A US patrol at an oilfield in northeast Syria, October 28, 2019

The American military says “Russia is testing the US” in Syria, days after American troops blocked Russian forces from reaching an oilfield in the northeast of the country.

Speaking at the Pentagon on Wednesday, Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander of US operations in Syria, said Washington and Moscow have “different engagements” on the ground as he warned warned Russian forces not to take provocative action.

Last weekend a Russian military patrol, heading to an oilfield near Rumaila in Hasakeh Province, was halted by American soldiers. The standoff ended without any shots being fired.

Grynkewich said, “Our message every single time is to try to de-escalate the situation, not to take any provocative action and ask them to adhere to the protocols. Most of the time, that’s what ends up happening,” said the commander.”

Tension Over “Deconfliction”

Russia, after its military intervention in September 2015 to prop up the Assad regime, pushed aside the US in the political process over the 106-month conflict.

Washington retreated from any frontline involvement over the Assad regime’s suppression of the Syrian uprising. Instead, under the Obama and then Trump Administrations, it focused on the removal of the Islamic State from the country.

As part of that mission, the US and Russia established “de-confliction” arrangements. Moscow would have freedom, without American interference, in the pro-Assad aerial and ground assaults to overrun opposition areas, while Washington backed the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to take control of much of northeast Syria.

But potential for clashes has remained with the Assad regime insisting that it will regain “every inch” of Syria, and with most of the country’s oil and gas fields overseen by the SDF.

In February 2018, US warplanes killed hundreds of pro-Assad fighters when regime forces, supported by Russian personnel, advanced on a major oilfield. The number of Moscow’s casualties is still disputed, with assertions ranging from a few to 200.

See also 200 Russians Killed by US Airstrikes in Syria? Maybe Not.

Russia has pursued a propaganda offensive in recent months to loosen the US-backed Kurdish control of the resources, vital for a Syrian economy which has lost 75% of its GDP and which is beset by shortages of energy.

Moscow has falsely said US troops are moving the oil out of Syria, profiting from its sale. In late October, Russia denounced the Pentagon’s announcement that US troops would continue assist the SDF — despite Donald Trump’s order for withdrawal from northern Syria — as “banditry”.

The Assad regime has had periodic discussions, brokered by Russia, with Kurdish groups. However, no progress has been made with the regime rejecting any Kurdish autonomy in the cantons of Cezire and Kobani.