Russian and Syrian jets nearly hit U.S. forces in northern Syria on Tuesday when they attacked positions held by Syrian Democratic Forces, a US ally in the ongoing effort to expel the Islamic State from Syria, the top U.S. commander in Iraq and Syria said Wednesday.
The Russian and Syrian planes, apparently, had seen some ISIS forces recently move out of the area and hit the U.S. proxies thinking they were ISIS forces. The Syrian Arab force took casualties, but the Russian planes peeled off once their American counterparts used a long-established hotline to warn them they were bombing friendly forces. American advisory forces were fewer than five miles away, but were unharmed.
Russian Tu-22M3 bombers striking ISIS targets in Syria, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017
As Stripes reports, the targeting of the Syrian Arab Coalition in the hamlets to the south and east of al-Bab on Tuesday appeared unintentional and quickly ceased, once nearby U.S. troops alerted the Russians about which group had been hit, said Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of the Operation Inherent Resolve coalition. The Syrian Arab Coalition makes up about 60% of the Syrian Democratic Forces – the United States’ proxy force fighting the Islamic State group in Syria.
“I believe [the Russians and Syrians] thought [those villages] were held by [the Islamic State group], but who was actually on the ground were some of our Syrian Arab Coalition force,” Townsend told reporters at the Pentagon in a briefing from his headquarters in Baghdad. “As the regime and [Turkish forces] advanced on those villages, the [Islamic State group] fighters withdrew and the Syrian Arab Coalition fighters advanced into those villages.”
While Townsend said the Syrian Arab Coalition forces suffered casualties in the attacks, he did not say whether anyone was killed or how many fighters were injured.
As Foreign Policy adds, what happened today is a situation that U.S. commanders have been trying to avoid since Russia deployed dozens of aircraft to Syria in late 2015. Currently there are about 500 American troops are on the ground training Syrian Arab and Kurdish fighters in northern Syria in the runup to the assault on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, and the Russians have shown themselves to be indifferent over who, or what, they strike with their unguided bombs.
The jumbled mess of competing forces in and around al-Bab has increased the likelihood of mistakes or miscalculations. Turks, their Free Syrian Army allies, ISIS, Syrian regime forces, and the U.S.-backed Syrian Arab Coalition and Kurdish forces are “literally within hand grenade range of each other,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday. Al-Bab was liberated last week from the terrorist group by Turkish forces – backed by some 50 U.S. airstrikes – after months of fighting.
Townsend, who commands U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, said these groups are “bumping up against each other” around the city, adding “three armies and an enemy force have all converged within the same grid square, so it’s very difficult and complicated” to know just who is where.
“It’s the most complicated environment or situation I’ve been in in my entire life,” he said.
Townsend urged the Russians, Syrians, Turks and U.S.-backed forces to all focus on fighting the Islamic State group, because it threatens everyone inside Syria and elsewhere. “That’s what we should all keep our efforts focused on and not on fighting the [other] liberators accidentally – one another,” he said.
That said, the Russian and Syrian strikes did not endanger any American troops in the area. There are some 500 U.S. special operators working as advisers to anti-Islamic State forces in Syria. Some of the U.S. troops were within about five miles of the airstrikes Tuesday, Townsend said. After observing the attacks, the American troops alerted the coalition who contacted the Russians through standard communication lines that the two forces use to ensure flight safety over Syria.
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