A Pentagon investigation has indentified a series of blunders behind the bombing of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The incident caused a major spat between the US and Russia.
The Pentagon said on Tuesday that intelligence errors and miscommunication with Russia resulted in US-led coalition airstrikes accidently hitting forces aligned with the Syrian government, reportedly killing dozens of soldiers in September.
"In this incident, we made an unintentional, regrettable error primarily based on human factors in several areas in the targeting process," US Brigadier General Richard Coe, who led the investigation, told reporters.
The US military's Central Command said in a statement "errors in the development of intelligence, as well as missed opportunities for coalition members on duty to recognize and voice contrary evidence to decision-makers" contributed to the September 17 attack near the eastern Syrian city of Deir el-Zour that was incorrectly believed to be targeting "Islamic State" positions.
The US investigation could only confirm the deaths of 15 Syrian government soldiers as previously reported by Washington, although the Pentagon did say the number of deaths was likely higher. Russia and Syria at the time put the number of deaths at more than 60, while the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put it at more than 90.
Australian, Danish, British and American warplanes took part in the attack in which 32 separate strikes were conducted.
At the time, the incident caused a major uproar as Russia and Syria accused the United States of helping IS and seeking to undermine a ceasefire brokered by Moscow and Washington. The attack was the first known US-led coalition airstrike on Syrian government forces since Washington intervened in Iraq and Syria to combat IS more than two years ago.
According to the investigation, an early mistake was made when a Syrian government vehicle was misidentified as belonging to IS. The assessment then affected subsequent intelligence about the targets after it drove into the regime-controlled Deir el-Zour airport. The Pentagon said the Syrian troops were not wearing identifiable uniforms or carrying flags.
Crucially, a miscommunication error also occurred when Russian forces contacted the coalition through a hotline to explain the airstrikes were hitting Syrian government aligned troops. But that message was delayed by 27 minutes because the coalition officer the Russians usually spoke to was not available. During this period about half of the coalition airstrikes were carried out. Once the Russians were able to reach the coalition officer the airstrikes were stopped.
"This was obviously a missed opportunity to be able to limit the damage of the mistake," Coe said.
Even before the airstrikes were carried out, the coalition informed the Russians that its planes would be near Deir el-Zour, but provided the wrong coordinates.
"Of course we don't know for sure, but it is possible had we passed the right location to the Russians, they would have had the opportunity to warn us before the first strike even started," Coe said.
The Pentagon said that while regrettable, the airstrikes did not violate international law and nobody would be punished.
"In my opinion, these were a number of people all doing their best to do a good job," Coe said. "The decision to strike these targets was made in accordance with the law of armed conflict and the applicable rules of engagement."
cw/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)