Russians in northern Syria after partial U.S. withdrawal

Images confirm U.S. troop withdrawal from northern Syria, Russian movement into the region, and U.S. presence at oil fields

@DFRLab
@DFRLab
Dec 4 · 4 min read
(Source: @LAndriukaitis/DFRLab via GoogleMaps)

Russian soldiers started moving into the Kurdish-controlled area in northern Syria and onto abandoned U.S. military bases as soon as the U.S. troops withdrew, filling the regional power vacuum created by their departure.

On October 7, U.S. President Donald Trump unofficially announced his intention to withdraw all U.S. troops from northern Syria. A week later, on October 13, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper made the decision official, declaring the Trump Administration’s intent to remove the remaining troops from the region. Trump later rolled back his decision slightly, stating that the United States would leave a small contingent in the country to protect the oil fields in northeastern Syria.

The decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria surprised many, including the United States’ Kurdish allies, and drew immediate condemnation. The decision received widespread criticism from nonprofit aid organizations, policymakers, and NATO allies, while yielding praise from the Russian government. The true reasons for Trump’s decision to withdraw remain unknown, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had a call with the U.S. president prior to the abrupt announcement of the withdrawal, which itself made way for Turkey’s entrance into the Kurdish-controlled territories of Rojava.

As U.S. troops pulled out, Turkey and Russia were quick to fill the void. By October 20, images had already emerged showing Russian military occupying military bases formerly operated by the United States. Open-source evidence allowed the DFRLab to verify the departure of the United States and Russia’s move into the region.

The Russians

U.S. troops started to convoy out of Syria into Iraq as early as October 21, while local Kurds expressed their anger with the departure by throwing rotten fruits and stones at the passing U.S. convoys.

Kurdish civilians throw rocks and rotten vegetables at passing U.S. troops in the town of Qamishli. (Source: @AynRandPaulRyan/archive)

The exact date on which U.S. troops fully abandoned northern Syria remains unknown, but videos and photos allow for an estimate of the approximate timeframe. One of the first concrete signs of American soldiers departing were photos taken by Russian troops from U.S. bases. One of the first alleged photos surfaced as early as October 20.

Alleged photos taken by Russians in an occupied U.S. base in northern Syria. (Source: @sashakots/archive)

A geolocatable photo of a Russian occupied base appeared on November 3, 2019. The building with a Russian flag on top was identified in the Twitter comments to be a former U.S. base near the town of Ain Issa. The geolocation confirmed the building to be in the exact same area.

In early November, a Russian military convoy in northern Syria was reported to be patrolling alongside Turkish troops. The video appeared on Twitter on November 2 and showed a Russian convoy with a Turkish armored personnel carrier, a BMC Kipri MRAP, in the middle. This video suggests that Russian military is closely cooperating with Turkey in the region.

The local Kurdish population greeted the Russian convoy with rocks and Molotov cocktails.

Finally, on November 4, a U.S. convoy was photographed passing by a Russian military convoy — an incident that allegedly happened on the M4 highway near Tal Tamr as the U.S. troops headed toward Iraq.

U.S. and Russian military convoys pass each other in Syria on November 4, 2019. (Source: @Zinvor/archive)

The United States protecting black gold

On October 26, small convoys of U.S. troops were spotted in the vicinity of the town of Qamishli in northeastern Syria. Moscow was quick to label these movements “banditry,” arguing that the seizure and control of Syrian oil fields is a violation of international law.

Even though U.S. government statements were not released, media reports claimed that around 150 empty tanker trucks were seen lined up on the M4 highway, near one of the U.S. military bases. These claims were confirmed by geolocation using the video from local Syrian news report that surfaced on Twitter on November 3.

The video showed three U.S. armored M-ATV carriers guarding an oil field somewhere in northern Syria. Based off of speculation on Twitter, some of the platform’s users were able to identify that the oil field was near the town of Katanieh in northeastern Syria.

The United States withdrawal from much of northern Syria opened the door for Russia and Turkey to move into the region, causing the displacement of thousands of locals, mostly Kurds. On November 25, the United States announced the resumption of counter-Islamic State operations in northern Syria, in cooperation with local Kurds, though the extent or form of these operations is as yet unclear.


Lukas Andriukaitis is an Associate Director with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Iain Robertson is Deputy Managing Editor with @DFRLab and is based in Washington, DC.

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

@DFRLab

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@DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil's Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

DFRLab

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

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