Errant air strike highlights dangers on the Al Bab front
by PAUL IDDON
On Feb. 3, 2017, a Russian warplane targeting a building in the Islamic State-occupied city of Al Bab in northwest Syria killed three Turkish soldiers and wounded 11 more. Russian president Vladimir Putin phoned his Turkish counterpart to express his condolences. Both sides are reportedly investigating the incident.
“As for the reasons [for the incident], they are clear. The situation is evident: unfortunately our military relied on coordinates provided by its Turkish partners when conducting the air strikes,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “Turkish servicemen should not have been in that location.”
“That is why these unintentional strikes took place.”
The Turkish military has strongly denied that it transmitted the wrong coordinates to the Russians, stressing that it sent location data to “the responsible personnel at the Hmeimim Operation Center” that day.
In addition, the Turkish military invited the Russian military attache in Ankara to its General Staff headquarters where he was also given the coordinates, according to the Turkish government.
The incident comes as warplanes from three major air forces — the U.S. Air Force, Russian Air Force and Turkish Air Force — have filled the skies over Al Bab while bombing the Islamic State below.
The situation on the ground is also a jumble, with soldiers and militants from Turkey, the Islamic State and the Syrian army all in close proximity. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are less than eight miles away.
With so much concentrated firepower in so many hands, and such a confusing array of front lines on the ground, the chances of bombs and missiles hitting the wrong targets are high. Which is exactly what happened at Al Bab despite a patchwork of agreements between the armies arrayed against the Islamic State.
Russia and Turkey initiated a coordination agreement in January 2017, and the United States entered the fray shortly thereafter — following several weeks of refusing to lend air support to the Turkish operation, much to Ankara’s consternation.
It’s not the first time Turkish soldier near Al Bab, in northwestern Syria, have been killed from the air. On Nov. 24, 2016, a mysterious air strike killed four Turkish soldiers near the city. Ankara blamed the Syrian military and even threatened to retaliate.
Russia assured Ankara that it wasn’t Assad’s air force that did it. However, a subsequent investigation revealed an Iranian-made drone might have been responsible, one possibly operated by an Iranian-backed Shia militia fighting in the wider Aleppo region.
Such accidents are also not uncommon in the wider Syria battlefield.
In September 2016 over the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, U.S.-led coalition aircraft — including two U.S. A-10 Warthog attack planes and two F-16 Fighting Falcons — bombed and killed dozens of Syrian soldiers, who the U.S. military allegedly mistook for Islamic State militants. That strike briefly enabled the Islamic State to advance on Syrian army positions before being repelled with the help of Russian and Syrian air strikes.
Since the coalition does not coordinate its air strikes with the Syrian military, it was a mistake waiting to happen — especially since Syrian troops and Islamic State militants in Deir Ezzor were fighting in close proximity.
To be sure, the U.S. and Syrian militaries do talk to each other — albeit indirectly and through the Russians. The Pentagon set up a special communications hotline with the Russian military shortly after the Kremlin’s intervention in September 2015.
But this can only reduce — and not prevent — the possibility of error. In August 2016, after two Syrian Su-24 Fencers bombed America’s Syrian Kurdish allies in Hasakah, American F-22 Raptor stealth fighters flew to the area to deter any follow-up strikes.
“We did engage through our memorandum of understanding with the Russians specifically after that instance to have them communicate to the Syrian regime our concerns about what had happened and the fact that it shouldn’t happen again,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters at the time.
“We will continue to use that as a resource given the Russian relations with the Syrians,” he added. “But we are also prepared to speak, engage directly, communicate directly if needed, in order to avoid these kinds of situations in the first place.”
Nevertheless, the communications hotline with the Russians failed to prevent a controversial incident earlier that June when two Russian Su-34 Fullbacks twice bombed the coalition’s Al Tanf training base near the Jordanian border with cluster bombs.
American, British and Jordanian special forces were training New Syrian Army militiamen there to fight the Islamic State. The attack killed two fighters and wounded 18 others. No coalition soldiers were present at the base when it was attacked. Russia claimed the attack was an accident. Like the mistaken slaughter of Syrian troops by U.S. aircraft at Deir Ezzor, the attack at Al Tanf boosted the Islamic State by killing some of its adversaries.
There have also been several close calls. One incident in the fall of 2016 witnessed an advanced Russian Su-35 Flanker-E fly within an eighth of a mile from an American reconnaissance plane, heightening the fatal risk of a mid-air collision.
War is inherently uncertain and unpredictable — and lack of communication only makes it more confusing. Even the most technologically advanced militaries can make disastrous mistakes.
In 1994, U.S. Air Force F-15Cs, enforcing the no-fly zone over Iraq’s Kurdish region as part of the post-Gulf War Operation Provide Comfort, accidentally shot down two U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters — which they mistook for Russian-made Mi-24 Hind gunships used by Iraq — killing 26 civilian and military members of the coalition.
On March 28, 2003, during the Anglo-American-led invasion of Iraq, two U.S. A-10s killed a British soldier and wounded five others, destroying the two reconnaissance vehicles they were in.
Another similar strike that April 6 killed 15 people when it tore through a Kurdish-U.S. Special Forces convoy. A BBC translator was among those killed. And those are to name just two of many similar disasters.
Now today, as the three air forces bomb terrorists and support Turkish soldiers on the ground, the risk of more blue-on-blue fire remains a danger that all sides will need to be extra vigilant about.