- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 27, 2018

U.S. and coalition military commanders are denying comments by President Trump’s new special envoy to Syria that U.S. and Russian forces and mercenaries have had multiple unreported armed clashes on Syria’s confusing battlefield.

The Pentagon insisted Tuesday, despite claims made last week by James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative to Syria, that U.S. special forces and their local allies inside Syria have been able to avoid conflicts with the Russian forces, which are providing key military support to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Mr. Jeffrey is a veteran diplomat and former ambassador to Turkey and Iraq.

“I can tell you that we have not had any problems on that front. The deconfliction process has been proven to work and so far that’s what we’ve been seeing,” Coalition spokesman Col. Sean Ryan told reporters at the Pentagon.

An administration official said Wednesday Mr. Jeffery’s comments reflected his overall assessment of the current situation in Syria, and did not reference any specific incidents between American and Russian forces.

“The Ambassador was speaking broadly about U.S. forces in Syria to defeat ISIS and their right to defend themselves when threatened. Ambassador Jeffrey was not confirming ‘multiple incidents’ occurred between Russian and American forces in Syria,” the official said, on the condition of anonymity.

In the one publicly acknowledged direct clash, U.S. airstrikes and coalition troops decimated a large group of Russian paramilitary troops that they claim approached their positions near the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor in February. In an effort to contain tensions, neither Washington or Moscow offered many details about the incident.

The Kremlin at the time conceded Russian citizens were on the ground at the time of the clash, but said “they are not connected to the armed forces of the Russian Federation.”

Mr. Jeffrey, in an interview with Russian news outlet RIA Novosti, said that “there have been various engagements [with Russian-allied forces], some involving exchange of fire, some not.”

“As appropriate — and this has occurred about a dozen times in one or another place in Syria — [U.S. forces] exercise the right of self-defense when they feel threatened. That’s all we say on that,” the envoy added.

News of the previously unreported clashes between U.S., coalition forces and Russian military contractors underscores the risk of unintended conflict in a civil war that has dragged Russia, Iran, the U.S. and a welter of radical Islamic terror groups, including Islamic State and al Qaeda, into the fight.

Roughly 2,000 Islamic State fighters remain dug in the areas around the eastern Syrian city within the middle Euphrates River Valley, the group’s final holdout in the country.

Col. Ryan acknowledged on Tuesday the encounters described by Mr. Jeffrey could have happened before the February airstrikes. But he did note that command officials have not had any reported hostile contact with Russian troops or contractors since the Deir ez-Zor clash in February.

U.S. special forces were first deployed to Syria under President Obama to help in the fight against Islamic State. John R. Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser, said in September that U.S. troops will remain inside Syria as long as Iran’s military and its proxies also remain in the country supporting the Assad regime.

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