Adam Entous and Gordon Lubold / The Wall Street Journal – 2016-06-12 22:38:31
US Says Friendly Fire Killed Syrian Allies
Incident raises questions about Pentagon efforts to train groups fighting Islamic State
Adam Entous and Gordon Lubold / The Wall Street Journal
WASHINGTON (June 10, 2016) — The US military bombed a Syrian rebel unit it had trained and equipped in a friendly-fire incident in late May, prompting an internal investigation and raising questions about renewed Pentagon efforts to build local forces to battle Islamic State.
The military didn’t disclose the incident until asked about it by The Wall Street Journal. It is the most serious setback to date for the Pentagon’s recent efforts to work with Sunni Arab forces in northern Syria.
The Pentagon said it conducted a series of airstrikes in and around the Syrian town of Ma’ra on May 27 and May 28. The Pentagon-backed Mutasim Brigade said one of the airstrikes hit the brigade.
A statement issued by the US military at the time said three strikes were carried out near Ma’ra that “struck two separate ISIL tactical units and destroyed two ISIL tactical vehicles and an ISIL vehicle,” using the Pentagon’s preferred acronym for Islamic State.
But leaders with the brigade in interviews said a US airstrike hit brigade members while they were fighting Islamic State militants. Mustafa Sejry, the head of Mutasim’s political office, said 10 of the brigade’s fighters were killed in the US strike. A spokesman for the US military’s Central Command acknowledged the incident, saying in a written statement that the US military had launched an investigation.
“Initial reports were that four counter-ISIL personnel may have been killed in the strike,” said Col. Patrick Ryder, who is based in Tampa, Fla. It wasn’t immediately clear why there was a discrepancy in casualty figures.
“An investigation into this incident has been initiated. We will continue our support to counter-ISIL forces and will apply any lessons learned derived from the investigation to improve our operations in the future,” Col. Ryder added.
The errant airstrike is the first apparent friendly-fire event acknowledged by US Central Command involving US forces in Syria. The only other such incident in the fight against Islamic State happened in Iraq and was publicly disclosed by Central Command in December 2015.
It is unclear why the US military didn’t disclose the Syria incident earlier. Col. Ryder said that the “dynamic and complex nature of the battlefield” contributes to a lag time in reporting from local forces on the ground. “In this case, several days transpired before coalition forces were made aware of the potential friendly fire incident,” Col. Ryder said.
The incident comes as the US military has stepped up efforts to help local forces in northern Syria clear Islamic State from a crucial stretch near the border with Turkey.
From the start, Pentagon efforts to train and equip Sunni Arab forces to fight Islamic State in northern Syria have been marred by problems.
The Pentagon scrapped its initial train-and-equip program last year because it wasn’t able to attract enough fighters. Many Sunni Arab forces wanted to focus their efforts on fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The US military revised and relaunched the program earlier this year out of bases in Turkey, but the Pentagon hasn’t released many details about the effort, citing the need for operational security.
Mr. Sejry said the US airstrike hit Pentagon-backed forces when they were 400 meters from Islamic State positions during an intense period of fighting near Ma’ra.
He said the Pentagon had the coordinates of both US-backed and Islamic State forces, and that members of the Mutasim Brigade were shocked and felt “betrayed.”
After the strike, a representative of the US military told Mr. Sejry that US aircraft accidentally hit the brigade’s fighters and offered an apology, according to Mr. Sejry. “They apologized and stated that it was by mistake,” Mr. Sejry said. “And we have no other choice than to say maybe it was mistake.”
Members of the brigade were vetted by the US military before receiving weaponry and equipment under the program, according to Mr. Sejry.
Mr. Sejry said brigade commanders were in touch with representatives of the US military “24/7” in order to call in potential airstrikes against Islamic State positions and to ensure that US aircraft didn’t accidentally strike his units.
Since the incident, US aircraft have dropped weapons and other equipment to replenish the brigade’s supplies in Ma’ra, rebel commanders said.
The previous friendly fire incident that was acknowledged by Central Command came in mid-December when coalition forces, working with Iraqi security forces on the ground near Fallujah, conducted airstrikes against Islamic State.
“Despite coordination with the Iraqi security forces on the ground, initial reports indicate the possibility one of the strikes resulted in the death of Iraqi soldiers,” a Central Command press release stated Dec. 18. The release also noted that there had been no other friendly-fire incidents as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the moniker for the counter-Islamic State mission in Iraq and Syria.
Pentagon Considers Plan to Train Fighters in Syria
Gordon Lubold / Wall Street Journal
(January 18, 2016) — The Pentagon is weighing a request from Turkish officials to help train and equip Sunni Arab fighters inside Syria as part of an effort to secure Turkey’s southern border, a long-sought goal of the Obama administration, according to US officials.
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