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Investigation: 'Human Errors' at Fault in Deadly U.S. Airstrike in Syria

An investigation found “unintentional human errors” led the U.S. and coalition partners to conduct deadly airstrikes in Syria earlier this fall.
Image: Air strikes in Syria
A U.S. fighter jet flies over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes in Syria against ISIS targets in Syria in 2014.Senior Airman Matthew Bruch / U.S. Air Force via AP file

A series of “unintentional human errors” led the U.S. and other coalition partners to conduct a massive airstikes against a group of unidentified individuals in Syria earlier this fall, a U.S. Central Command investigation released Tuesday found.

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.

U.S. 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.

Related: U.S.-Led Airstrikes May Have Hit Syrian Troops; Russia Says 62 Dead

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.

Drones and intelligence assets watched the vehicle arrive at a camp and then identified it as an ISIS area.

He explained that once the vehicle was labeled as ISIS early on, that “colored” future understanding and further identification of people on the ground, calling this “confirmation bias” a contributing factor to striking a non-ISIS target.

Smoke billows following a reported air strike by Syrian government forces in a rebel-held area of Daraa, in southern Syria.MOHAMAD ABAZEED / AFP - Getty Images

During that two-day period that the coalition watched the area there were numerous shift changes and the bad information was passed from shift to shift with only one intelligence analyst questioning it — someone who warned that the individuals on the ground could not possibly be ISIS.

Coe said that 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. But, amidst other reports that they had commandeered a Syrian regime tank a few days prior in an area not too far away, the target engagement authority approved the strike.

That day, for the first time ever, 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 they “believe more than 15” people were actually killed. However, they could not go to the site and had to rely on overhead surveillance only, which only confirmed 15.

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.”