By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
A US patrol in eastern Syria near Qamishli faced off against stone-throwing locals and at least two gunmen in an unusual clash that led to the death of a Syrian on February 12, 2020. It is the most serious incident involving US forces since the US withdrew from these areas of northern Syria in October 2019. The US continues to patrol and says it is securing oil fields in these areas around Qamishli. Recent tensions with Russian patrols, a Syrian regime offensive and a visit by US envoys James Jeffrey and Joel Rayburn to Turkey on February 11 may be linked to the clash.
Khirbet Amo ( خربة عمو) is southeast of the important city of Qamishli. It is an Arab village in a largely Kurdish area. Prior to this incident the village was rarely in the news. A Syrian regime tender for infrastructure projects in the area was offered in 2011. Regime forces retreated into the area in 2013. The were arrests in 2014 and a clash with Kurdish forces in March 2016. At the time the village had a pro-regime unit called the Katab Ba'ath (كتائب البعث). The YPG was accused of detaining locals for smuggling sheep to Iraq in 2017.
Clashes between Kurdish Asayish security forces and regime units took place in Qamishli in 2016 and 2018. The Rojava Information Center asserted that the clash on February 12, 2020 could be linked to previous tensions. "Militiamen from the checkpoint where the confrontation took place were last year [sic] involved in clashes with the Autonomous Administration's Asayish internal security forces which left 16 dead."
Reports general agree on some aspects. AFP notes "US-led coalition said its forces in northeast Syria Wednesday confronted gunmen with live fire after one of its patrols came under attack near the city of Qamishli." SOHR noted that the US patrol was "besieged by local residents and local regime loyalist’s armed men." US aircraft broke the sound barrier to frighten the locals. "SOHR activists and eyewitnesses also report a Russian military column arrived in the area where the incident occurred, in light of what happened on Wednesday afternoon." BBC adds "it was not clear if the dead man was armed or not."
ANHA noted that "members of the Syrian regime attacked journalists and confiscated the camera of our correspondent." The same report says that there were eight US vehicles. Five crosses and three were stopped.
Numerous social media accounts provided roughly similar narratives. The first social media reports were put out around 10:50am. Damage to four US vehicles was claimed and one civilian was reported killed. Syria regime media SANA reported the incident in this manner, claiming US air raids as well. RT Arabic picked up the same report about US vehicles being damaged. Reports alleged "National Defense Militias (مليشيات الدفاع الوطني)" had clashed with the US. Claims of airstrikes were reported at 12:46. By 12:57 RT said the US had withdrawn from the village. Some alleged that a victim of the incident was a teenager, but there appears no evidence of this.
Mahmoud Sheikh Ibrahim, a journalist and fixer tweeted about the incident. He notes that the convoy was confronted by "members of Ba'ath Brigades in [sic] Qamishlo city, in civilian clothes, intercepted 2 American armored vehicles in Khirbet Amo village, by shooting at the vehicles’ wheels, while American soldiers retaliated by shooting the sources of fire. According to eyewitnesses; Faisal Khaled Muhammad [Also spelled Faisal Khaled Muhammad al-Barri] was killed and Juma Suleiman Al-Arab was wounded, they’re from Khirbet Amo and members of the Baath Brigades, Qamishli branch. After the exchange of fire, 5 American armored vehicles arrived the village Khirbet Amo [to] support the American armored vehicles that were damaged in the west of the village. Meantime, American warplanes hovered in the sky of Qamishlo city, as a result, 4 Russian patrols also went from Qamishlo airport to Khirbet Amo village to calm the tension."
Ibrahim's timeline is one of the most precise of all the accounts.
Mohammed Hassan posted photos of the US and Russian patrols when they met.
North Press Agency says that the US leaves Khirbet Amo with two damaged vehicles. military vehicles leaving village of Khirbet Ammo, 2 broken vehicles. The Syrian regime's SANA claimed that "In response to the attack by the American occupation forces, the residents responded to the armored vehicles and damaged 4 of them, while the occupation forces rushed to bring in military reinforcements to the place, which included 5 other armored vehicles, to withdraw their damaged vehicles and evacuate their members."
The timeline - times are approximate
- A US patrol enters the area and encounters a checkpoint of the Syrian regime and the National Defense Forces. The road is blocked and the patrol prevented from continuing, even though US patrols have been along this road before.
- An American convoy entered at around ten to nine [8:50 am]," local resident Mohammad Ali Mohammad told Rudaw from inside the village.
- 8:50am - A clash takes place between the patrol members and the Syrian regime supporters.
- A person is killed and another wounded.
- 13:00pm People gather around the American vehicles.
- Russian forces arrive. Discussions take place with the Russians.
- Video appears to show two people shooting at the US patrol with Russian patrol in background.
- People throw stones at the US patrol.
- 13:20 US vehicles leave.
- 16:30 US patrol and vehicles return to Rmeilan area base.
The US and Coalition's view
A Coalition statement attributed to spokesman Col. Myles Caggins said that "Coalition forces, conducting a patrol near Qamishli, Syria, encountered a checkpoint occupied by pro-Syrian regime forces...The patrol came under small arms fire from unknown individuals. In self-defence, coalition troops returned fire...The situation was de-escalated and is under investigation. The coalition patrol returned to base." The full statement can be found at this link. Defense Secretary Esper said, "Today’s incident did not involve the Russians."
The Coalition elaborates, "US troops were attacked with small arms by several members of a local militia; US troops have the right to self-defense and fired back at armed aggressors resulting in the death an adult male combatant. The incident remains under review."
The Russian view
Russia’s Defense Ministry responded to the incident: “Only thanks to the efforts of the Russian troops who arrived at the scene of the incident, it was possible to prevent a further escalation of the conflict with local residents and to ensure the exit of the US Armed Forces”
The non-existent airstrike
Initial reports in the afternoon of February 12 indicated the Coalition carried out airstrikes after the patrol was interdicted. Asharq al-Awsat notes: "The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported a US strike during the clashes in the regime-held village of Khirbet Amo, but Coalition spokesman Myles Caggins denied any raid had taken place." The US clarified in the afternoon that no airstrikes had taken place.
A pro-regime checkpoint has been in Khirbet Amo for some time. It is considered an Arab locality close to Qamishli that is linked to the Syrian regime and remained in that manner during years of the YPG's role in eastern Syria. After mid-October 2019 the Syrian regime ostensibly returned to parts of eastern Syria and Russian patrols arrived in the following month.
ANHA media asserted that the clash included members of the National Defense Forces linked to the Syrian regime and "people of the village."
The names of the dead and wounded
Faisal Khaled Muhammad is the name of the man thought to have been killed. His name is also spelled Faisal Khaled Muhammad al-Barri. A second man named Juma Suleiman Al-Arab was wounded.
The video evidence
One video posted to Youtube shows a heated exchange and three US vehicles. A second, longer video, appears to be similar to the one posted above. A third video shows a man firing an AK-47 at the US patrol with Russian vehicles in the background.
A second man also fires at the Americans. A fourth video shows a man with a US flag arguing with the US, apparently after having snatched the flag from a vehicle. A photo shows the US and Russian patrols next to each other. An RT video shows Russian and US forces next to each other as the US prepares to leave. A North Press video shows people blocking the path of the vehicles and discussing the clash with media.
The US patrol returned to a base near Rmeilin after the incident. Video seems to show at least two vehicles being towed.
The clash between a US patrol and Syrian regime loyalists is rare. In October 20, 2019 US forces in eastern Syria encountered stone throwers angry about the US withdrawal. US forces were also endangered by Turkish shelling on October 12 during Turkey's invasion of areas near Tel Abyad. Between late October and early November US forces returned to patrol areas near oil fields, including Rmeilan.
The real issue is that Syrian regime loyalists tested US resolve. This has happened before. On June 18, 2017 the US shot down a Syrian warplane. The US struck a Syrian regime column near Tanf on June 21. In February 2018 pro-regime Russian mercenaries sought to advance near Khasham towards an oil field held by the SDF. They suffered heavy casualties at the hands of the US.
Reports of tensions with Russia have increased regarding patrols. In late December a "brawl" was reported, that apparently never happened. Tensions were reported on January 21 and February 4. The overall picture is one where Russia and pro-regime groups feel empowered by recent events in Idlib and may want to test the US. The incident, stopping a patrol and shooting at its tires, is serious. Although video shows the US troops calm in face of a crowd, the reality is that the US will have to consider whether pro-regime areas like Khirbet Amo are not a no-go area. Although the incident could be a misunderstanding, it could also be tied to wider tensions, such as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's statements supporting Turkey in Idlib. The Syrian regime might want to posture and stir tensions in the east to show it is confronting the US.
SANA media devoted two stories to the incident. SANA claims the residents stoned the US vehicles and forced them to go back. SANA says a resident was "martyred." The Damascus emphasis appears to want to make this incident appear important. Syria's regime argues that locals are confronting the US "occupation." This kind of populist clash is what the regime would like to stoke in other areas such as near Deir Ezzor and among tribes. The regime sent Ali Mamlouk to meet with tribes in Qamishli in early December with the intention of encouraging tensions with the US. Forcing the US into confrontations more frequently will force the overall issue in eastern Syria, which is that the US has no clear mandate and mission. The defeat-ISIS mission is unclear as to its goals. The stabilization mission has ended. The US still pays lip service to having Iran leave Syria and reform in Damascus, but it is largely clear that won't happen. The US is also protecting oil fields. But interdicting US patrols can cause the kind of harassment that CENTCOM and US President Donald Trump are wary of.
New photos and details on February 13
New photos released by the Coalition and taken by U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jodi Eastham show some of the assailants. At least two of them seem to have some sort of uniform while others wear civilian clothes and have AK-47s or small arms. They crouch behind a berm.
The Coalition released an updated statement. "On Feb. 12 Coalition forces, conducting a patrol near Qamishli, Syria encountered a hostile pro-Syrian regime militia at a checkpoint. After Coalition troops issued a series of de-escalation attempts and warnings, the U.S. patrol was attacked by a barrage of stones, small arms fire, and arson from nearly 10 militia men. Coalition forces returned fire in self-defense. The Coalition operates in Eastern Syria to partner with Syrian Democratic Forces to defeat ISIS remnant and protect critical infrastructure."
The second photos shows the impact marks of bullets in a US armored vehicle.