Four U.S. service members were injured in a collision between their vehicle and a Russian military police patrol in northeast Syria earlier this week, U.S. officials said.
The incident highlights the tension surrounding the countries operating in close proximity in one of the world’s most complex war zones — and one that some analysts say risks a potential escalation between Washington and Moscow.
According to a statement by National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot, on Tuesday at about 10 a.m. Syrian time (3 a.m. ET) near Dayrick, in northeast Syria, a Russian military police vehicle and an American light tactical vehicle known as an M-ATV collided.
In a Wednesday statement, Ullyot said the Russian vehicle “struck” the U.S. vehicle. He called the maneuver an “unsafe and unprofessional” breach of an agreement of how the countries should avoid each other in Syria.
On returning to their base, four U.S. service members were diagnosed with mild concussion-like symptoms following the “bump” between vehicles, according to two U.S. officials, speaking anonymously because they were not authorized to be named in the media.
The Department of Defense “was coordinating a response with the White House and Department of State,” Pentagon spokesperson Jessica McNulty told NBC News via email.
The Russians blame the Americans for “an attempt to block the Russian patrol” despite being “notified in advance of the passage of the Russian military police column.”
This explanation was given by Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian military’s General Staff, in a call with his U.S. counterpart, Army Gen. Mark Milley, a Russian defense ministry statement said. Following the collision, the Russian statement said its vehicle “took the necessary measures to prevent the incident and further implement their task.”
The U.S. readout of that call said that both sides “agreed to keep the specific details of their conversation private.”
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Video purporting to show the incident was shared widely on social media although has not been verified by NBC News.
It’s not the first time American and Russian forces have had run-ins in Syria, whose civil war has killed more than 400,000 people, ruined cities and displaced more than 10 million people from their homes since its outbreak in 2011. The U.S. accuses Russia of increasingly breaching “de-confliction protocols” — guidelines about how they should coexist in Syria without confrontation —that they agreed last year.
Russia joined the fight in 2015 to help Syrian President Bashar Assad in the war against a patchwork of rebel groups. Russian President Vladimir Putin helped swing the war in Assad’s favor while asserting a dominant foothold in the country.
Only around 500 U.S. troops remain in Syria, which U.S. officials say are there to fight ISIS. But President Donald Trump has suggested are there “only for the oil” that’s rich in the country’s northeast.
Some experts believe that the potential for escalation is not worth what they say are hazy objectives for the American forces still in the country.
“Playing bumper cars with Russians in the Levant serves no vital U.S. national interest,” Gil Barndollar, a senior fellow at the Defense Priorities think tank, said in an email. “Neither counter-terrorism raids nor confiscating Syrian oil is a valid reason to maintain this mission.”