PENTAGON - Russian forces in Syria came close to clashing with the United States and U.S.-backed forces in the western part of the country but fell back following a phone call between a top Russian general and the top-ranking U.S. military officer.
The incident earlier this week, east of the Euphrates River in Syria's Deir al-Zor province, came to light Tuesday when U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis shared his concerns while talking with reporters.
“These were forces moving into more advanced positions, too close,” Mattis said, calling them “Russian elements.”
Discussions between the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, and his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, defused the situation.
“Those (Russian) elements fell back,” Mattis said. “We have also drawn off slightly.”
The close call between Russian and U.S. forces in the region follows a clash last month, when Syrian government forces, along with Russian mercenaries, attacked U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in the same region.
The U.S. responded by launching a barrage of airstrikes that killed as many as 300 troops, including some with CHVK Wagner, a Kremlin-linked private military company.
Both Washington and Moscow have sought to downplay the February incident, though the Pentagon said it still does not know why the Russian mercenary forces decided to attack.
“I still cannot answer that question,” Mattis said. “Obviously, they paid a very heavy price for that.”
Efforts at the time to use to a special hotline to defuse the situation failed, as the Russian officers who answered the phone said the mercenaries were not theirs.The U.S. military said while they have no reason to believe the Russian officers who answered the phone were acting in bad faith, it is now clear the mercenaries answer to Moscow.
“We think that the potential for a clash there, thanks to the Russian direction to this group, has been reduced,” Mattis said of the most recent incident.
The U.S. has about 2,000 troops in Syria, many working with the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in an effort to eradicate the Islamic State terror group.
Pockets of IS fighters remained holed up in parts of the Middle Euphrates River Valley, and U.S. officials say efforts to clear them out have stalled, due to Turkey's military incursion against other Kurdish forces in the Afrin area of northwestern Syria.
Turkish officials, who say they are targeting forces linked to the PKK terror group, have threatened to expand the operation to areas like Manbij, where U.S. troops are based. But Mattis said so far, that has not happened.
“There has been no move against Manbij,” he said. “We continue our dialogue with the Turkish authorities about how do we sort this out.”