Winnefeld on US Clash with Syrian Forces

Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/AP

The U.S. coalition says in defending its own troops, it killed an estimated 100 pro-Assad regime fighters on Wednesday. This clash, which took place in Khusham near the Euphrates River, is the largest reported to date between U.S.-backed forces and pro-regime forces in Syria.

Here’s what happened, according to public statements given by actors involved:

  • About 500 pro-regime troops “initiated an unprovoked attack” against a Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) headquarters, where U.S. coalition advisors were working with the U.S.-backed fighters, according to statement from U.S. Central Command.
  • The exchange took place 5 miles east of the established Euphrates River de-confliction line, where the pro-regime forces had advanced “likely to seize oilfields in Khusham,” a U.S. official told Reuters.
  • Coalition and Russian officials were “in regular communication…before, during and after” the assault, the same official said. Russian officials assured the Coalition they would not engage coalition forces in the vicinity.
  • According to Russia’s Ministry of Defense, the advancing pro-regime forces had not coordinated with Russian officials in the area. “The incident was caused by uncoordinated reconnaissance and search operations plans of the Syrian militias with the Russian command task force in the locality of Salhiyah.”
  • Is it that simple? The U.S. is looking into whether Russian contractors operating in the vicinity were also involved, according to another U.S. official who spoke to CNN, saying there is no direct evidence yet that the Russians had fired on the SDF facility. The official said that Iranian-backed forces might have also been involved in the attack.

The Cipher Brief’s retired Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld weighed in on the incident:

First, the Obama administration struggled with the notion of self-defense when it applies to a non-state entity. In other words, can we defend a non-state force under international legal terms of self-defense when it comes under attack? 

In general, the conclusion was that we would have a hard time doing this. I would not be surprised if the Trump administration’s lawyers would come to the same conclusion.

While the administration could theoretically do whatever it wants, risking the legal and public affairs consequences, my sense is that the term “self defense” in this case means there must have been some kind of U.S. presence in the headquarters that was being attacked, in which case self-defense would not be in question. It only seems more likely given the magnitude of the response. 

Second is the notion of Russian contractors. It goes without saying that this is one way Russia is approaching warfare in the gray zone. It is easier for Russia to deny involvement in an action, particularly if there is collateral damage or human rights are violated, when it uses contractors who do not wear Russian military uniforms. It also lowers (in only a very small way) the likelihood of a confrontation with the U.S. if these forces come into contact.

A direct Russian-U.S. confrontation is the biggest risk in this new, post-ISIL phase of the conflict in Syria. It is what the Obama administration feared the most, and seems almost inevitable the way things are progressing in Syria. The U.S. has sent a strong signal with this response, indicating that it intends to remain engaged in Syria and that it will not back down in the face of the Syrian military and its backers.

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One Reply to “Winnefeld on US Clash with Syrian Forces”
  1. The author glosses over the key and essential point…a possibly overwhelming force was closing on a position where American advisers where teamed with Syrian SDF forces. If there is a concern that a small engagement might draw the US and Russia into direct conflict then two key points refute the notion. The incident did not provoke direct combat between the US and Russia because the two sides are in constant communications and therefore we have at least one incident demonstrating that direct conflict is less likely than more likely. The second point is the “maturity” of the Russian and American military systems as compared to the varying factions in Syria precludes unintentional escalation between the two. Both have recent and concurrent combat operations from which they have gained considerable experience. Both have sophisticated command and communication capabilities. Both have their best trained and most experienced personnel in the region and both are relatively dispassionate about the struggle. If a local commander on the ground loses control of the situation and makes a poor decision, it does not necessarily mean that higher echelons can not correct or compensate for those mistakes. The Americans in this situation had no choice but to use air support to fight back an ill-advised attack made by poorly controlled local forces. The real take away message in this story is how well the US-Russia command and control worked to prevent any further contact.