A Pentagon investigation found that an “unintentional, regrettable” error resulted in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) firing more than three dozen airstrikes in September that killed troops loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The alliance believed it was targeting an ISIS position outside the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zour.
NPR’s Tom Bowman notes that, although the Assad regime claims the airstrikes killed 62 Syrian troops, U.S. investigators have only been able to confirm 15 fatalities.
“In this incident ultimately we made an unintentional, regrettable error, primarily based on human factors in several areas in the targeting process,” declared Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard “Tex” Coe who led the U.S. Air Forces Central Command’s (AFCENT) investigation into the deadly incident.
“Having performed a thorough review of all the facts and circumstances, as the investigating officer I found that the decision to identify the targets as [ISIS] military objectives was made in good faith, based on information reasonably available at the time to all coalition decision makers,” added Coe said, noting that the targets were struck in accordance with the law of armed conflict and applicable rules of engagement for all countries involved.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeff Harrigian, the AFCENT commander, ordered the investigation.
“In this instance we did not rise to the high standard we hold ourselves to, and we must do better than this each and every time,” he said.
The Pentagon’s findings come as Russian and Iran-backed Assad troops have recaptured more than a third of the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo since the weekend, prompting up to 16,000 civilians to flee as the Syrian government’s troop advanced into the city.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) media arm reports:
Coalition airstrikes that on Sept. 17 mistakenly hit forces aligned with the Syrian regime were conducted by those who believed they were targeting members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the lead investigating officer said here today.
Gen. Coe presented the investigation’s findings and recommendations during a media teleconference from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia.
The Air Force general noted that after a Russian official notified the U.S.-led coalition that it was targeting Syrian military forces, the alliance stopped the attacks.
NPR reports, “The deadly incident was believed to be the first time the U.S. has directly hit Syrian government forces during that country’s ongoing conflict.”
According to Coe, several factors resulted in the coalition misidentifying the forces on the ground.
As intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft were overhead building the intelligence pictures for our strike planners, it was noted that the personnel on the ground equipped with military weapons and vehicles were not wearing recognizable uniforms. They had no unit flags or insignia or markings that we could observe and this was one set of factors that made it possible to see [ISIS] fighters were actually what we now think were likely forces aligned with the Syrian regime.
The general indicated that “some of the factors are still classified and for security reasons he said couldn’t discuss tactics, techniques or procedures,” reports DoD News.