MOSCOW/WASHINGTON • Moscow has warned Washington that it would target US-backed militias in Syria if Russian troops again came under fire, as the US disclosed an unusual face-to-face meeting between American and Russian generals meant to avoid such clashes.
Russia's warning underscored rising tensions over Syria between Moscow and Washington. While both oppose the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants, they are engaged, via proxies, in a race for strategic influence and potential resources in the form of oilfields in Syria's Deir al-Zor province.
The Russian Defence Ministry yesterday said the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had taken up positions on the eastern banks of the Euphrates with US special forces, and twice opened fire with mortars and artillery on Syrian troops who were working alongside Russian special forces.
"A representative of the US military command in Al Udeid (the US operations centre in Qatar) was told in no uncertain terms that any attempts to open fire from areas where SDF fighters are located would be quickly shut down," Major-General Igor Konashenkov said. "Fire points in those areas will be immediately suppressed with all military means."
US and Russian generals held a face-to-face meeting this week in a bid to avoid accidental clashes, US officials said on Thursday.
"They had a face-to-face discussion, laid down maps and graphics," Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the United States-led coalition, said at a briefing, adding it appeared to be the first meeting of its kind.
The Russian Defence Ministry accused American spies of initiating a militant offensive against government-held parts of north-west Syria on Tuesday. It said 29 Russian military policemen had been surrounded by militants and Russia had been forced to break them out in a special operation.
"According to our information, US intelligence services initiated the offensive to halt the successful advance of government troops to the east of Deir al-Zor," said Colonel-General Sergei Rudskoi.
The Syrian army, backed by Russian war planes, has captured about 100km of the west bank of the Euphrates this month, reaching the Raqqa provincial border on Wednesday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Syrian troops on Monday crossed to the eastern side of the river where the SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias fighting with the US-led coalition, has also been advancing. The convergence of the rival offensives has raised tensions in Deir al-Zor.