A top US commander has warned Russia and Syria he will defend US special operations forces in northern Syria if the country's regime attacks again areas where troops are located.

Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander of American troops in Iraq and Syria, made the comment days after warplanes from the President Bashar al-Assad's regime attacked an area where US special operations forces were operating.

The US forces were deployed in the area to support Kurdish forces – a key ally of the US in the conflict in Syria.

"We've informed the Russians where we're at… (they) tell us they've informed the Syrians, and I'd just say that we will defend ourselves if we feel threatened," Townsend told CNN.

He also added he hopes the US can defeat the so-called Islamic State (Isis/Daesh) terror group in Iraq and Syria in the next year.

"Do I think ISIL [Isis] will be gone from Iraq and Syria? No. But I want them out of the cities," he said.

Who supports whom in the Syria war?

Pro-Assad coalition

Allies of the Syrian government that support its fight against rebels to keep Assad in power are: Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group considered a terrorist organisation by both the US and the EU.

Coalition that backs anti-Assad rebels

A coalition that backs some of the anti-Assad groups comprises US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

Rebel groups in Syria include:

The Free Syrian Army (FSA): Formed by defected soldiers and officers in 2011. Originally considered a moderate, pro-democracy group, it later became more extremist as the war intensified. In 2012, Human Rights Watch accused the FSA of carrying out war crimes including torture and extrajudicial executions.

Islamic State (Isis): It aims to expand its Islamic caliphate − declared in Mosul, Iraq, in 2014 − throughout the controlled areas in Syria and Iraq. It has fought intermittent battles with other Sunni militias including Jabhat al-Nusra since splitting with al-Qaeda. It is the target of military campaigns carried out by both the US-led coalition and Russia, although the latter has been accused of carrying out 90% of its air strikes against non-Isis targets.

Ansar Sharia: An umbrella organisation made up of numerous Islamist groups, such as al-Qaeda's official Syrian offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra.

People's Protection Units (YPG): Formed of Syrian Kurds, it has strong links with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). It fought against IS in 2014 as the group expanded to northern Syria.

The Southern Front: Syrian rebel coalition consisting of some 58 Syrian opposition factions.