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US and Syrian troops clash near Qamishli

What happened: US and Syrian forces clashed yesterday, when a US patrol encountered a checkpoint manned by pro-Assad forces near the Kurdish town of Qamishli. A Russian army convoy was also involved in an attempt to mediate the confrontation, in which one Syrian was killed and another injured.

  • Colonel Myles Caggins, a spokesman for the US-led coalition, said: “After coalition troops issued a series of warnings and de-escalation attempts, the patrol came under small arms fire from unknown individuals. In self-defence, coalition troops returned fire.”
  • The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said residents and armed pro-government militiamen blocked the path of a US convoy. The militia fired in the air and US soldiers fired smoke bombs in response. The Russian defence ministry said its troops prevented a “further escalation of the conflict”

Context: Northeast Syria is a complex mosaic of military and political control. Up until last October the whole of the region east of the Euphrates was under the control of a Kurdish-led, autonomous administration. But a US withdrawal from the Turkish-Syria border prompted a Turkish invasion, which concluded with a Turkish-Russian deal on a buffer zone, and a Kurdish-Syrian agreement to invite the Assad regime back into the province.

  • A 30km Turkish buffer zone is in place inbetween the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al Ain, in which a joint Turkish-Russian patrol extends 10km deep into Syria, and a joint Russian-Syrian patrol controls the rest of the 30km buffer zone.
  • Qamishli is part of the Russian-Syrian buffer zone to the east of the part-Turkish buffer zone.
  • Hundreds of US troops remain in North East Syria.

Looking ahead: North East Syria has been relatively calm since the Turkish invasion late last year concluded with a Turkish-Russian agreement on a buffer zone, with attention turning to Idlib as the main arena of hostilities in Syria. But this skirmish demonstrates that this area of Syria is still highly combustible, resting on uneasy alliances between the Syrian government and the Kurds, as well as Russia and Turkey, all with the continued presence of US troops.