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05/07/2020 | As debate centers on Afghanistan, Russian forces challenge US troops in Syria

Joseph Fitsanakis

As an intense debate rages in the United States about Moscow’s alleged subversion of American military goals in Afghanistan, sources warn that Russia is increasingly challenging Washington’s troops in Syria.

 

Recent reports have alleged that the Kremlin has been offering financial rewards to Taliban fighters encouraging them to kill US troops in Afghanistan. The Russian government has denied these allegations, while the White House claims it was never briefed about this by the Intelligence Community.

Some experts suggest, however, that Russia’s growing involvement in Afghanistan may be part of a wider effort by Moscow to test the limits of American military presence in Asia. This can be seen as a predictable response by the Russians, given that US President Donald Trump has repeatedly indicated he is not a fan of substantial American military involvement abroad. According to a new report by Politico, Russia’s challenge can be observed, not only in Afghanistan, but also in Syria, where American and Russian troops have been present in the same battlespace for over five years now.

In the past, the two militaries have kept open lines of communication to ensure that they stay clear from each other, thus avoiding a major escalation between the two nuclear-armed nations. Consequently, despite supporting opposing sides in the war, Russian and American troops have not directly challenged each other, with very few exceptions. Presently Russian forces continue to support of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, while several hundred US forces are working closely with Kurdish fighters, who control territory in eastern Syria.

Despite the pullout of most American troops from the region in the past two years, the US maintains a force of nearly 1,000 soldiers in the Deir al-Zour region of eastern Syria. These are closely coordinating with Kurdish peshmerga, whose primary tasks include guarding the region’s lucrative oil fields, thus starving the government of President al-Assad of a major source of revenue. In the past, Russian troops have rarely ventured in the Kurdish-controlled region, in full knowledge of the US military presence there. Lately, however, brushes between American and Russian troops in Deir al-Zour have been “increasingly frequent”, according to Politico, which cited “two current US officials and one former US official” in its report.

The sources told the website that Russia has been deploying its military forces “closer and closer to US positions”, to the point that now the two militaries “interact multiple times a week, if not daily”. This is a major change from this time last year, when such interactions were reportedly extremely rare. In some cases, American and Russian troops have engaged in standoffs that lasted several hours, though none led to violence, as they were successfully diffused without escalation.

However, the change in Russian tactics, which also involves Moscow’s Iranian-led partners in the region, appears to be aimed at trying “to squeeze the US military out of the region”, according to observers who spoke to Politico. More broadly, developments in Syria appear to be part of attempts by Russia to “test the US commitment to remaining in the broader Middle East”. At the same time, the Russian military is reportedly building a new military base in northern Syria, near the Turkish border.

Strategically, it may be useful to view the change of Russia’s tactics in Syria in connection with its allegedly more aggressive methods in Afghanistan. These may be designed to “test US resolve” in Afghanistan and beyond, according to former CIA officer Doug London, who is now with the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. The Russians “will just continued to escalate until checked”, said London.

Intelnews.org (Estados Unidos)

 



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