In Northeast Syria, US and Russia in Fragile Coexistence

A US military convoy (L) and a Russian patrol are seen in this January picture crossing paths on the key M4 highway in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province | AFP
A US military convoy (L) and a Russian patrol are seen in this January picture crossing paths on the key M4 highway in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province | AFP
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In Northeast Syria, US and Russia in Fragile Coexistence

A US military convoy (L) and a Russian patrol are seen in this January picture crossing paths on the key M4 highway in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province | AFP
A US military convoy (L) and a Russian patrol are seen in this January picture crossing paths on the key M4 highway in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province | AFP

On a Syrian highway, Hussein Abdel Hamid recently found himself trapped inside his car. A US army patrol had encountered Russian tanks down the road, neither allowing the other passage.

The incident two weeks ago is not a rare sight in war-torn northeastern Syria, where Russian and US forces demonstrate a fragile coexistence despite backing opposite sides in the nine-year conflict.

"We always see US and Russian forces going head-to-head," AFP quoted Abdel Hamid, a 55-year-old Syrian Kurd, as saying.

"Just like taxis," they keep trying to cut each other off on the road, he added.

A staunch opponent of the Syrian regime, Washington first deployed troops in northeast Syria in 2014 as part of a coalition to combat the ISIS group.

Russia, for its part, has militarily backed the government of President Bashar al-Assad since 2015, but did not deploy its forces in the northeast until late last year, following a Turkish invasion against Kurdish fighters.

Turkey's offensive in October was spurred in part by US President Donald Trump who said he was pulling his forces out of border areas in the northeast.

Feeling abandoned by their erstwhile allies in the anti-ISIS battle, the Kurds turned to Damascus and Moscow to prevent a deeper incursion into their region.

Since then, Russian soldiers and American troops have rubbed shoulders in Kurdish-held territories, where their patrols cross paths regularly, flags fluttering simultaneously on opposite sides of the road.

AFP correspondents have often seen soldiers using binoculars to watch each other's movements.

- 'Exceptional situation' -

"I think the joint presence of Russia and the United States in northeastern Syria is an exceptional situation," said Syria researcher Samuel Ramani.

In a video shared on social media in February, a US military vehicle is seen nudging a Russian armored vehicle that was trying to overtake it off the road.

But the presence of Russian troops has also helped US forces avoid a face-off with Syrian regime forces.

In early March, two American armored vehicles found themselves only 50 meters (yards) from a Syrian army position and had to wait for the return of a Russian patrol in order to leave, local sources said.

In February, Moscow said Russia came to the rescue of American troops who came under attack by Assad loyalists who opened fire and tried to block its passage.

Despite all these tensions, Ramani said he thought "the risk of a major confrontation is very limited".

"Russia and the US might not have much experience with close geographical proximity, but they have a history of fighting in tandem on opposite sides in the Syrian civil war," he said.

Charles Thepaut, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed that "neither the Russians nor the Americans are interested in direct confrontation".

But these incidents did however "show how fragile the situation is on the ground".

"The concentration of forces hostile to each other... in a small area where everybody has to use the same roads makes things dangerous," he added.

- Competing interests -

Syria is the only country in decades to have seen both American and Russian forces on the ground at the same time.

In February 2018, US-led coalition strikes killed dozens of regime and allied fighters near oil and gas installations in eastern Syria.

Moscow said five Russians were likely among the victims, blaming the incident on a "lack of co-ordination" by the pro-Assad group with Russian command.

But today, deconfliction channels in place since 2015 to prevent any clash between the Russians and the Americans seem to be bearing their fruit.

Any escalation will likely be contained, "unless one of the parties really wants to show strength," Thepaut said.

But long term, both sides have very different goals.

Although Trump in October said he would withdraw US troops from Syria, he later added that at least 500 personnel would remain, including to protect oil installations in the east.

"The goal of Russia is to get all US troops to leave Syria to reinstall the regime in all of Syria, which is impossible with US troops on the ground," Thepaut said.

"Their goal is also to pressure the (Kurdish-led) Syrian Democratic Forces to negotiate with the regime."

Caught between both sides, the SDF find themselves having to deal with both the Russians and the Americans if they want to salvage some of their semi-autonomy in Syria's northeast.

Residents say they hold little hope in either side.

"We no longer trust the Americans or the Russians," said 61-year-old Yaqub Kassar.

"All countries are only looking out for their own interests."



Iraq Counts Cost of Stray Bullets Fired in Anger or Joy 

The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
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Iraq Counts Cost of Stray Bullets Fired in Anger or Joy 

The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)

At weddings, football matches and other special events, some Iraqi men like to fire salvos of celebratory gunfire into the sky, worrying little about where the bullets might fall.

For some Iraqis, the tradition has been devastating, as have random bullets from sporadic gun battles in a society still awash with weapons after decades of war and turmoil.

Baghdad mother Randa Ahmad was busy with chores when a loud bang startled her. Alarmed, she hurried to the living room to find her four-year-old son Mohamed bleeding on the floor.

"A stray bullet hit him in the head," the 30-year-old said weeks later, her child sitting timidly by her side in their suburban house.

The bullet "came out of nowhere", said Ahmad, who doesn't know who fired it or why.

Her child now suffers from severe headaches and tires easily, but doctors say surgery to remove the bullet is too risky.

"If the bullet moves," Ahmad said, "it could cause paralysis."

Celebratory gunfire and gun battles sometimes sparked by minor feuds are a daily occurrence in Iraq, where firearms possession remains widespread despite a period of relative calm.

Iraq, a country of 43 million, endured wars under ruler dictator Saddam Hussein, the 2003 US-led invasion, and the sectarian conflict and extremist insurgencies that followed.

During the years of bloody turmoil, all types of weapons flooded into the country and have often been used in tribal disputes and political score-settling.

Many households claim to own firearms for protection.

As of 2017, some 7.6 million arms -- handguns, rifles and shotguns -- were held by civilians in Iraq, says monitoring group the Small Arms Survey, which believes the number has since risen.

- 'Bullet fell from the sky' -

Saad Abbas was in his garden in Baghdad when he was jolted by a sharp, searing pain in his shoulder.

"At first, I thought someone had hit me with a stone," the 59-year-old said. Then he realized that a "bullet fell from the sky" and hit him.

Months later, he remains mostly bedridden, the projectile still lodged in his shoulder after doctors advised against surgery because of a pre-existing medical condition.

"I can't raise my hand," he said. "It hurts. I can't even remove my bed cover."

Abbas voiced fury at those who fire off celebratory rounds when "a football team wins, during a wedding or an engagement party".

"Where do the bullets go?" he asked. "They fall on people!"

He decried the rampant gun ownership and said that "weapons should be exclusively in the hands of the state".

Iraqi law punishes illegal firearms possession with up to one year in prison, but authorities announced plans last year to tighten controls.

Security forces have urged civilians to register their guns in 697 centers, allowing each family to possess just one light weapon for "protection", said interior ministry spokesman Miqdad Miri.

The government also recently started offering civilians up to $4,000 to buy their weapons.

But Miri acknowledged that in tribal and rural areas, many people "consider weapons a part of their identity".

In recent years, their collections have been swelled by the "huge quantities" of firearms left behind by the Iraqi army during the US-led invasion, he said.

During the tumultuous years since, weak border controls and the emergence of extremists allowed arms trafficking to thrive.

- 'Attached to their weapons' -

"Our main problem is not small arms but medium and large weapons," Miri said, referring to military-issue assault rifles and other powerful guns.

Security expert Ahmed el-Sharifi also said that "civilians are attached to their weapons" but that even harder to control are the arsenals of "armed political groups and tribes... This is the most dangerous."

Despite the state's efforts to control the gun scourge, the problem frequently makes headlines.

Earlier this year, a video went viral showing armed clashes between relatives in a busy market in eastern Baghdad that left one person dead.

In March, a senior intelligence officer was shot dead when he tried to resolve a tribal dispute.

And in April, celebratory gunfire at a wedding took the life of the groom in the northern city of Mosul.

Last year, another man, Ahmed Hussein, 30, said he was hit in the leg, presumably also by a bullet fired at a wedding.

He said he had just gone for a nap when he was startled by gunfire and then felt a sharp pain.

"I fell out of bed and looked at my leg to find it bleeding," Hussein said.

He too decried how even a simple argument "between children or at a football game" can quickly lead to someone squeezing a trigger, with those paying the price often "innocent bystanders".