Syria: America tells Russia where US Troops are Located – Is it safe?

  • By defencematters

The United States has revealed broad areas in which U.S. special forces are operating in Syria to Russia and has requested that the Russians not strike there.

Andrej Matisak

The United States has revealed broad areas in which U.S. special forces are operating in Syria to Russia and has requested that the Russians not strike there.

This is an unusual move since it raises several question-marks as to whether the Russians can be trusted not to strike or indeed not to share info with other players in the Syrian conflict. We asked a couple of experts to tell us what they think about this new move on the Syrian chessboard and this is what they told us:

Michael Smith, Former Intelligence Officer, Award-winning Journalist, Author, including – Killer Elite: The Real Story Behind SEAL Team Six and the Bin Laden Raid

I think it is unusual, and obviously most people would be surprised at this, but while the Russians clearly want to destroy the opposition, they also want to destroy IS as much as anyone else and anything that does that is as much in their interest as it is in America's. I suspect that the reason is not so much for the safety of US forces, although clearly the Americans would not want them to be killed by anyone yet alone the Russians. This is about the integrity of the delicate operation that US forces will be carrying out. It is to avoid the disruption that any air strikes would have on the confidence that opposition forces have in those US special operations forces, which will take time to become secure. The decision to put these forces in is an essential pre-requisite for getting opposition forces to take on IS, without it there is no motive at all for taking on another opposition force rather than the government at this stage in the conflict. If we get to the point where the government is about to fall, then we can expect opposition forces to take on other rebel groups simply to gain power but at the moment, it isn't their priority. So the US special operations advisers have a very delicate task and air strikes of any kind will make their task impossible.

Mark GaleottiProfessor of Global Affairs, Center for Global Affairs, New York University

It's quite an unusual move, but this is quite an unusual war. It is essentially an extension of the deconfliction measures already taken in the air, to ensure US and Russian planes do not get in each other's way and will be something of a test of Moscow's goodwill. That said, the Russians have everything to lose if they do hit US forces on the ground, so I think this is a safe bet for the Americans.

Dylan LehrkeArmed Forces Analyst at IHS Jane’s

Sharing of information on the location of forces is not unusual in any coalition, even in ad hoc and strained coalitions such as that which arguably exists between Russian and the United States (and others) in Syria. That said, sharing information on the location of special forces is likely more rare but it is hard to know with certainty given that so little is made public about special forces operations.

Regarding the logic, while it is not without risks, sharing this information with Russia may actually serve to make these special forces more safe since it makes Moscow partially responsible for their security. Russian forces cannot, for example, carry out an airstrike on these forces  or in these areas and claim ignorance. This is why the fact that the Russians were told, if true, could very reasonably have been intentionally leaked to the press.

On a different note, telling Russia about the presence of US special forces stands in stark contrast to the opaque use of Russian forces in Ukraine and thus may also be a message to Moscow on proper protocols for the use of force.