A US military investigation has concluded that a series of “unintentional human errors” led to a coalition air strike on September 17 that killed fighters aligned with the Syrian regime instead of the Islamic State militants they were targeting.
The incident, which Moscow said killed more than 60 Syrian soldiers, sparked a controversy and prompted an emergency UN Security Council meeting as tensions between Russia and the United States spiked.
Brigadier General Richard Coe, who led the investigation, told reporters at the Pentagon via a conference call on Tuesday that the major errors ranged from a basic misidentification of targets to “group think” during intelligence development and even a communications blunder on a hotline with Russia.
But Coe also defended the coalition personnel involved, saying they were “good people trying to do the right thing.”
“These people get it right far more often than not, but this time they came up short,” Coe said.
The US-led coalition is focused on attacking the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq and does not want to get involved in Syria’s brutal civil war.
Australian, Danish, British and American planes all took part in the air strike, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group has said killed at least 90 regime troops.
The Pentagon said it had only been able to conclusively count 15 deaths, but acknowledged the toll was possibly much higher.
“In this incident, we made an unintentional, regrettable error primarily based on human factors in several areas in the targeting process,” Brigadier General Richard Coe, who investigated the case, told reporters.
Key among these mistakes was an early misidentification of a Syrian vehicle as belonging to IS jihadists, which coloured subsequent intel assessments.
Coe acknowledged that major red flags were missed. One analyst saw a tank moving around and even typed into a network chat room that “what we are looking at can’t possibly be ISIL,” Coe said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
The mistakes continued even after the strike began.
Further complicating matters, the troops were not wearing recognizable military uniforms or carrying identifying flags, the Pentagon said.
Perhaps most significantly, a critical miscommunication occurred when Russian forces called the coalition to tell them the strike was hitting Syrian regime troops.
Moscow had reached out repeatedly through a hotline to the US-led coalition, trying to inform them that they were striking Syrian regime targets instead of Islamic State.
But the designated US military point-of-contact was unavailable for 27 minutes. In those 27 minutes, 15 of the strikes took place against what the coalition believed were Islamic State fighters.
As soon as the Russians were able to speak to their regular point of contact, the strike was called off.
No coalition forces are being charged in the incident.
“The decision to strike these targets was made in accordance with the law of armed conflict and the applicable rules of engagement,” Coe said.
The strike was conducted by F-16 and FA-18 fighters, A-10 ground-attack craft and drones.