The U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition fired more than three dozen airstrikes at what it believed was an ISIS position outside the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zour in September. But the strikes actually killed troops loyal to the Syrian government, and that prompted a military investigation into what went wrong.
That investigation has now concluded that it was a series of human errors that caused the faulty targeting, as NPR’s Tom Bowman tells our Newscast unit. “The Syrian government has said 62 were killed, but U.S. investigators could only confirm 15,” he added.
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, as The Two-Way reported.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeff Harrigian, who ordered the investigation, said in a statement that “[i]n 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.”
The heavily-redacted, four-page executive summary states that the “targets were struck in accordance with the law of armed conflict and the applicable rules of engagement for all nations involved.” The team interviewed more than 70 military personnel from the U.S. and other coalition countries for the report.
It says that the forces did believe they were targeting ISIS positions, even though there were problems with information flow and human errors like confirmation bias that led them to that conclusion.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard Coe, who led the investigation, said, “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 [ISIL] fighters were actually what we now think were likely forces aligned with the Syrian regime.”
Some of the reasons why the forces were misidentified are still classified, according to the Pentagon.
The incident ratcheted up mistrust between the U.S. coalition and the Syrian government along with their Russian allies. Syria unilaterally declared an end to a fragile ceasefire less than 48 hours later. Syrian President Bashar Assad blamed the U.S. for the ceasefire’s collapse in an interview with The Associated Press the next week, as we reported.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has referred to the incident as a “terrible accident.” Assad maintained the bombardment was intentional. “You don’t commit a mistake for more than one hour,” he said.
The investigation concluded that the airstrikes were fired at Syrian government-allied forces in error but did last for more than an hour. The strikes started at 13:55 and ended at 14:56, the report’s executive summary states, four minutes after the Russians told coalition personnel that the strikes were hitting Syrian regime forces.
This was the first time that the U.S. coalition used a special United States/Russia Hotline “to inform of an imminent strike,” the report adds. But the coalition passed along incorrect coordinates, which “may have affected the Russian response to the notification and caused considerable confusion.”
The Russians tried to inform the coalition that its strikes were hitting Syrian government-aligned forces at 14:25, but then “elected to wait to speak to their usual point of contact … rather than pass the information immediately to the Battle Director,” according to the report. “This led to a delay of 27 minutes, during which 15 of the 37 strikes were conducted.”