A routine anti-ISIS patrol by U.S. troops and Syrian Democratic Forces in northeastern Syria came under attack Monday by small-arms fire amid rising tensions in the region, according to U.S. military officials.
U.S. troops and the mostly-Kurdish SDF returned fire in self-defense, and the patrol suffered no casualties, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) officials said in a statement.
At about 9:20 a.m. local time Monday, the patrol was on a mission to check on possible Islamic State activity when it encountered a checkpoint manned by pro-Syrian regime forces near the village of Tal al-Zahab in northeastern Syria, CJTF-OIR said.
After receiving approval to pass, the patrol continued but began receiving small-arms fire "from individuals in the vicinity of the checkpoint," CJTF-OIR said. The coalition troops returned fire and returned safely to base, it added.
CJTF-OIR officials denied Syrian reports that the U.S. conducted an airstrike in support of the patrol.
The exchange of fire was the latest incident in a contested region of overlapping forces with different agendas, including Russian troops, Syrian regime forces, Turkish troops, various militias with shifting alliances, and the U.S. coalition.
A video that went viral in February showed a U.S. Mine Resistant Ambush Protected all terrain vehicle swerving to run a Russian patrol vehicle off the road when it aggressively tried to pass an American convoy on the right shoulder.
In a statement at the time, Army Lt. Col. B. Caggins III, a CJTF-OIR spokesman, said, "On Feb. 19, 2020, a Russian patrol violated the deconfliction protocols and did not adhere to the deconfliction measures, and was escorted out of the area of U.S. operations."
Last week, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said that the estimated 500 U.S. troops in Syria remain focused on eliminating the diminished threat from the remnants of ISIS, adding that further troop withdrawals are under consideration.
"I don't think we're going to be in Syria forever," McKenzie told an Aug. 12 security conference organized virtually by the United States Institute of Peace. "At some point, we do want to get smaller there. I just don't know when that's going to be. As long as we remain, we're going to work very hard to finish off ISIS."
He said the threat of ISIS reforming is more concerning in parts of Syria controlled by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and allied Russian troops.
West of the Euphrates River, "conditions are as bad or worse" than they were leading up to the rise of ISIS, McKenzie said. "We should all be concerned about that."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.