U.S. Troops in Standoffs With Russian Military Contractors in Syria – The Wall Street Journal

Gen. Frank McKenzie, center front, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, visiting a military outpost in Syria late last month. Photo: Lolita Baldor/Associated Press

WASHINGTON—Russian personnel are engaging in potentially dangerous standoffs with U.S. troops on highways in northeastern Syria in violation of agreements between Washington and Moscow to stay out of one another’s way in the war-ravaged country, the top U.S. envoy to Syria said Wednesday.

Photos circulating on social media have shown U.S. military trucks blocking civilian vehicles that local journalists say are carrying Russian contractors on the highways. The encounters, while tense, haven’t involved the use of force.

Top U.S. envoy James Jeffrey confirmed such standoffs were occurring in northeast Syria with increasing frequency. Some have taken place deep in areas patrolled by U.S. and Kurdish forces, where Russian contractors aren’t expected to go.

“These are not daily occurrences, but they have been increasing in number, and thus it is troubling,” Mr. Jeffrey told reporters here on Wednesday.

The incidents are raising concerns in Washington about the risk of a clash between the two major powers as Russia-backed Syrian troops escalate an offensive on the last remaining rebel enclaves in Idlib province, home to about three million people, including many displaced from other parts of Syria.

Some U.S. military officials in the Middle East have described the encounters as more frequent, saying roadside confrontations between U.S. and Russian forces are happening daily and, sometimes, several times a day.

Mr. Jeffrey said Russia appeared to be making the incursions “to challenge our presence in the northeast.” He called on Moscow to respect the deconfliction agreements negotiated with the U.S. to avoid clashes between the two countries’ forces in Syria.

“The professionalism of the troops on the ground, beginning with our troops, is such that these incidents have not escalated. But, of course, any commander would be concerned about this,” Mr. Jeffrey said.

President Trump ordered a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria in October. So far, U.S. troop numbers in Syria have dropped from about 1,000 to 600, Pentagon figures show.

U.S. forces continue to patrol the northeast alongside Kurdish troops and to guard oil fields under Kurdish control. U.S. defense officials said while there has been no serious confrontation between the two sides, Russia is watching to assess how the U.S. reacts.

Russian officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Last year, Russian forces expanded their military presence in Syria following President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the area. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains why Russia is so eager to spread its influence in the Middle East. Photo: Getty Images

Mr. Jeffrey also said Russia was using its veto at the United Nations to block international aid deliveries to northwest Syria, where some 2.8 million people are dependent on such assistance. The U.N. said last week that 400,000 medical items were held up at the border in Iraq because an agreement governing the transfer hadn’t been renewed, threatening to aggravate the crisis.

“The most urgent need is to protect the civilian population and to scale up the humanitarian response,” Mark Lowcock, the U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator, said last week at a Security Council meeting. “In order for this to be possible, I call on all parties to facilitate safe and unhindered access for humanitarian workers and supplies.”

Tensions are escalating in northwest Syria. A fragile cease-fire pact agreed between Russia and Turkey late last year halted a Turkish military offensive in Kurdish areas near the border to Turkey, leading to the creation of a buffer zone and joint Russian-Turkish patrols. That truce now appears in jeopardy.

Last week, Russian-backed Syrian forces killed eight Turkish military personnel in rebel-held towns and villages near the Turkish border. In response, Turkey has launched ground and air attacks targeting those troops.

It isn’t clear whether joint Russian-Turkish patrols are continuing amid the escalation in violence. Mr. Jeffrey said at least one planned patrol appeared to have been canceled.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said cease-fire agreements brokered with Russia and Iran are no longer being observed, according to Turkish news reports. Russian officials said last week they remained committed to the agreements struck with Turkey, despite the renewed offensive in Idlib province.

Mr. Jeffrey on Wednesday said between 7,000 and 10,000 members of the U.S.-designated terrorist organization Al Nusra, along with other extremist groups, may be holed up in Idlib. U.S. officials remain concerned that the Russian-backed offensive could cause those groups to disperse across the region.

Turkey is trying to prevent millions of refugees from fleeing across the border if the offensive isn’t stopped. The country already hosts millions of Syrians whom the government is trying to send back.

Write to Jessica Donati at jessica.donati@wsj.com

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