Last Wednesday, American troops embedded with the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) were targeted by troops aligned with the al-Assad regime. The latter were making a push across the Euphrates River, southeast of the city of Deir Ezzour, in what was described as an “unprovoked attack” by the U.S., The Washington Post reports.
According to reports of the incident, the pro-governmental forces opened their offensive by shelling the SDF defenders with artillery. The attacking force was composed of around 500 troops and thirty Soviet-era armored vehicles. Around 30 of their shells fell within 500 meters of the rebel headquarters.
The combined American-SDF defenders reacted by calling in artillery and air strikes. In face of this response, the attackers were forced to retreat, having suffered around 100 casualties. No American troops were injured during the firefight, but one SDF rebel was injured.
This was one of the very few times American and pro-governmental forces faced against each other in Syria. The latest significant engagement happened last year when a Syrian jet was shot down by a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet after attacking SDF forces.
However, it is not yet known if the troops involved in the most recent offensive belonged to the Syrian Arab Army or some of the militias aligned with Damascus. Additionally, not all of the attackers wore uniforms, which complicates their identification.
Moreover, vehicles actively moving away from the engagement area were not targeted by the American forces, France 24 reported.
Ostensibly, the American ground troops operating in Syria are there to support the campaign against the Islamic State (IS), which has been collapsing under the weight of the forces poised against it. The Kurdish-led SDF has been fighting the IS in the area east of the Euphrates River, which serves a demarcation line between the SDF and the Damascus-aligned forces.
Near Deir Ezzour a slow buildup of governmental forces is ongoing, assumed to be aimed at capturing the important oil fields in the area, which were taken from the IS by the SDF last year.
According to NPR, Washington has been using the so-called “de-confliction” phone line with Moscow to avoid tense situations like the one from yesterday. This line was apparently used during the attack to assure that there were no Russian assets in the area.
One should keep in mind that the Russian Air Force has been flying in support of Damascus, and even lost a Sukhoi Su-25 strike airplane a few days ago while doing so. That event also represented the first time the Syrian rebels shot down a Russian Air Force jet since the start of the conflict, according to the BBC.
The situation on the ground in Syria has been becoming increasingly worrisome during the last few months. With the collapse of the IS, the disparate factions fighting inside the country lose the common enemy and become free to pursue their own agendas.
The Kurds have been carving a territory to fulfill the ambition to have a nation of their own along the northern regions of Syria and Iraq and have been the tip of the spear in the fighting against the IS by the American-led coalition. However, these same ambitions put them at odds with other factions which are also being juggled by Washington and there are fears they might be abandoned once they are not needed anymore.
This is more evident with the Turks, who have been conducting a military operation, dubbed “Olive Branch,” against the Kurds in the region of Afrin, in the western border between Syria and Turkey. Being Turkey a NATO ally, the possibility of this operation resulting in a clash between Turkish and American forces becomes troublesome.
Moreover, Syrian governmental forces, aided by troops from Russia, Iran, and the Hezbollah, have been reclaiming swathes of territory from Western-aligned militias and extremist rebels alike.
It is a dangerous crucible for the 2,000 American troops on the ground.