Rus­sians ac­ci­den­tally bomb U.S. Syria al­lies

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - Michael R. Gor­don

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.

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