HASAKAH, SYRIA / WASHINGTON - U.S. forces in northeast Syria again prevented Russian military convoys from touring near the Iraqi border on Friday, in what locals described as an increased escalation between both sides over freedom of navigation in the predominantly Kurdish region. 

A VOA reporter saw American Humvees patrolling the main road of al-Malikiyah town, also known as Derik, in northeast Hasakah province, in what local sources said was an effort to prevent an approaching Russian convoy from passing by the region. 

The sources said the dispute was over the control of M4 highway, al-Malikiyah and Tall Tamr areas that became a dividing line between the two sides following the October 2019 Turkish incursion that forced the U.S. to pull out from much of the Turkey-northeast Syria border region. 

“I see [U.S. and Russian forces] a lot on these roads. They have their own disputes. They block roads here and there. For example, in Xana Sere village and in Derik,” a resident of al-Malikiyah, who for security reasons did not want to be named, told VOA. 

Earlier encounter

This was not the first time U.S. forces had encountered Russian patrols in the area. 

Nishan Mohammad, a local reporter, last week told VOA he saw at least three similar standoffs in which U.S. soldiers stopped Russian military vehicles and forced them to head back to their bases. 

Contacted by VOA, Syrian Democratic Forces officials declined to comment on the matter, citing the sensitivity of the issue. 

The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Wednesday that U.S. troops had blocked a Russian convoy from al-Kharita village in Hasakah road heading toward Jabal Qazuzana. 

The observatory reported that on the same day, a group of Russian forces from Tall Tamr was heading to Hasakah, only to be barred from further advancing by U.S. troops near a U.S. base in the al-Wazir area. 

SDF intervenes

“Verbal altercations took place between both forces and evolved into raising weapons, but the Syrian Democratic Forces intervened as a mediator between them,” the watchdog group said, adding that Russian forces have deployed advanced air defense missile systems at al-Qamishli Airbase in the far northeast as both sides try to extend control over the area. 

U.S. forces were in control of most of northeast Syria until October, when the Turkish military and its allied Syrian militants launched a campaign against the U.S.-backed SDF. Since then, Russian forces and the Syrian government have entered the border region between Turkey and northeast Syria with the aim of filling the area evacuated by the U.S. 

There are still about 500 troops in the area who, according to U.S. officials, are protecting the region's oil fields and preventing Islamic State from reemerging. 

VOA’s Sirwan Kajjo contributed to this story from Washington.