MOSCOW -- Russia on Thursday raised the threat of a direct confrontation with U.S. forces in Syria, saying the Russian military would target areas occupied by American units and U.S.-backed militias if Moscow's troops come under fire.
The warning came amid rising tensions in the Syrian desert between the United States and its Kurdish and Arab allies on the one hand, and Russia, the Syrian regime and Iranian-backed militias on the other, as both converge on Islamic State-held territory in eastern Syria.
A Russian military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces had twice in recent days shelled Syrian government positions outside Deir al-Zour, a strategic city in the region.
Konashenkov said Russian special forces are helping government troops fight Islamic State militants in the battle for the city.
Moscow has conveyed to the U.S. military command "in no uncertain terms that any attempts to open fire from areas where [Syrian Democratic Forces] fighters are located would be quickly shut down," Konashenkov said in a statement. "Firing positions in those areas will be immediately suppressed with all military means."
A Syrian Democratic Forces officer commanding the Deir el-Zour forces denied targeting pro-government forces and promised reciprocal action for any attacks against his troops.
"We are far from them, Daesh is between us," said Ahmad Abu Khawla, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. "We didn't fire a single bullet toward the regime" forces.
The tensions have been escalating as the Syrian Democratic Forces fighters advance through Islamic State-held territory from the northeast toward Russian-backed Syrian government forces advancing from the west.
The warning that Russia is prepared to take military action to check any further advances by the U.S.-led coalition came after the United States on Saturday said Russian warplanes had struck a Syrian Democratic Forces position north of Deir el-Zour. Soldiers of the U.S.-led multinational coalition were present at the time of the strike, according to a U.S. military statement.
The United States says it maintains about 500 troops in northern and eastern Syria, mainly special operations forces advising the Syrian Democratic Forces. But the actual number is larger, because the publicly announced figure does not include service members assigned to Syria for less than 18 months, according to Col. Ryan Dillon, a U.S. military spokesman.
Past close encounters between the United States and Russia in Syria have been resolved through deconfliction agreements, which delineate where the rival forces may operate.
But there is no such agreement defining the U.S. and Russian areas of operation around the key towns and villages stretching south along the Euphrates River from Deir el-Zour toward the town of Bukamal on the Iraqi border. The area contains most of Syria's oil and controls access to the Iraqi border, and it is viewed as a key target for all sides involved.
The Pentagon downplayed the tensions, saying U.S. military officers and their Russian counterparts held a face-to-face meeting in Syria in recent days to discuss ways to mitigate future incidents.
The meeting lasted more than an hour, Dillon said Thursday. Addressing reporters at the Pentagon from Baghdad, he said he expected follow-up meetings in the coming days. Although U.S. and Russian units are unable to communicate directly, their respective battlefield commanders are regularly talking to one another, he added.
Dillon said the U.S. and Russian officers shared maps, graphics and information about where their forces are battling around Deir el-Zour. He would not provide details on when or where the meeting occurred, beyond saying it took place in recent days somewhere in the region.
Dillon said he was withholding the location of the meeting because of the chance for follow-up discussions. He didn't say who was present.
Asked Thursday about the growing turbulence with the Russians, Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters, "I am not worried, we continue to deal with the Russians in a collaborative way, we'll sort this out."
Syrian government officials have said they regard taking control of Deir el-Zour as essential, in pursuit of their goal of restoring sovereignty over all of Syria. They also want to prevent the United States from gaining influence over any more Syrian territory.
For Iran, a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Iraqi border area represents an opportunity to cement its arc of influence stretching from Tehran to Beirut on the Mediterranean.
U.S. military officials say their primary goal is to defeat the Islamic State, which is thought to have concentrated many of its senior leaders in the area and is expected to make its last stand along the Euphrates River Valley.
But Trump administration officials have also said on several occasions that they have set the additional goal of containing any further expansion of Iranian influence in areas where the Islamic State is defeated.
Information for this article was contributed by David Filipov and Liz Sly of The Washington Post and by Lolita C. Baldor, Nataliya Vasilyeva and Philip Issa of The Associated Press.
A Section on 09/22/2017
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