U.S.-Russian troop stand-off in northeastern Syria

U.S. troops denied a Russian patrol access to a town in northeastern Syria, far from Assad regime territory

(Source: @LAndriukaitis/DFRLab via Peshmernagor/archive)

Amid heightened tensions between U.S. and Russian forces in northeastern Syria, U.S. troops denied a Russian patrol convoy access to a town in the region on January 14, 2020. The incident was reported by various human rights organizations monitoring the conflict, but there were conflicting reports on where it took place. The DFRLab was able to geolocate it to the village of Gir Kehfik in northeastern Syria.

The DFRLab reported in December 2019 that Russia had systematically filled the power vacuum created by the partial U.S. withdrawal from the region, with Russian soldiers even occupying abandoned U.S. military bases. A small contingent of American troops remained in the country to protect oil fields from being retaken by the Islamic State and to conduct joint special operations with the Kurdish forces. This latest incident was evidence of a direct confrontation between Russian forces and the remaining U.S. troops in Syria, as the two powers jostle for regional influence.

Claims of confrontations between U.S. and Russian troops have circulated online since the end of 2019. Previously, the United Kingdom-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Middle East Monitor both reported that Russian soldiers were severely beaten by U.S. troops during a fist fight on December 25 in the town of Tal Tamr in the al-Hasakah region.

Conflicting reports

On January 17, 2020, the Observatory released a report claiming that U.S. forces had intercepted a Russian patrol and prevented it from entering the town of Tal Tamir. The following day, videos reportedly showing the incident started appearing online that claimed it occurred elsewhere, near the city of Karki, almost 150 kilometers from Tal Tamir.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4nWTu7W-90

The DFRLab’s findings contradicted both assessments, however. The incident did occur, but open-source evidence suggested it likely took place in the village of Gir Kehfik.

All three claimed locations of the incident: Tal Tamir (orange), which was mentioned in the Observatory’s report; Karki (yellow), the location mentioned in the YouTube video; and Gir Kehfik (blue), which the DFRLab geolocated. (Source: @LAndriukaitis/DFRLab via Syria LiveUAMap, bottom left; Google Maps, center)

The YouTube video showed Russian troops and a number of Russian-made GAZ Tigr infantry mobility vehicles stopped in the middle of the road, talking to U.S. troops.

Russian soldiers on the road, talking with U.S. soldiers. (Source: vedeng/archive)

On the other side of the road, U.S.-produced Oshkosh M-ATV infantry vehicles are shown, with U.S. troops walking in the background.

Location of the incident pinpointed on a map of Syria from January 21, 2020. The red area is that controlled by the Assad regime and supported by Russian soldiers; green represents Syrian rebel-controlled territory; yellow is Kurdish-controlled area; purple shows Turkish-controlled area; black is Islamic State-controlled area; and the blue region is the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. (Source: @LAndriukaitis/DFRLab via Syria LiveUAMap; Google Maps, bottom right)

As the video was shot from several different angles, the DFRLab was able to pinpoint the exact location of the incident. A number of structures shown in the background, including a gas station, matched structures located in the village of Gir Kehfik on Google Maps.

Geolocation of the video. The green and orange lines represent matching structures seen in satellite imagery and in the video. (Source: @LAndriukaitis/DFRLab via vedeng/archive, top and bottom; Google Maps, middle)

The reason why U.S. troops denied the patrol access was unclear, but Russian media claimed that it was because “Americans are pushing Russians troops away from the Syrian oil reserves.” The territory into which the Russians were trying to enter is also one of the last few regions over which the United States retains control, in partnership with the local Kurdish authorities.

The United States and Russia have not officially delineated exclusive lines of control in the region, so the confusion around territorial control is perhaps inevitable. Nonetheless, this incident occurred in the far-northeastern part of Syria — well beyond the nearest territory under the control of the Russian-allied Assad regime — thus demonstrating both that Russian troops are trying to dominate as much territory as possible and that the remaining U.S. forces are not going to allow them to encroach on the limited, if ill-defined, territory still under U.S. patrol.


Lukas Andriukaitis is an Associate Director with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Belgium.

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