- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
On Saturday, about 30 minutes after precision bombs from an armada of American, British, Danish, and Australian warplanes began smashing into a large group of Islamic State fighters gathered near Deir el-Zour, Syria, the phone rang.
But there was a problem. No one at the operations center for the U.S.-led coalition could figure out what the Russian officer on the other end of the line was on about.
So he hung up, and called back.
By time the Russian officer found his designated contact — who was away from his desk — and explained that the coalition was actually hitting a Syrian army unit, “a good amount of strikes” had already taken place, U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. John Thomas told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday.
U.S. commanders called off the strike within minutes, but the damage had been done. The incident Saturday killed an estimated 60 Syrian soldiers in what was the coalition’s first inadvertent attack on Syrian troops in the two-year air war. But it came at a tense time, as the week-long ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia was less than 48 hours from completion.
Then all hell broke loose. During those 48 hours, the Russian foreign ministry accused the Pentagon of providing direct support for ISIS; the Syrian military broke the ceasefire; barrel bombs began falling again on Aleppo; and Syrian, and possibly Russian, aircraft obliterated a U.N. aid convoy near Aleppo, killing 12 aid workers and destroying about 20 trucks.
The United States had been planning the strike for two to three days, with the target under surveillance during that time, Thomas said Tuesday. Some reports have emerged that the Syrians weren’t wearing uniforms, and weren’t in the place that the coalition expected them to be, but defense officials wouldn’t comment on the particulars.
The U.S. military is now investigating the strike on the Syrian troops, and there is no timeline for its conclusion, U.S. defense officials said.
With the ceasefire in tatters, so too are any plans for the Americans and Russians to begin sharing operational information on ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al Sham (formerly known as Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s franchise in Syria) targets.
“We don’t move forward until the diplomats tell us to do that,” Thomas said, adding, “we’re waiting to see what we’re asked to do, but I don’t think it’s a situation where we are anticipating any great progress any time soon.”
Speaking at a conference in Washington Tuesday, another top U.S. military official said that any cooperation with the Russians is off, at least for the time being. Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, head of the Air Combat Command, told reporters that “for the foreseeable future … we will be in deconfliction mode and not in the joint operations” mode with the Russians.
Photo Credit: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images