Amid reports of further standoffs between American and Russian troops in northeast Syria, outside of the city of Derik near the Turkish and Iraqi borders, comes more evidence that the Russians are trying to beef up their military presence in the area by building a base in the Kurdish-controlled territory.
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), reported that Russian forces are building a base in Qasir Dib, a Kurdish village outside of al-Malikiyah near the Turkish border. Russian soldiers installed radar and brought 12 armored vehicles to the area, the Observatory said.
Nishan Mohammad, one local freelance reporter said in an interview with Voice of America, “I spoke with people who […] confirmed that the Russians had expressed a desire to build a military base in the village.”
A power vacuum was formed when the United States began pulling out of northeast Syria. The Turkish military then began an offensive in October of last year, attacking the SDF which is heavily manned by Kurdish troops. The Russians and Syrian government troops, then rushed into the region as well, trying to assert influence.
The area around al-Malikiyah sees a confusing and potentially volatile mix of American, Russian, and Turkish military activity. The Turks and Russians have conducted joint patrols in the area, while American and Russian troops frequently block each other’s patrols. Another such standoff occurred on June 3, the second in two days.
In each instance, Russian patrols came face-to-face with American troops who have a base in the area. The Russians entered the area and were attempting to access the road to Derik. American troops blocked the road and local traffic was held up for hours. Two helicopters, one Russian and one American, were circling above the area monitoring the situation.
After the U.S. troops stopped the Russians from gaining access to Derik, the Russians were forced to return to their base in Qamishli; they share the base with Syrian government troops.
Another local news source reported that the day prior, villagers from Derik blocked the road when Russian troops approached. Then American forces deployed to another crossroads nearby.
The Russians are attempting to expand their influence in the area and have had talks with the Syrian government about constructing new bases in the northeast.
The area is important because of the potential revenue that could be generated by the natural gas fields that are under the control of the U.S. and the Kurds. President Assad needs the influx of cash to offset the cost of the nearly decade-long civil war. The Americans have said that they are holding the fields to keep the natural gas out of the hands of the Islamic State, who both the Americans and Russians are fighting against.
However, Defense Secretary Mark Esper has acknowledged that the American presence is also aimed at keeping the oil out of the hands of Russia and the Assad regime. In 2018, Syrian troops and Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group tried to attack the Americans near the gas fields in question. They were routed by American airstrikes.
The area around al-Malikiyah has a mixture of Kurdish and Christian populations. It is very close to the Kurdish area of Iraq. According to local sources, the Russians are hoping to drive a wedge between the Kurds and their Arab neighbors by having the latter cut their ties to the SDF. If the Americans do indeed withdraw from Syria, that would potentially open the door for the Russians to bring the Kurds into their camp and to protect them from the Turks.
The Americans and Russians have had “deconfliction zones” wherein they have avoided coming into conflict with one another, with the exception of the 2018 attack. But in recent months, with increased frequency, the two sides are coming into collision as the communications are breaking down.
Colonel Myles Caggins, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, stated that the two sides are having issues. “Each day there are conversations between leaders here in the coalition and Russian leaders in Syria, where we share and exchange information on where our patrols will go,” Caggins said.
“Those encounters are normally resolved in a professional manner. And what we’ve seen in recent days was the United States escorting a Russian patrol out of an area that was not de-conflicted in eastern Syria,” he added.