The ‘Mistaken’ US Airstrike on Syrian Troops

A close reading of the report on the U.S. airstrike that killed scores of Syrian troops and helped Islamic State capture a key base leaves many doubts about the “mistake” explanation, writes Gareth Porter for Middle East Eye.

By Gareth Porter

The summary report on an investigation into U.S. and allied air strikes on Syrian government troops has revealed irregularities in decision-making consistent with a deliberate targeting of Syrian forces.

The report, released by U.S. Central Command on Nov. 29, shows that senior U.S. Air Force officers at the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at al-Udeid Airbase in Qatar, who were responsible for the decision to carry out the September airstrike at Deir Ezzor:

Map of Syria.

Map of Syria.

  • –misled the Russians about where the U.S. intended to strike so Russia could not warn that it was targeting Syrian troops;
  • –ignored information and intelligence analysis warning that the positions to be struck were Syrian government rather than Islamic State; and
  • –shifted abruptly from a deliberate targeting process to an immediate strike in violation of normal Air Force procedures

Last week, Brig. Gen. Richard Coe, the lead U.S. official on the investigating team, told reporters that U.S. air strikes in Deir Ezzor on Sept. 17, which killed at least 62 – and possibly more than 100 – Syrian army troops, was the unintentional result of “human error.”

The report itself says that the investigators found “no evidence of misconduct” – but it is highly critical of the decision process and does not offer any explanations for that series of irregularities.

The strikes against two Syrian army positions were the pivotal event in the breakdown of the Syrian ceasefire agreement reached between the United States and Russia in September. Both Moscow and Damascus denounced the strikes as a deliberate move by the Obama administration to support the Islamic State group and cited the attacks as the reason for declaring an end to the ceasefire on Sept. 19.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L Harrigan, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command and of the CAOC, who was the central figure in all the decisions, apparently had a motive for a strike against Syrian forces.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter had strongly opposed a provision in the U.S.-Russian ceasefire agreement that would have established a U.S.-Russian “joint integration center” to coordinate air strikes against both Islamic State (also known as Daesh) and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, which was to become active after seven days of effective ceasefire.

But President Barack Obama supported Secretary of State John Kerry’s position and overrode Pentagon objections.

In a press briefing on Sept. 13, Harrigan stated that his readiness to join such a joint operation with the Russians “is going to depend on what the plan ends up being.” He added: “[I]t would be premature to say we’re going to jump right into it. And I’m not saying yes or no. I’m saying we’ve got work to do to understand what the plan is going to look like.”

Three days later, Harrigan’s command sent a drone to investigate a site three kilometers southwest of Deir Ezzor airfield. It showed images of a tunnel entrance, two tents and 14 adult males, according to the investigation report. That move led to a swiftly moving decision process that resulted in the air strike against two Syrian army bases the following day.

Not Telling the Russians

The investigation report summary reveals that the CAOC sent misleading information to the Russians before the strike about the location of the targets. The Russians were informed that the targets were nine kilometers south of Deir Ezzor airfield: they were actually only three and six kilometers from that airfield, respectively, according to the summary of its findings.

Samantha Power, Permanent Representative of the United States to the UN, addresses the Security Council meeting on Syria, Sept. 25, 2016. Power has been an advocate for escalating U.S. military involvement in Syria. (UN Photo)

Samantha Power, Permanent Representative of the United States to the UN, addresses the Security Council meeting on Syria, Sept. 25, 2016. Power has been an advocate for escalating U.S. military involvement in Syria. (UN Photo)

The investigation report summary reveals that the CAOC sent misleading information to the Russians before the strike about the location of the targets.

Brig. Gen. Richard Coe, who briefed reporters on the team’s report, acknowledged that the misleading information had prevented the Russians from intervening to stop the strike. “Had we told them accurately, they would have warned us,” he told reporters.

Coe said that the provision of that misleading information to the Russians before the strike was “unintentional.” However, neither he nor the redacted summary of the report offered any explanation as to how such misleading information could have been passed to the Russians unintentionally.

From its initial position above the site three kilometers from the airfield, the drone followed a vehicle to two other positions nearby, both of which also had tunnels, as well as “defensive fighting positions”, including tanks and armored personnel carriers. All those characteristics would have been consistent with a Syrian Army position, especially in Deir Ezzor.

At the time the Syrian Army was fighting from fixed defensive positions to prevent the Deir Ezzor airport – the lifeline for the entire government-held portion of the city – from being overrun.

Nevertheless, those positions were quickly identified as belonging to the Islamic State, based primarily on the clothing worn by the personnel at the sites. The report describes the personnel at the two sites as dressed in “a mix of traditional wear, civilian attire and military style clothing that lacked uniformity.”

But a former US intelligence analyst with long experience in image interpretation in combat situations told Middle East Eye that the claim that Islamic State militants could be distinguished from Syrian army troops on the basis of their clothing “sounds completely bogus.” He said he had seen images of Syrian Republican Guards in the field who were not wearing regular uniforms or were dressed in various colors.

The report also mentions a series of what it calls “breakdowns” regarding intelligence reporting and analysis on the identification of the positions with the Islamic State that allegedly was never seen by those making the decisions on targeting.

The regional station belonging to the Air Force’s Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) is the main source of Air Force analysis of intelligence from aerial surveillance. It responded to the initial identification of the positions as belonging to the Islamic State group by raising “concerns” that the ground force in question could not have belonged to the group. But those concerns never reached Harrigan or his staff, according to the report.

Thirty minutes before the strike was scheduled, someone called into the CAOC to report a “possible flag” in one of two target areas. The call, which contradicted the accepted identification based on the absence of flags at the site, “went unacknowledged,” according to the report.

The report also reveals that a map prepared by an intelligence agency, whose identity is redacted, that was available at the CAOC contradicted the classified map showing areas occupied by the Syrian Army and Islamic State in the vicinity of the Deir Ezzor airfield.

The classified map supported the decision to proceed with the strike. But the officials involved in targeting decisions denied any knowledge of another map.

The report and Coe’s press briefing both explained the conclusion that the positions were under Islamic State control as a result of “confirmation bias,” which means that people seek and accept information that confirms their existing biases.

But citing that concept implies that those responsible for the strike began with an interest in finding evidence to justify an action they already wanted to take.

The report is critical of the discussion on the identification issue within CAOC for focusing only on “what could be seen on the ground rather than what we knew about the ground situation” (emphasis in original report).

That language clearly suggests that Harrigan and his staff were ignoring basic facts about the positions of the Syrian army and Islamic State in the area that was well known to U.S. intelligence.

Switch to ‘Dynamic Targeting’

Journalist Elijah Magnier of the Kuwait daily newspaper Al Rai has followed the struggle between the Syrian army and Islamic State for control of Deir Ezzor closely for years.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

He told Middle East Eye in an email that at the time of the air strike the defense of the airport depended entirely on four interconnected Syrian army positions on the Thardeh mountain chain.

Magnier said Islamic State forces had been carrying out “daily attacks” on Deir Ezzor airport prior to the U.S. air strikes but had failed, mainly because of the higher elevation of the four Syrian bases in relation to the positions occupied by Islamic State further south.

Fabrice Balanche, a leading French expert on Syria who is now a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an interview with Middle East Eye that the Syrian army had maintained continuous control over the base at Thardeh mountain from March 2016 until the U.S. air strikes, which then resulted in Islamic State gaining control of it.

The report faults those who made the decisions on the targeting of the strike for failing to follow normal Air Force procedures. Originally, the CAOC had initiated a process called “Deliberate Targeting,” which is used for fixed targets and requires extensive and time-consuming work to ensure the accuracy of the intelligence on the targets, according to the report. But that had been changed abruptly to “Dynamic Targeting,” which involves “fleeting targets” – those that are either moving or about to move — for which intelligence requirements are less stringent.

The authors of the report found that change to be improper, given that the sites being targeted were clearly identified as defensive positions and could not justify such a switch to a hastily prepared strike. But again, it offers no explanation as to why.

The report revealed more than previous investigations into U.S. military operations that resulted in embarrassment. This can be explained by the role of its co-author, whose identity was redacted as “foreign government information.” He or she is most likely a general belonging to one of the other three members of the “Operation Inherent Resolve” coalition whose planes participated in the Deir Ezzor strike, which would narrow it down to the U.K., Denmark or Australia.

The two co-authors also went through lengthy negotiations to resolve the differences in the summary report. This is indicated by the repeated postponement of the report’s release, which was originally planned for two weeks earlier, according to sources at Central Command. As a result, the report was certainly less pointed in describing the decision-making than the unidentified co-author would have preferred.

The report observes that it was “unclear who has the responsibility/authority to decide between continuing deliberate target development versus conducting a dynamic strike.” However such decisions could only have been made with the approval of the commander of CAOC – Lt. Gen. Harrigan, who is also commander of US Air Forces Central Command.

The decision to avoid identifying Harrigan as responsible for that decision may be related to the fact he was also the recipient of the report.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. His latest book is Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare (Just World Books, 2014). [This article originally appeared at Middle East Eye.]

23 comments for “The ‘Mistaken’ US Airstrike on Syrian Troops

  1. December 10, 2016 at 21:42

    Re the parent article: There’s more evidence that the U.S. attack on SAA troops at Deir Ezzor was deliberate. The Syrian government said that it had intercepted messages between ISIL and U.S. air controllers coordinating the air attack with the immediate follow-up ground attack by ISIL. There is also circumstantial evidence suggesting strongly that the U.S. attack on the surrounded SAA troops at Deir Ezzor was not only deliberate but merely part of a U.S. plan to relocate ISIL fighters in Mosul to Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, strengthening the anti-Assad forces in Syria during the long-planned offensive for Iraqi troops to retake Mosul, Iraq, which has served as capitol of the ISIL caliphate.

    That there would be an Iraqi offensive to retake Mosul has been very public information for over two years. In November of last year, ISIL began improving the road that runs from Mosul to Deir Ezzor, Syria and Raqqa, Syria. Just days after the attack on SAA troops at Deir Ezzor, the U.S. destroyed seven bridges in the same area, blocking the SAA from sending in ground reinforcements or expanding military operations in that part of Syria. The bridge destruction also carved a neat ground transportation blockage between the regions patrolled by the Russian and U.S. air forces, respectively.

    When the Mosul offensive began, it was widely reported that — at U.S. instigation — the route from Mosul to Edir Ezzor would be left open so ISIL troops could retreat to Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, which would leave ISIL positioned to mount a strong counter-attack on the SAA at Palmyra. (That counter-attack just happened, in an apparent attempt to draw SAA troops away from the surrounded Al Nusrah fighters in Aleppo.)

    However, Iraqi military leadership was apparently not persuaded by the U.S. to keep that corridor open. Shia militia closed the route from Mosul to Deir Ezzor a few days ago. Mosul is now in effect a surrounded cauldron, although there are still gaps between Iraqi units through which ISIL militants might escape on foot.

    The U.S. air attack on the SAA at Deir Ezzor shows every sign of being a mere part of a larger U.S. plan during the last days of the Obama Administration to evacuate ISIL leadership and military forces from Mosul, Iraq to an area of Syria protected from Russian air attacks and to strengthen the anti-Assad forces in Syria. In other words the attack on the SAA was ain aid of creating a “safe zone” in Syria for anti-Assad forces just as the necon and neolib think tanks — and Hilary Clinton and the Turkish President Erdogan — have been calling for.

    And all of the above suggests strongly that the U.S. attack at Deir Ezzor was not a case of field tactical officers going off the reservation, that approval of the wider strategy which the attack was part of had to come from a much higher level in the chain of command.

  2. Herman
    December 10, 2016 at 11:00

    I guess it’s time to make out our Christmas list. My wish is that all the hawks turn into doves and the wolves become vegetarians. I’ve always thought the way to get rid of the warrior class and its admirers is to close down all the defense establishment and pay the people put out of work. Retire all the spooks and provide them with fantasy spookish games to occupy their time. But keep the flyovers at football games and military parades and the stirring martial music. Nuts? Well, not nearly so much as what is going on.

    On a less serious note, the perpetual war state which shifted into high gear after the 911 incident really shifted power from the State Department to the Department of Defense and we saw the appointment of little caesars running commands organized by geographical areas. I understand they even have one for the United States. In this world, the guys and ladies who run our foreign policy are located in the Pentagon, not the State Department.

    The incident described is just another example, and while there is the theory that the State Department and the President were in on the move, you have to come out on the side that they had no choice but to either be silent or supportive.

  3. Zachary Smith
    December 8, 2016 at 19:19

    Does anybody have any idea what this means?

    Presidential Determination and Waiver — Pursuant to Section 2249a of Title 10, United States Code, and Sections 40 and 40A of the Arms Export Control Act to Support U.S. Special Operations to Combat Terrorism in Syria

    December 8, 2016

    It looks to me like Obama is doing a last-minute Hail Mary by sending massive weapons to the Good Terrorists. Does he really plan to go through with this, or is it a heavy-handed bargaining chip for something he wants?

    • LJ
      December 8, 2016 at 21:37

      Here’s a link to RT article :

      Article says, Desperate move by a lame duck President.
      He has one more month to kill more people arming terrorists. No doubt this will come back to bite us if it is actually carried through but there would seem to be little doubt that this has been long planned and the weapons are ready for delivery. Do you think some of these weapons may eventually find there way to the Caucusus?.
      A third Presidential order to add to the Nobel Prize winners legacy of Peace and Nuclear disarmament. Wonderful.

      • Zachary Smith
        December 8, 2016 at 22:44

        “Do you think some of these weapons may eventually find there way to the Caucusus?.”

        That’s a good point, and not an angle which had occurred to me.

  4. LJ
    December 8, 2016 at 16:11

    Common sense dictates when a situation like this or the gas attack outside Damascus or even the airliner being shot down over Donetsk in the former Ukraine occurs the USA knows exactly what happened and is trying to get in front of a story because it’s logical to conclude the opposite of what our government wants us to conclude. WE really are the bad guys, the veritable Evil Empire, As Goebbels said once, “Truth is the enemy of the state” . P.S. No Aussie or Dane is going to override or influence an American in charge of a military operation. Since this incident seems to have been a deliberate act of War outside the chain of command ( Make me laugh) then Obama should have immediately fired Carter and relieved Harrigan of his command , That is unless of course he and Kerry were deliberately obfuscating the US position because Obama didn’t want to look like the USA did not want a Ceasefire. Since our minions on the ground were losing that would mean we were putting their heads on the chopping block . Mission Not accomplished. . That would be bad for future US credibility, especially if operations where to use Islamist mercenaries paid for with Saudi money. We would never do that publicly, we would need plausible deniability.

  5. b.grand
    December 8, 2016 at 14:58

    Syrian War Update
    Aleppo (December 8, 2016):
    SAA Victory Imminent / Militants Doomed.

  6. Danish Questioner
    December 8, 2016 at 08:53

    Maybe it was just simple revenge for the June 17 Russian cluster bomb attack on New Syrian Army? Who knows how many western SOF’s got killed during that event… Four crazy mistankes in one event is just too implausible to accept: Identification by uniform in the Syrian battlespace is absurd, giving the wrong location to the Russians is very amateurish, not having the liason available when the Russians start calling is inexcusable and not using the map intelligence is deeply mysterious. How about the human A-10, F-16 and F/A 18 pilots? Does the switch to dynamic target change how they are briefed/involved in the planning? Keep them out of the intelligence/decision loop?

  7. Zachary Smith
    December 7, 2016 at 22:23

    This seems to be the only recent Syria-based essay, so I’ll make a few random comments about the rapidly changing situation over there.

    The Israelis are getting restive, attacking near Damascus with a flurry of ground-to-ground missiles. Officially it’s to prevent Hezbollah from getting modern weapons, but I suspect there is some other reason. Maybe they’re just shaking the bush and hoping to provoke something beneficial to Holy Israel.

    Kerry’s frantic efforts at a cease-fire in Aleppo makes some of the more paranoid types wonder if he’s trying to arrange for a slew of US Special Forces to escape that city. Assuming of course any such US soldiers remain there assisting the Good Terrorists.

    A Russian aid station was shelled by the Good Terrorists. That nation suspects to the point of saying out loud that the Good Terrorists were given the coordinates of that medical site by either the US or the UK. The current essay makes me more sensitive to such a claim than I might have otherwise been.

    The Russian Defense Ministry has criticized the International Committee of the Red Cross for failing to recognize and condemn a deadly attack on a Russian mobile hospital in Aleppo as the “cold-blooded murder” of medical staff.

    Setting aside all other questions of the attack, I’m with the Ruskies on the Red Cross issue. Years ago I concluded that they’re not anybody I trust in any way, shape, or form.

  8. Wobblie
    December 7, 2016 at 17:15

    It will be interesting to see how much Trump will actually break away from the status quo neocon policies.

    Let’s see if he’ll actually reach out to Russia.

  9. Tom Welsh
    December 7, 2016 at 16:18

    So either the US armed forces are hopelessly, systematically, consistently incompetent; or some of their generals are cynical, amoral, accomplished liars. Or both, of course.

    If we take the American “story” at face value, how are we to accept the explanations we have been given for many years about how their drone strikes – controlled by people sitting on the other side of the world in comfortable offices in the USA – never ever make mistakes or kill innocent civilians?

    If they are incapable of distinguishing between a large dug-in regular military unit with tanks and other vehicles and a bunch of irregular terrorist mercenaries, how the hell can they distinguish between a goatherd and a terrorist, or car full of innocent civilians and a car full of terrorists?

    The only conclusion we can come to is that the Americans are deliberately and knowingly lying in their teeth. The only thing we can’t be quite sure of is what they are lying about.

    • Zachary Smith
      December 7, 2016 at 21:51

      So either the US armed forces are hopelessly, systematically, consistently incompetent; or some of their generals are cynical, amoral, accomplished liars. Or both, of course.

      I tend to favor the latter explanation. The people who have been posing as Obama’s “subordinates” aren’t bothering to pretend anymore. It remains my opinion that Obama has been – from the very beginning – a figurehead.

  10. Abe
    December 7, 2016 at 16:09

    Porter neglects to mention that the 17 September 2016 U.S. Coalition air attack on Syrian Arab Army troops in Deir ez Zor province appears to have been coordinated in support of an Islamic State (also known as Daesh) ground attack.

    Surrounded by ISIS forces, the Syrian troops were holding firecontrol positions on Jabal Tharda, a mountain overlooking Deir Ezzor’s airport.

    The deliberate targeting of Syrian troops by the U.S. Coalition enabled ISIS forces to seize control of the strategic position.

    Porter also neglects to mention that Israel has conducted numerous air attacks on Syria.

    In fact, the same day as the U.S. Coalition air attack near Deir ez Zor, the Israeli Air Force carried out a drone strike over the Golan Heights, targeting the Syrian Arab Army’s Fouj Al-Joulan’s (Golan Regiment) defenses near the border-town of Hader, killing one soldier and wounding 5 others. Israel alleged that the airstrike was done in retaliation for a mortar shell that was fired into the occupied Golan Heights by an unknown party.

    Back in June 2015, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon acknowledged that Israel has been providing aid to anti-government forces in Syria.

    Discussing the redacted November 2016 summary report on the U.S. Coalition air attack, Porter notes: “The report revealed more than previous investigations into U.S. military operations that resulted in embarrassment. This can be explained by the role of its co-author, whose identity was redacted as ‘foreign government information.'”

    Porter then speculates about the identity of the summary report co-author: “He or she is most likely a general belonging to one of the other three members of the ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’ coalition whose planes participated in the Deir ez Zor strike, which would narrow it down to the U.K., Denmark or Australia.”

    Both the amount of information revealed and the concealment of the report co-author may be an indication that the U.S. Coalition was not the exclusive “author” of the attack on Syrian troops.

    It may be significant that the U.S. Coalition air attack happened near the anniversary of the September 6, 2007 Israeli airstrike on a suspected nuclear reactor in Deir ez Zor province.

    The September 2016 air attacks in Deir ez Zor and the Golan may also be viewed as coordinated U.S. Coalition and Israeli responses to recent advances by Syrian Arab Army troops liberating areas from occupation by Al-Qaeda and ISIS forces.

    Further investigation of direct and indirect Israeli involvement in U.S. Coalition operations in Syria is urgently needed.

    • Tom Welsh
      December 7, 2016 at 16:27

      “Porter neglects to mention that the 17 September 2016 U.S. Coalition air attack on Syrian Arab Army troops in Deir ez Zor province appears to have been coordinated in support of an Islamic State (also known as Daesh) ground attack”.

      That’s a very good point indeed. From what I hard, the terrorists were in among the SAA positions almost immediately after they were bombed. How did they know the attacks had ceased?

  11. Salford Lad
    December 7, 2016 at 16:00

    No matter if the air strike on Syrian Govt troops by US and NATO air forces was intentional or not. The US and NATO forces are in Syria illegally, without invitation from the Syrian Govt.
    Russia alone are the only legal foreign air force to be invited to assist the Syrian Govt.

    • Tom Welsh
      December 7, 2016 at 16:25

      Exactly so. Not that anyone in the West cares. See the Melian Dialogue, as usual.

  12. James lake
    December 7, 2016 at 14:57

    This is lies from start to finish
    The Russians and Syrians know it.
    The USA just diminishes themselves with their behaviour

  13. jaycee
    December 7, 2016 at 14:55

    Should this have been deliberate – designed to scotch the ceasefire and disrupt plans to conduct subsequent operations against designated terrorists as well as oversee the political inclusion of the so-called moderates in a post-war environment – then what to make of this morning’s joint statement by the US and select allies, in which they condemn the Syrian government’s “refusal to engage in a serious political process” and also “the unwillingness of both Russia and Iran to work for a political solution despite their assurances to the contrary”? Blinkered self-righteousness? Or in-your-face belligerence?

    • Tom Welsh
      December 7, 2016 at 16:24

      I would incline to “cynical impudence”. Actually, the people in Washington these days are coming to remind me more and more of the Nazis. There is the same feeling that they positively revel in lying and deceit for their own sake.

  14. Sam F
    December 7, 2016 at 14:07

    Thanks for this insight. It is odd that two targeted tunnels would be considered likely to flee. It is hard to believe that US forces had not made enough prior Syrian force identifications, or that they would not try to spot the local Syrian forces so as to contrast their appearance. Very hard to believe that they would not provide Russia or Syria with target coordinates if they had intended to avoid hitting Syrian forces. This looks very incriminating for Harrigan or his subordinates.

    It looks like the Vietnam cases of “shooting anything that moves” in hope of some “shock and awe” effect, in which the mere personal assumption that bullying will work supersedes necessary procedure. At high command levels, such emotional overrides of procedure suggest a secret agenda.

    But if anything the incident proved the necessity of the very coordination that the US continues to refuse.

    • Tom Welsh
      December 7, 2016 at 16:22

      “This looks very incriminating for Harrigan or his subordinates”.

      Actually, their MO looks identical to that of Twig and Blair before their vicious unprovoked attack on Iraq in 2003. First consult the intelligence services with all due solemnity. Then decide what the intelligence conclusions are and tell the intelligence services what their reports are to say. Then go go go!

      It’s even got a name: “letting policy drive the intelligence”. In my day we just called it lying, but then we were members of the reality-based community.

Comments are closed.