Attack on soldiers inside a regime enclave is air power gone terribly awry
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The American air strike on the Syrian army, killing 62 soldiers and wounding 100 more according to the Russian defense ministry, is a diplomatic nightmare for a U.S. government balancing a delicate cease fire between the Assad regime, Russia and a coalition of rebel groups — while at the same time pouring firepower onto the Islamic State.
What’s unclear is how the warplanes could have mistaken the Syrian troops for Islamic State fighters.
Around 5 p.m. on Sept. 17, two A-10 Warthog ground attack jets, a drone and two F-16 fighters began attacking the Syrian troops around six kilometers south of Deir ez-Zor airport, according to the Russian military. Australian jets were also involved in the strikes, according to the Australian Department of Defense.
U.S. officials gave the Russian military a heads up before the strike, according to a statement released by U.S. Central Command, which oversees America’s military operations in the Middle East. Russian officials, at first, raised no objections.
“Coalition forces believed they were striking a Da’esh fighting position that they had been tracking for a significant amount of time before the strike,” U.S. Central Command officials said in a statement.
But within minutes of the attack, the Russians contacted their American counterparts to warn the planes off. However, it was already too late. The aircraft had already killed dozens of Syrian soldiers with little cover in the desert.
“While we are still trying to determine all the facts, if we mistakenly struck a Syrian military position we regret doing so, especially the loss of lives,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.
Isolated and surrounded, the Assad regime’s outpost at Deir ez-Zor is a critical location in eastern Syria, as it rests along the supply lines linking the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa with its territory further the east and into Iraq.
The nearest Syrian troops outside the enclave are more than 100 miles to the southwest at Palmyra. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, thousands of Kurdish fighters among them, are 50 miles away to the north and closing.
The United States has carried out air strikes in Deir ez-Zor before. In May 2015, U.S. commandos raided the local hideout of Islamic State finance chief Abu Sayyaf, killed him, captured his wife and freed a Yazidi woman held as a slave.
But experience and familiarity with the area is not a guarantee that aircraft will not hit the wrong targets. The United States has carried out more than 11,500 air strikes in Iraq and Syria during more than two years of the campaign, but has trouble always identifying targets before striking, resulting in civilian deaths.
One reason is the uncertainty which comes with waging war largely from the air, where it’s difficult to see and interpret what’s happening on the ground — let alone during a multi-sided conflict involving Iraqi soldiers, Kurdish fighters, Islamic State militants, Syrian troops, Shia militias and dozens of Sunni rebel groups with varying loyalties.
The White House was initially reluctant to send forward air controllers into the conflict, but these specially-trained troops — who spot for and guide aircraft toward their targets via radio — have quietly arrived in the region as part of secretive Operational Detachment-Alpha units.
Air controllers working together with aircraft to pinpoint and blast targets are not immune to error, but without them, the pilots have much less information as to what’s below.
It’s exceedingly unlikely American ground troops were anywhere close to Deir ez-Zor — surrounded as it is by the Islamic State and divided between the terror group and the regime’s forces. The United States does not work with the Syrian military, but announced last week that it will begin coordinating air strikes on the Islamic State together with Russia.
The U.S.-led coalition has compensated by relying heavily on drones to guide larger, manned warplanes. These drones are “involved in pretty much every engagement,” Col. James Cluff of the Air Force’s 432nd Wing — which operates a fleet of Predator and Reaper drones — told The Daily Beast.
Since the Russian military claimed an American drone was present during the strike on the Syrian soldiers, it’s possible the ’bot could have been conducting reconnaissance for the Warthogs and Fighting Falcons. The Russian military claimed the drone participated in the attack, and to note, U.S. drones do both during the same missions.
But drones are always less reliable than troops on the ground. Overworked and sitting in front of remote terminals thousands of miles away at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, America’s drone operators have an inherently limited view filtered through cloudy video imagery.
The strike at Deir ez-Zor appears to be the first time U.S. aircraft have struck Syrian troops in the war. And as the Islamic State’s territory continues to disintegrate, U.S.-backed rebels with air support will inch closer to the Assad regime’s troops backed by Russian warplanes — which hardly have a spotless record above the battlefield.