U.S. Central Command investigation released a statement today, finding that it was a series of unfortunate “unintentional human errors” that led the U.S. and other coalition partners to conduct a massive airstrike against a group of unidentified individuals in Syria earlier this fall.
The investigation found that while the targets were “misidentified” in the Sept. 17 strikes, there was no malicious intent, and the strikes were conducted in accordance with the law of armed conflict and within the rules of engagement.
Air Force Brigadier General Richard Coe, the lead investigating officer, spoke with reporters via phone Tuesday morning, saying that after six weeks of investigating he still cannot say with certainty who was killed or whether they were Syrian military or not.
Officials initially thought the airstrikes may have unintentionally killed Syrian government forces instead of ISIS fighters.
“We believe those forces were aligned with the Syrian regime, more likely than not,” he said, but said the fact that the personnel on the ground were not in uniform and had no unit flags or markings meant they cannot identify them as regime soldiers.
Coe said the series of mistakes began with the coalition following a vehicle “for many hours,” and labeled it ISIS because of the behavior of the occupants.
Coe said that a person was watching full motion video of the individuals on the ground in a tank and assessed that he had never seen ISIS with tanks so they must not be ISIS.
However, there were other reports that they had commandeered a Syrian regime tank a few days prior in an area not too far away, so the target engagement authority approved the strike.
This was the first time that the U.S. notified the Russians in advance that they would be conducting airstrikes in an area.
CENTCOM spokesperson Colonel John Thomas explained that they shared the information because of the large number of aircraft that would be operating in such a small area.
Coe said Tuesday that the U.S. “unintentionally passed erroneous information” about the location of the strikes to the Russians, giving them a location that was about 3 kilometers away from the actual strike area.
Coe said that the information provided was that strikes would be 9 kilometers south of Dayr az Zawr airfield, when they were actually 9 kilometers south of the city.
The Russians did not raise any objections to the strike area.
Australia, Denmark, United Kingdom, and American aircraft began conducting strikes, firing 34 precision-guided munitions and expending 380 rounds.
After the strikes began, the Russian military called the U.S. military twice via a hotline, but when the US Air Force Colonel who they were used to speaking with wasn’t available, they hung up without leaving a message.
Ultimately the Russians waited for 27 minutes until their known contact was on the line to convey that the strikes were hitting Syrian regime troops. Fifteen of the 24 strikes occurred during that 27 minute delay.
Coe said that the strikes would have continued even longer if the Russians had not called.
U.S. investigators could only substantiate that 15 people were killed in the strikes. Human rights organizations put the number much higher at more than 80.
Coe said that the coalition had no intent to target any forces other than ISIS and that no one conducted themselves with malice or negligence. No one was reprimanded for the incident.
He said that the U.S. has expressed regret for the incident.
He praised the U.S. and coalition efforts, saying that they usually do a great job, but added, “this time they came up short.”