The former special presidential envoy to the global anti-ISIS coalition this month called on President Donald Trump to put a stop to "daily" Russian harassment of U.S. troops on the ground in Syria. But in a briefing with reporters Wednesday, the deputy commander of the force tasked with defeating the militant group said unprofessional encounters with the Russians are a rarity in the country.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Kenneth Ekman said that Russian and U.S. troops do cross paths on a daily basis in eastern Syria, but largely abide by pre-established deconfliction protocols to avoid military escalation.
"What you might call harassment, which is, you know, less than absolute professional conduct between the Russians and the U.S., occurs on rare occasions," Ekman said. "By and large, what we find is that the Russians abide by the protocols that we put in place. They abide by the rules of the road, if you will, that occur at the tactical level between our convoys. And it's very rare that a misunderstanding triggers some higher emotions or some sort of harassment between the two sets of forces."
Ekman added that the death of a U.S. soldier in Syria during a routine convoy operation, announced Wednesday, was unrelated to any incident of Russian harassment. He demurred from stating the cause of death, noting that it remains under investigation.
The general's comments came days after former diplomat Brett McGurk tweeted a video appearing to show Russian combat vehicles aggressively pulling up against U.S. Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, and Russian soldiers confronting U.S. troops on foot.
"Trump plays golf as US forces in Syria now on a daily basis confront Russians thanks to his impetuous decision to abandon 2/3 of once-stable ground to Putin and Erdogan," tweeted McGurk, who resigned as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL in December 2018 following Trump's announcement of plans to pull out of Syria. "Mr. President: Pick up the phone and tell Putin to stop harassing our troops."
Russia, which backs the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in opposition to the U.S., has increased its presence in northeastern Syria after a partial U.S. drawdown in the region late last year. As early as February, U.S. officials acknowledged that run-ins with the Russians, on the ground in Syria as well as in the air over it, were increasing in frequency.
Ekman said Wednesday that interactions in the air had also generally remained in bounds, despite the close proximity in which U.S. and Russian aviators operate.
"Our very professional coalition aviators continue to successfully deconflict from the Russians. And so that gives you a sense of the day-to-day playing from an airman's perspective, which I'm happy to offer you," he said.
"From the ground perspective, that contact is just as frequent. And so our concern isn't about the number of incidents; our troops are going to see each other out on the roads day in and day out, as we pursue our respective objectives. Our goal is to make sure we abide by the deconfliction protocols, and that we make sure that none of those contacts become escalatory."
Ekman said small concentrations of ISIS fighters remain along the eastern border of Syria, although the group is weakened on the whole.
"We know the remnants of Daesh remain largely ineffective; Daesh has been reduced to a low-level insurgency," he said, using an alternative name for ISIS. "And so what we do as a coalition, as we're working through our partners in Syria, is seek them out whether they seek sanctuary. ... What our Syrian Defense Force partners and what coalition forces as a whole remain committed to, is rooting them out wherever we find them. And it's been quite successful."
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.