Deadly clash in Syria a vivid reminder of US troops' ill-defined mission

Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent
Photograph: AP

American battle trucks stuck in the mud, besieged by angry Kurdish villagers, and the Russian army trying to mediate their escape. After more than five years fighting Isis in northern Syria, it wasn’t supposed to end like this.

But for US military officials, the scene near the city of Qamishli was a stark reminder of the incongruous end to the war against the terror group and partnership with the ally that had helped them prevail.

One man was killed and another injured in the confused incident, which started when a US patrol came under attack near a checkpoint manned by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday.

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It was a rare direct clash between US and Syrian government forces, but ever since Donald Trump abruptly ended Washington’s pact with the Kurds last October, what remains of the US presence in north-eastern Syria has had a difficult time.

Without a clearly defined mission of its own, after exposing their allies to an attack from the Turks, and yielding control of the province to the Russians, US troops have more or less stayed out of the fray in the eastern deserts – where oilfields, not the menace of global terror, have become their new reason for staying.

When US convoys do come to town, even to once-friendly strongholds like Qamishli, a warm welcome is no longer assured. As armoured columns left the city in October, they were pelted with rocks and fruit. The bases they had occupied in the grinding fight against extremists were taken over by Russian forces within hours of their departure, and the Kurdish leaders who had counted on their patronage found themselves dealing with new sheriffs.

Five months since the US pullout, Rojava, as the province is known in northern Syria, has settled into a new routine. The power politics of the US presence has been replaced by a different way of doing things. To some Kurdish officials, the conflict in the north-east has become more of a microcosm of the broader Syrian war than ever; an ascendant Russia, an uninterested US, Syrian loyalists looking for leverage – and the local Kurds caught between the competing ambitions of Ankara and Moscow.

With little to offer any more, a US convoy was always likely to face a cold reception – especially if it wandered into a village that had remained avowedly loyal to the Syrian central government throughout the civil war.

The hamlet of Khirbet Ammu, just east of Qamishli, was one such place; Syrian flags at its entrance displaying the area’s fealty. The Arab village, along with a network of nearby roads and the city’s airport, had remained a no-go zone for opponents of Bashar al-Assad. Even neighbouring Kurds are hesitant to enter without good reason.

Roads in and around Khirbet Ammu are controlled by Russian and Syrian forces and navigating them has become a fraught proposition.

Video from the scene shows US troops surrounded by angry locals, shouting: “What do you want from our country? What is your business here?” Replying in English, a soldier tells the shouting man: “Back off!”

Other clips show men firing AK-47 rifles and other small arms.

American military officials describe the mission as a “routine patrol” and say they were forced to fire on villagers in self-defence.

In addition to the US truck stuck in the mud, another had a flat tyre. A US fighter jet over flew the village during the clash. Russian troops were credited with calming things.

After Trump’s sudden withdrawal, a strong pushback from his senior aides and Pentagon chiefs succeeded in keeping about 500 troops and armour near Deir Ezzor in far eastern Syria. The stated reason was to safeguard oilfields.

“But that was just to get his attention,” said one regional official. “The US president doesn’t understand much else and they had to speak in his language.”

Other officials have said keeping a US presence in the region is vital in other ways, especially maintaining some relations with the Kurds – but also to act as a counterweight to Iranian ambitions.

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Since the US left, a Turkish incursion, led by Arab proxy forces from elsewhere in Syria, has secured two strongholds along the Kurdish border that have raised strident claims of an ethnic re-engineering of the region. Ankara has said it intends to send refugees it has housed throughout the war to live in two zones it has slated for Syrian exiles.

Brett McGurk, the former US envoy on Isis who quit over a previous move to withdraw troops – and has remained a strident critic of Trump’s Syria policy ever since – suggested the scene in Khirbet Ammu reflected a deepening quagmire for US troops.

“We have American soldiers with an ill-defined mission in Syria (“protect the oil”) after abandoning 3/4 of once stable territory on Trump’s orders, now forced to navigate roads controlled by Russian and Syrian regime forces,” he wrote on Twitter. “Too much to ask of our brave warriors.”