“Unsafe and unprofessional actions like this represent a breach of de-confliction protocols, committed to by the United States and Russia in December 2019,” Ullyot said in a statement. “The Coalition and the United States do not seek escalation with any national military forces, but U.S. forces always retain the inherent right and obligation to defend themselves from hostiles acts.”
Video apparently recorded by Russian forces and circulated widely on social media on Wednesday showed American and Russian military vehicles flying the flags of their respective nations and speeding through an open field. A Russian military vehicle rams an American vehicle, as at least one Russian helicopter flies low nearby.
On Thursday, the Russian government said Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the country’s top general, told Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the Russians had notified the U.S.-led coalition “in accordance with existing rules.”
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Gerasimov told Milley that the U.S. troops had attempted to block the Russian patrol, which he alleged took “every step necessary to prevent the incident and proceed with its mission,” the state-run Tass news agency reported.
U.S. Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the region, disputed Russia’s account.
“The Russians did not use established deconfliction measures to request passage of a Russian convoy,” Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a Centcom spokesman, said in a statement.
The Russians encountered a coalition patrol that included the Americans following an “unauthorized incursion” into eastern Syria and “proceeded to aggressively and recklessly pursue the Coalition convoy including a sideswipe of a U.S. vehicle and the extremely low level overflight by a Russian helicopter, which resulted in seven U.S. Soldiers receiving injuries,” the Centcom statement said.
All seven of the injured Americans were screened and have returned to duty, the statement added. The injuries included concussion-like injuries and muscular strains consistent with vehicle crashes.
The incident comes 10 months after President Trump abruptly called for a withdrawal of American troops from northeastern Syria, as Turkey launched an incursion over the border aimed at Kurdish forces that U.S. troops had collaborated with against the Islamic State.
Russian forces, working with the Syrian regime, expanded their involvement afterward, even apparently taking over American military facilities that abruptly had been vacated.
The U.S. military has since settled into a smaller role still aimed at countering the Islamic State but has increasingly encountered Russian forces collaborating with the Syrian government.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Kenneth P. Ekman, the deputy commander of the counter-Islamic State operation in Iraq and Syria, told reporters at the Pentagon last month that American and Russian military forces come into contact almost daily. Russian and American forces are pursuing their own interests and “those interests aren’t quite aligned,” he said.
“Our goal is to maintain, both in the air and on the ground, sufficient deconfliction between Russian forces and coalition forces to reduce the chance of any sort of a miscalculation,” Ekman said. “There’s a whole series of protocols that enables this deconfliction.”
The situation is sensitive in light of tensions between Washington and Moscow, and reports this year that Russia was offering money to Taliban members in Afghanistan to attack U.S. troops. While Trump has dismissed such reports as “fake news,” Pentagon officials have said they are concerned about the possibility, even if they don’t have enough information to corroborate it.
The Defense Department was slow on Wednesday to confirm the latest altercation, which was first reported by Politico. U.S. military officials overseeing operations in the Middle East referred questions on Wednesday to the Pentagon, which in turn referred questions to the White House.
Brett McGurk, who served as a presidential envoy working on Syria policy for Trump and President Barack Obama, said on Twitter on Wednesday that Trump needs to address the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Russian military forces are ramming and injuring US troops in Syria,” McGurk tweeted. “No competent [commander in chief] would leave our troops in this position.”
Missy Ryan contributed to this report.