It was not immediately clear who was to blame.
Syrian state TV, quoting Russian Army Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov, said Moscow had informed the U.S. about the movements of its forces before the incident took place.
U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Ullyot called the Russian vehicles' conduct "unsafe and unprofessional," maintaining that their actions "represent a breach of deconfliction protocols, committed to by the United States and Russia in December 2019."
He added, "The coalition and the U.S. do not seek escalation with any national military forces," but that "U.S. forces always retain the inherent right and obligation to defend themselves from hostile acts."
Video on social media from a previous incident between U.S. and Russian forces in May show that at a Russian military checkpoint, U.S. vehicles were prevented from using a highway near the Syrian government-held town of Qamishli.
Joshua Landis, who heads the Middle East program at the University of Oklahoma, told VOA that incidents like the one on Tuesday "will surely increase in the future," saying, "With so many armies and militias all claiming legitimate control of the same small territory, conflict and provocation are to be expected."
U.S. President Donald Trump called for the withdrawal of American forces from northeastern Syria in late 2019, following a Turkish offensive against Kurdish forces along the border.