In Massive Intel Error, US Kills 80 Syrian Troops, Helps ISIL Advance

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

In a massive intelligence failure, the US Air Force hit a Syrian military installation in Deir al-Zor that it thought was Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). But it turned out to be the Syrian Arab Army position at Deir al-Zor military airport. The strike killed 80 soldiers and wounded another 100. Deir al-Zor is one of two provinces significantly controlled by Daesh in Syria, the other being its home base of al-Raqqa. The mistaken strike wily-nilly strengthened Daesh.

Russia immediately took propaganda advantage of the error, suggesting archly that the United States must covertly be supporting Daesh. That’s pretty low. In fact, Russia had done very little against Daesh itself, while the US has expended a good deal of effort against it.

Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, stormed out of a UN session where Russia made these charges and where Russia called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Power accused the Syrian government of continuing to hold and to deploy chemical weapons.

The error did reflect not on American intentions but on the tactics it is using to intervene in Syria. Air strikes from 30,000 feet are always open to being inexact, and to producing civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure. Moreover, the US is hostage to local informants for information on targets, and sometimes they turn out to be double agents or mentally fragile or have other reasons for delivering false intel to the US military.

The problem with a mistake of this Himalayan proportions is that it will be extremely difficult in the aftermath to convince Syria that the US did not intentionally aid Daesh.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

CBS Evening News: “Russia: Coalition airstrike kills dozens of Syrian troops”

75 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    What really scared me yesterday was the reports of further Israeli airstrikes on Syrian Government positions on the Golan Heights.
    link to richardedmondson.net

    Israeli Airforce are supplying support to Al Nusra attacks in the area of Kuneitra and reports for weeks have indicated that the Israelis want to exclude Syrian Government from the Golan Heights.

    The Russians were reported to have authorised Syrian Arab Army to engage Israeli aircraft with SAM.

    Attacks by USAF and Israeli Air Force at the same time lend credibility to reports that Saudis and Israelis want to attack in the south now that the Aleppo pocket is cut off and in a militarily hopeless position.

    link to al-monitor.com

  2. Professor Cole, why do you assume the air strikes were accidental and not intentional? Aren’t U.S. policymakers wanting to send Russia a signal that it had better not assume they will be getting entirely what they want in Syria, and aren’t those same U.S. policymakers wanting to show American neocons and the public that it is serious about removing Assad from power? I just don’t believe that the strike was accidental, given the cynical game the U.S. is playing there.

    • Larry, I can’t believe we don’t ask ourselves this question all the time. The idea that inept actors make repeated mistakes because they’re just bunglers is itself a foolish mistake. Think of all the ways the power elite are gaining ground, making money hand over fist, and tell me this isn’t going exactly as planned. Our civil liberties will be gone before we recognize what hit us. Wakey wakey.

    • In World War II, about a month after D Day, US bombers dropped bombs about a half mile to a mile short of their intended targets on the front line and killed about 500 US soldiers. More recently in Afghanistan B-52 bombs early in that war fell short killing both American advisers and Afghan forces fighting the Taliban. There are many instances of so-called friendly fire killing a lot of an army’s own soldiers. Read some military history. Often the determinant in the victor in a battle is which side makes the fewer mistakes. Even in today’s technological battlefield there are errors, such as someone making a typo in inputting coordinates for smart weapons.

      • The problem with this “mistake” is that it involved hitting ISIS who were facing Syrian troops. The US has never done that before in years of war. If this had been ISIS the attack would have assisted Assad. That’s the suspicious part. They’ve never helped the SAA. Why now?

        • The US had never previously hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital before it did. People seem to have forgotten that. Was that an intentional attack and what would the US gain from it?

    • We seem to have many armchair military analysts here who think they know everything about battle, apparently secure in their “knowledge” that intelligence is never faulty, and that United States targeting failures must always be deliberate. I wonder how many have actual military experience, or even read any military history?

      One of the truisms of war that is just as valid today as it was when he coined it is Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke’s (von Moltke the Elder) observation: “No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.” That observation applies not only to the operational tempo of a campaign, but also to the inevitable mistakes that will be made in carrying out the operation.

      War is a messy business in the best of circumstances. That the use of GPS coordinates and “smart” weapons increase precision today does not mean mistakes are not made. There are men and women under stress interpreting intelligence and, inputting coordinates, and making targeting decisions. Mistakes will be inevitable.

    • Thank you, Larry. And, I am sure we will get the same slant re the aid convoy and the imaginary Russia planes. If you are unfamiliar with the Moon of Alabama blog, the proprietor seems to ask the relevant questions while debunking the obvious propaganda being sprayed everywhere.

  3. This is the report of the incident that scared me so much.

    The Israelis have been looking for a causus belli with Hizb Allah for months

    In First, Israel’s Iron Dome Intercepts Rockets Fired From Syria
    No damage was caused, the IDF says; shortly after the missile defense system was activated, it became clear the rockets would have exploded on Syrian territory if not intercepted.
    read more: link to haaretz.com

    • How do you know they didn’t? Because you didn’t read about it in US or European news?

      • If you don’t read about Russian errors in the western media, it almost MUST be because they didn’t make them. The western presstitutes take every half a chance to deride Russia.

      • You know they didn’t because if they did it would be all over the US and European media.

    • The Russians are allied with the Syrian army and do much more extensive consulting with them – like the US and Kurdish troops. Closer collaboration = less mistakes.

      The Russians have bombed plenty of hospitals and other humanitarian targets. Maybe on purpose, maybe on accident. But they’ve caused plenty of damage too.

    • It was reported that on Monday 9/19 either Russian or Syrian aircraft bombed a UN aid convoy bringing relief supplies to Aleppo. This has forced the UN to halt its scheduled aid convoys to that city. Does that count?

      • “Does that count?”

        No, because neither the Russians nor the Syrians bombed that convoy.

        Look at the photos of the “carnage”. The trucks were definitely set on fire, but they equally certainly were not bombed from the air.

        Note that both the UN and the ICRC have walked back the claim that it was an airstrike.

      • That immediate ‘blame the Russians’ meme has already been debunked. That convoy had been inspected by the Syrian/Russians, unloaded much of their cargo in Syrian held W. Aleppo and was moving on to finish elsewhere. The ‘moderates’ in E. Aleppo has already stated they would refuse the aid. And the UN has already recanted saying the Russians did it.

  4. Mistakes occur but one of this size might have been better handled with a swift call from Obama to Putin. The DOD’s attempt to pass some blame to Russia and Syria was absurd, and Samantha Power’s histrionic outburst will make it difficult to convince others, not only Syria, that it was a deeply regretted error. Although she is quoted as saying she regretted the loss of life she turned swiftly from the event in question to claim Russia’s call for a security council meeting to be a stunt, and then went into a diatribe about Assad’s wicked ways. She gives the impression of someone with no grounding in logic unless she studied it to employ rather than abjure its fallacies.

  5. I also hope that the attack was carried out by error, because if it were deliberate it would certainly make the situation much more complex, would spell the end of the “ceasefire” and would prolong the agony of the Syrian people. The least that can be said about it is that US policies and practices regarding Syria have been shambolic and counterproductive. As Russia’s Defense Ministry spokesman, Major-General Igor Konashenkov, said: “If the airstrike was caused by the wrong coordinates of targets than it’s a direct consequence of the stubborn unwillingness of the American side to coordinate with Russia in its actions against terrorist groups in Syria.” link to rt.com

    I believe that it would be much better for everyone if the United States would end its cat and mouse game and would collaborate with the Russians to defeat DAESH and bring calm to Syria, and then to argue about the nature of the next Syrian government. Trying to fight DAESH while at the same time working against the Syrian government and being hellbent on toppling President Bashar Assad does not make sense and the result is what we have seen during the past few years.

    • I have maintained from the beginning that the US should not be involved in Syria in any way. In regards to this incident, I fail to see how a deliberate attack of this kind is beneficial to the US, despite several fanciful conspiracy theories bandied about here (DOD trying to make Kerry look bad, for example). Sherlock Holmes once told Watson that the key to solving a mystery is to eliminate everything impossible and then look at what is possible. I have amended that to look at what doesn’t make sense and eliminate those things and then figure out what does make sense and then you probably have your answer. I can’t see any way that a deliberate attack makes sense, unless you WANT to believe some convoluted theory lacking any basis in fact.

      • “I can’t see any way that a deliberate attack makes sense, unless you WANT to believe some convoluted theory lacking any basis in fact”

        All that you need to “base” yourself on is this proposition: there are people in the higher echelon of the US military who choke on the very notion that they are expected to share their intel and run their targeting decision-making past those damn Rooskies.

        Because….. two days from now that is exactly what the US/Russian agreement expects them to do i.e. subordinate themselves to a joint USAF/RuAF command centre.

        What to do?
        What to do?

        I Know! Bomb a Syrian Army Base “by mistake”.

        Problem solved. Honour – and exceptionalism – restored.

        Hardly “fanciful”.
        Definitely not “impossible”.
        And if you were a hard-arsed hawk it would certainly seem “sensible”

  6. It is not plausible that there was any error in the US strike. The Syrian position was on a hilltop, surrounded by ISIS/Daesh, protecting the airport and civilian population of a city, which are now controlled by ISIL/Daesh. That explanation is like saying that the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was a training mission gone astray.

    No one makes such errors. The US clearly did support ISIL in attacking the Syrian Government position. No doubt this was a provocation maneuver intended to blame them for a truce violation. This well shows the intentions of the gangs controlling US government.

  7. This may seem outlandish, but nothing is normal in Syria: what if the strike was a slap in Putin/Assad’s face and the blunder was that it helped daesh? Perhaps they thought it would help rebels? Crazy but not the craziest.

  8. “Russia immediately took propaganda advantage of the error, suggesting archly that the United States must covertly be supporting Daesh.”

    It is curious that Informed Comment does not write exactly what Russia is charging. Not providing the specific Russian charge and calling it propaganda does your readers a profound disservice. In previous columns, Informed Comment also faulted the CIA, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia for supporting terrorist groups allied with Daesh that have done untold damage on Syria.

    Now, that Russia is making the exact same charge that Informed Comment made previously, and demanding that the United States stop supporting groups affiliated with Daesh, Informed Comment calls it propaganda. Russia might be engaging in hyperbole, but the charge that our government has supported extremist groups allied with Daesh is a deeply painful truth: one that Secretary of State John Kerry has also acknowledge on occassion. If Russia plays its cards right, and manages to get the United States to cease supporting extremist groups allied with Daesh the world would be a lot better place for it. As a US citizen and taxpayer, I would be relieved if my government was not using tax revenue in this way.

  9. In a massive intelligence failure? Sounds like the old gang is back, Wolf, Feith, Libby, whispering into the pharaoh’s ear.

  10. Dr. Cole, why have you concluded that the U.S.-led attack was accidental? Don’t U.S. policymakers want to poke ‘The Bear’ so to speak and signal that they still are in charge and want to dump Assad?

  11. Come on Juan you really have to wonder about the intention and timing of this U.S. bombing and the death toll. Just because Samantha Powers said it was not intentional does not mean it is so.

    When Samantha Power’s chooses to point out “hypocrisies” it certainly is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

    Again the intentions and timing of this massacre is highly questionable.

  12. link to centcom.mil

    ” Coalition forces believed they were striking a Da’esh fighting position that they had been tracking for a significant amount of time before the strike.

    How can you be tracking “for a significant amount of time before the strike” and not know who it is you are about to kill with the killing equipment today?

  13. //The problem with a mistake of this Himalayan proportions is that it will be extremely difficult in the aftermath to convince Syria that the US did not intentionally aid Daesh.//

    This seems odd to me – is “Syria” in this case the Assad regime? (if so, I get it and agree).

  14. How is it possible that US military does not know where the Syrian military airports are located?
    What does chemical weapons have to do with the US attacking Syrian military positions?

    • Good questions. Also, at least once in the past, the Obama admin accused the Assad regime of using nerve gas when it later turned out it was Al Nusra with ingredients apparently supplied by Turkey- see an interview with Sy Hersch about this.

      What a mess. Russia at least has a clear strategy; the US certainly doesn’t seem to.

  15. the target the US hit was static for over 6 months – Syrian Army control.
    The US has the most sophisticated space based photography capability. Thus can not be mistake in choosing target.
    The US did not receive UNSC clearance to attack Syria.
    The Congress has not authorized attack on Syria.
    Therefore, notwithstanding blah, blah, blah, the commanding officer who authorized the attack is guilty of
    1., war crime per Nurnberg precedent
    2., Is in contempt of Congress
    3/. contempt of the Department of State re US/Russia agreement.

    • Never explain by cleverness in the US government what can satisfactorily be explained by incompetence or stupidity.

      • Juan, this cliché has outlived its usefulness. Looking at who benefits seems the best way to explain this kind of “error.”

      • That comports with my reading of history. 9 times out of 10, stupidity or incompetence is to blame rather than some conspiracy.

      • Unless you want to pull a bait and switch on the pattern of US behavior in Syria since day one, Juan. Our ‘moderates’ with ISIS taking control of that hill again opens the resupply route right back to the borders of our ally, the other ‘honest broker’ talking out all sides of his mouth, Erdogan. Especially since we have once again screwed the Kurds (this time in Syria) so Daesh has a clear shot to the border while he is exterminating the Kurds.

  16. There have been a number of reports about a rift between the Secretary of State John Kerry and the Secretary of Defense Ash Carter over the US policy towards Syria.
    link to washingtonexaminer.com
    If there is any substance to those reports, they can explain the latest bombing as a deliberate act by the Pentagon to make a point to Kerry and to undermine his efforts.

    A few months ago, the Press TV also reported that US institutions were at odds over Syria. In the light of the latest developments, one wonders if there was some truth in those reports after all. link to presstv.com

    • That there are differences over policy between the State Department and the Defense Department is nothing new. But the President makes the final call. To suggest that such internally debated differences “can explain the latest bombing as a deliberate act by the Pentagon to make a point to Kerry and to undermine his efforts” represents the intellectual level of the average conspiracy theorist.

  17. link to bbc.com
    Air strikes hit rebel-held areas of Aleppo, monitors say

    Truce maybe over.

    Also found the remark by a spokesman for the US administration expressing “regret” for the “unintentional loss of life” a bit surprising since it’s Assad’s Syrian Arab Army they hit, who they’re opposed to.

  18. The US has nothing to gain from being involved in this conflict. Obviously it has not made us any safer at home judging by recent events in NY and Minnesota. This is why I am voting for Gary Johnson (Clinton is bad and Trump probably worse).

    • Gary Johnson believes that government should do little other than provide for public safety and believes the government should not regulate anything in the economy. Check out this last 60 Minutes for a rundown on their policies. They are basically extreme right wingers except that they don’t believe in right wing social policy regarding abortion and drug use. So, if you think non-regulation of Wall Street and the big banks is a good idea, then you should vote for them and wait for the next recession.

  19. Absolutely agree with the comments expressing skepticism about an “intel failure.” We are willing to support the devil himself in order to overthrow Assad. I am waiting for someone to tell me why we must intervene to help get rid of him but the horrors perpetrated in Zimbabwe by the Mugabe regime for over 30 years don’t call for any US action…oh, wait, there is no oil there and Israel has no interest in the place…

      • Syria is in the way of a gas pipeline that the USA is pushing.
        Yes, it may be all about oil, after all.

        • Syria’s oil production is negligible and certainly has nothing to do with U.S. intervention, as was suggested by the comment above.

        • One final note on the Guardian article cited. The author can’t even get the NATO Secretary General correct. He refers to Wesley Clark as “retired NATO Secretary General.” This is risible. Wesley Clark Was SACEUR commander. The NATO Secretary General is always a European. So much for accuracy in reporting.

    • Assad turned down Qatar and the Saudis when they wanted a pipeline through Syria to Turkey on to Europe. He said he would rather work with his allies Iran (piping from the same field, and Russia. We want to kill Russian gas and oil supplying Europe because – ‘Russian aggression!!!’ And we sell Saudi weapons using our dollars, so more sales, more weapons. We and the the Saudis and Qatar began fomenting the anti-Assad movement in 09, soon after he told them to take a walk. If we get him out, Syria will be broken up with the oil flowing through it, and as an added bonus, we will pretend Israel has always hed to Golan Heights and will take it and the new found oil/gas fields there. And Helene, I would guess that if we hadn’t found a way to exploit what we want from the Mugabe regime, we would have that elusive conscience and activated our ‘responsibility to protect ̶o̶u̶r̶ ̶i̶n̶t̶e̶r̶e̶s̶t̶s̶ ‘ long ago…

  20. Would be horribly ironic if CIA called in airstrike to foil Kerry’s attempts, then claim accident.
    All the players and their motives/agendas continue the war as well as refugee crisis.
    Just too hard to believe we pounded this site for 20 minutes in error. If we don’t believe it, for sure they don’t.

  21. Put me in the group of skeptics about this attack being an error. Dr. Cole writes “Air strikes from 30,000 feet are always open to being inexact.” However, the US Military stated in its press releases that the attack was done with both F-16s and A-10 Warthogs. A Warthog is basically a flying .50 cal machine gun and therefore flies low and slow when it attacks. The recipient of the attack was an army base with twin mile-long runways, in a sparsely-populated area. It’s on Google Maps, take a look.

    So long as the pilots’ eyes were open there could be no mistaking what they were hitting. I’d like to know how many military planes were on the ground, and how many were shot with those .50 cal gatling guns. Is the US military going to say that the pilots can’t distinguish a military plane?

    The US military and politicians have debated for years whether to force a no-fly zone on Sryia. Maybe what we just saw was the beginning of that. Maybe what happened proved that at least part of the US military supports ISIS. Surely what happened proved that the US doesn’t think much of the ceasefire.

  22. Daesh in planned and supported by United States. They cannot bear the loss of their coveted destabilising force in Middle East

  23. The scepticism expressed in comments here about the ‘accident’ is widely echoed in media across the world. The qualifying phrase if it was an accident seems to have become firmly attached to the incident. What is not mentioned is the effect this incident will have on the ordinary Syrian population whose enthusiasm for the rebellion may not be as unequivocal as the West thinks it is or should be.

    Data from the World Fertility Survey show Syria’s fertility rate to be among the highest in the world. Each of the 80 dead and 100 wounded will be from families with around 7* immediate, and vastly more extended, members and since Syria has a conscript army many of those killed will likely have been Sunni. The ripples extending from this event will travel far and the US response (particularly from Susan Power) has distressed many and disgusted some, just look at this from the impressive Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova: link to sputniknews.com

    * Said to be the average size of Syrian refugee families arriving in Nova Scotia, and presumably fairly characteristic. link to cbc.ca

  24. Time to establish open military communication with current Syrian Gov & acknowledge they are the best option for Syria.

    I want to see Obama tell this to American public.

    Qatar & Saudi Arabia need to be stopped in their attempt to destroy & overthrow.

  25. Juan
    A-10 Warthogs do not attack from 30,000 ft. They are close combat tank ,vehicle and troop killers

  26. Well, we were stupid enough to kill a bunch of civilians including two Reuters cameramen when even I could see from the videos that it wasn’t an RPG. This is child’s play.

  27. On cue, the conspiracy theorists are out in force. As noted in the post, the problem here is that the US is simply unable to 100% guarantee that its air campaign will accurately hit targets. They’re pretty good but this is combat and it’s anything but an exact science. Unfortunately, the mistake hands both the Russians and the Assad regime a gift-wrapped propaganda present.

    Unless we conclude that yes, let Assad kill his way back to full control over Syria, there aren’t a lot of great choices for the US. We’re not invading the region with ground forces. Been there, done that and no thankyou. So that leaves us to support anti-regime forces, either via materials supply or air power.

    • “So that leaves us to support anti-regime forces, either via materials supply or air power.”

      So many of those anti-regime forces happen to be Daesh or groups aligned with them or Nusrah Front. Turkish and Saudi support (with US consent) of these extremist groups allied with AQ or Daesh is every bit as disgusting as the invasion of Iraq: every bit as illegal and immoral. It is just that we have become so accustomed to deaths in the middle east that it just doesn’t register anymore.

    • ” As noted in the post, the problem here is that the US is simply unable to 100% guarantee that its air campaign will accurately hit targets.”

      I’d be inclined to believe that excuse if this were simply a case of the USAF doing what it has always been doing, only …. oops!

      But that isn’t the case here: what the USAF did amounted to acting completely contrary to its previous policies.

      Previously the USAF has acted against ISIS either in support of its own Unicorn Army of “moderate rebels” or in support of Kurdish forces i.e. as the air arm of those “anti-regime forces”.

      But there are no just forces within a hundred miles of Deir al-Zor – just ISAS and the SAA facing off against each other, as they have done for over a year.

      So a USAF “attack on ISIS” at Deir al-Zor amounted to direct support for the besieged Syrian Arab Army forces only…. Oops! Missed! Sorry! My Bad!

      Now, be honest: the USAF will not act as the air arm of Assad’s Army.

      Not once.
      Not ever.

      “So that leaves us to support anti-regime forces, either via materials supply or air power.”

      I’m sorry, I repeat this again: there are no “anti-regime forces” anywhere near Deir al-Zor, a fact that US forces have known for over a year.

      There was just ISIS and the Syrian Arab Army.

      The USAF definitely drew a bead on one of those two, and by definition it did so in support of the other side.

      So if it really did take aim at ISIS then it was WITH THE INTENTION of aiding those “regime forces”, even if… oops!

      If it only pretended to take aim at ISIS then it did so WITH THE INTENTION of aiding ISIS against the SAA only… wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

      Those are the only two possibilities, because one thing we do know with an absolute certainty is that there were no “anti-regime forces” within 100 miles of Deir al-Zor.

      Which means, of course, that this attack could not have been launched “to support anti-regime force”.

  28. “Virtually every mainstream media article or broadcast on the United States aerial massacre of Syrian government troops, manages to work in a reference to barrel bombs as though this in some way justifies or mitigates the US action…”
    link to craigmurray.org.uk

  29. There are a few errors in the Professors reporting. First this installation wasn’t a temporary base or location, where US intelligence might not have known that it was there. It was a position that had been in place for years.

    They hit a number of vehicles that were flying Syrian flags.

    The attack did not take place from 30,000 feet, but was done by A-10 Warthogs, close air support craft, supported by F-16’s. These jets came in relatively low.

    Last, the Professor continues this meme that the US Defense Department has pushed, that Russia has not been hitting Daesh, but that is a bit of propaganda that the US pushed to mitigate the fact that they had been relatively ineffective against ISIS for over a year when Russia entered the war, and to avoid humiliating questions, as to why did ISIS continue to grow and expand while supposedly under attack by coalition forces, yet begin to lose ground once the Russians entered the fray.
    One last thing, and this is just supposition, but ISIS forces swept in very quickly after the attack. They did not seem that surprised and were able to take full advantage of the attack.

  30. If it was an error, then whichever governments are responsible (Australia, US, whoever) should have their license-to-bomb-countries-they-weren’t-invited-to revoked for at least 6 months.

  31. If the attack was deliberate, then the US government owes reparations to the families of those killed in the attack. If it was not deliberate, the result is still manslaughter, and still under international law families of those deceased are entitled to compensation. So, regardless of situation, our government owes the Syrian people monetary compensation for the events outlined in this post.

    • “If the attack was deliberate, then the US government owes reparations to the families of those killed in the attack….”

      When the Central Intelligence Agency inadvertently gave NATO forces “in error” inaccurate information that the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Belgrade was a military target, thus causing it in 1999 to sustain aerial U.S. Air Force bombardment, reparations in the millions of dollars were paid to the families of dead and, also the wounded, staffers at that diplomatic post.

      Disciplinary action was also taken against CIA personnel involved in that debacle.

      The “deliberateness” or “negligent” nature of the attack is not determinative of whether reparations should be paid – it is the good faith of the government responsible for the culpable conduct.

      • Alas, I don’t think we will ever pay reparations to those deceased in Deir al-Zohr even though we should. If Samantha Power were actually regretful for the loss of lives in this accident as she claims, she would ensure that our government pay reparations. Absent this action, it is difficult to believe her words of contrition.

  32. the decision whether or not to bomb a target is more a factor of who is asking for the bombing than what we may or may not know about the target.
    In this case, we had someone on the ground calling the airstrikes in.
    Maybe the US government should tell us who that was.

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