Russians accidentally bomb U.S. Syria allies
The friendly fire incident inflicted casualties on Syrian fighters being trained by the U.S. to take back Raqqa from Islamic State.
Russian aircraft mistakenly bombed Syrian fighters who are being trained by the United States, the commander of the U.S.led operation in Iraq and Syria said Wednesday.
U.S. advisers were about 3 miles away when the Russian strike occurred.
The episode pointed to the risk of unintended clashes among the myriad forces operating on a fluid battlefield in Syria as the U.S. command looks toward the fight to take Raqqa from the Islamic State group.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who commands the U.S.-led task force that is fighting the militants in Iraq and Syria, said the Russian airstrike, which took place Tuesday, resulted in casualties among the Syrian fighters, but he declined to say how many.
Townsend said the Russian attack appeared to have been a mistake: The Russian military thought it was bombing villages held by the Islamic State, but in fact they were recently occupied by Syrian Arab fighters.
“We had some Russian aircraft and regime aircraft bomb some villages that I believe they thought were held by ISIS,” Townsend said, referring to the Islamic State. “Actually on the ground were some of our Syrian Arab coalition forces.”
The United States and Russia established a hotline in 2015 in which a U.S. colonel in Qatar and a Russian colonel in Syria work to “deconflict” operations and prevent aerial collisions. But senior U.S. officials have not cooperated directly with the Russians, in part because of legislation first passed in 2014 that forbids that kind of engagement because of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Senior U.S. military officials in the Middle East have advocated for increased deconfliction talks, citing the close proximity in which the militaries are now operating in Syria.
Townsend said Wednesday the deconfliction hotline worked to stop the bombing.
There is a diverse array of forces near Al Bab, including Turkish-backed Syrian militias, Syrian regime forces and Kurdish and Arab fighters. Townsend said the United States is encouraging all sides to focus on the fight against the Islamic State and not let tensions among the different groups divert them from the need to take Raqqa, the militants’ de facto capital in Syria.
This is the second time in recent weeks that there has been an episode of friendly fire involving the Russians. Last month, Russian fighters mistakenly bombed Turkish soldiers near Al Bab.
Townsend also said that some Islamic State fighters had sought to escape from Mosul, in northern Iraq, disguised as refugees, but had been detained. He said he did not anticipate that larger numbers of U.S. troops would be needed for the campaign, which is under review by the Trump administration.
“The coalition is encouraged by the progress against ISIS in Al Bab by the Turkish military and their opposition forces,” Townsend said. “We encourage all forces to remain focused on the counter-ISIS fight and concentrate their efforts on defeating ISIS, and not toward other objectives that may cause the coalition to divert energy and resources away from Raqqa.”
Russian fighter jets sit on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea in November. A U.S. commander said that Russian aircraft mistakenly bombed Syrian fighters Tuesday.