Airstrikes by the United States and its allies against two Syrian army positions Sept. 17 killed at least 62 Syrian troops and wounded dozens more. The attack was quickly treated as a non-story by the U.S. news media; U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) claimed the strikes were carried out in the mistaken belief that Islamic State forces were being targeted, and the story disappeared.
The circumstances surrounding the attack, however, suggested it may have been deliberate, its purpose being to sabotage President Obama's policy of coordinating with Russia against Islamic State and Nusra Front forces in Syria as part of a U.S.-Russian cease-fire agreement.
Normally the U.S. military can cover up illegal operations and mistakes with a pro forma military investigation that publicly clears those responsible. But the air attack on Syrian troops also involved three foreign allies in the anti-Islamic State campaign named Operation Inherent Resolve: the United Kingdom, Denmark and Australia. So, the Pentagon had to agree to bring a general from one of those allies into the investigation as a co-author of the report. Consequently, the summary of the investigation released by CENTCOM on Nov. 29 reveals far more than the Pentagon and CENTCOM brass would have desired.
Thanks to that heavily redacted report, we now have detailed evidence that the commander of CENTCOM's Air Force component attacked the Syrian army deliberately.
The Motives Behind a Pentagon Scheme
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and the military establishment had a compelling motive in the attack of Sept. 17 -- namely, interest in maintaining the narrative of a "new Cold War" with Russia, which is crucial to supporting and expanding the budgets of their institutions. When negotiations on a comprehensive cease-fire agreement with Russia, including provisions for U.S.-Russian cooperation on air operations against Islamic State and Nusra Front, appeared to gain traction last spring, the Pentagon began making leaks to the news media about its opposition to the Obama policy. Those receiving the leaks included neoconservative hawk Josh Rogin, who had just become a columnist at The Washington Post.
After Secretary of State John Kerry struck an agreement Sept. 9 that contained a provision to set up a "Joint Integration Center" (JIC) for U.S.-Russian cooperation in targeting, the Pentagon sought to reverse it. Carter grilled Kerry for hours in an effort to force him to retreat from that provision, according to The New York Times.
Lobbying against the JIC continued the following week after Obama approved the full agreement. When the commander of the Central Command's Air Force component, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigan, was asked about the JIC at a press briefing Sept. 13, he seemed to suggest that opponents of the provision were still hoping to avoid cooperating with the Russians on targeting. He told reporters that his readiness to join such a joint operation was "going to depend on what the plan ends up being."
But the Pentagon also had another motive for hitting Syrian troops in Deir Ezzor. On June 16, Russian planes attacked a remote outpost of a CIA-supported armed group, called the New Syrian Army, in Deir Ezzor province near the confluence of Iraq, Syria and Jordan. The Pentagon demanded an explanation for the attack but never got it.
For senior leaders of the Pentagon and others in the military, a strike against Syrian army positions in Deir Ezzor would not only offer the prospect of avoiding the threat of cooperating with Russia militarily, it would also be payback for what many believed was a Russian poke in the U.S. eye.
The Evidence in the Investigation Report
On Sept. 16, Gen. Harrigan, who also headed the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at al-Udeid airbase in Qatar, set in motion the planning for the attack on the two Syrian army positions. The process began, according to the investigation report, on Sept. 16, when Harrigan's command identified two fighting positions near the Deir Ezzor airport as belonging to Islamic State, based on drone images showing that the personnel there were not wearing uniform military garb and, supposedly, displayed no flags.
But, as a former intelligence analyst told me, that was not a legitimate basis for a positive identification of the sites as Islamic State-controlled because Syrian army troops in the field frequently wear a wide range of uniforms and civilian clothing.
The report contains the incriminating revelation that the authorities at CAOC had plenty of intelligence warning that its identification was flat wrong. Before the strike, the regional station of the Distributed Common Ground System, which is the Air Force's primary intelligence organ for interpreting data from aerial surveillance, contested the original identification of the units, sending its own assessment that they could not possibly be Islamic State. Another pre-strike intelligence report, moreover, pointed to what appeared to be a flag at one of the two sites. And a map of the area that was available to intelligence analysts at CAOC clearly showed that the sites were occupied by the Syrian army. Harrigan and his command apparently claimed, implausibly, that they were unaware of any of this information.
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