September 2016 Deir ez-Zor air raid
|Part of the American-led intervention in Syria|
Deir ez-Zor (Syria)
|Date||17 September 2016|
|Location||Deir ez-Zor Airport, Deir ez-Zor, Syria (For a war map of the current situation around the Deir ez-Zor Airport, see here.)|
|Cause||Airstrikes by CJTF-OIR aircraft|
|Syria: 90–106 killed, 110 wounded|
Deir Ez Zor district is currently one of the few remaining Syrian Government strongholds in Eastern Syria. In May 2015, Islamic State (also referred to as IS, ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh) militants launched an offensive, capturing both Palmyra and the area surrounding Deir ez-Zor, and cutting off the remaining supply line to Deir ez-Zor. The city was then effectively under siege by ISIL, leaving supplies to be solely delivered by transport helicopters. ISIL attempted to stop the supplies by daily attacking the Deir ez-Zor Airbase. However, their attempts failed due to the presence of elite Republican Guards of the 104th Airborne Brigade led by Brigadier General Issam Zahreddine. The Syrian army and the civilians in the area that they control are resupplied via the Deir ez-Zor Airport. This is made possible by the Syrian government's control of the Tharda mountains, a nearby artillery base, and other areas near the airport since control of these areas prevents ISIS from attacking resupply aircraft flying into and out of the airport. For this reason, Deir ez-Zor Airport and its surrounding areas are considered by the Syrian government to be strategically crucial to its continued control of Deir ez-Zor. The Thardah mountains (Jabal Turdah in arabic) refers to a group of hills and mountains west and south-west of the Deir ez-Zor Airbase, on some of which there are set up defensive positions referred to as points. This range includes Thardah hill (point 1) in the south-east of the range, Kroum hill (tal Kroum) in the north of the range, a mountain (point 2) in between these last two hills that is also referred to as Thartah mountain, a hill (point 3) in the south-west of the range, and others. A pro-Syrian government news outlet reported that on 17 September, prior to the airstrike, the Syrian army was in control of Kroum hill and points 1 and 2.
Previously, in December 2015, the Syrian government made an accusation, rejected by the U.S., that United States forces killed 3 Syrian soldiers and wounded 13 others during a Sunday evening attack on a camp in Deir al-Zour province. The U.S. led coalition had been targeting Islamic State militants in Syria since September 2014 although it has never coordinated any attacks with the Syrian government, which it had been trying to overthrow. At the time, a week long U.S. and Russian brokered ceasefire had been in place for its fifth day and was less that 48 hours away from its completion, which, had its completion come to pass, would have resulted in the U.S. and Russia jointly creating and running, per the ceasefire agreement, "the Joint Implementation Group" - an intelligence sharing group that would have been dedicated to coordinating U.S. and Russian attacks against al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria.
The Coalition raid
On 17 September 2016, the U.S. Coalition bombed Syrian troops. The bombs hit Syrian Army positions on the Tharda Mountain and at a nearby artillery base. Russia and Syria reported that the attack was carried out at 5 p.m. by the U.S.-led coalition, without naming the countries involved, and that it killed 62 Syrian government soldiers and wounded 100. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the death toll to be 90, with 110 wounded. In late September, the pro-government Al Masdar News raised the death toll to 106. The New York Times was reportedly informed by an anonymous Centcom official that "the strike began in the early evening, when planes attacked a group of vehicles that American surveillance aircraft had been watching for several days" after which U.S. military intelligence concluded that the group, which reportedly included at least one tank, belonged to ISIS. This same official then reportedly said that "the attack went on for about 20 minutes, with the planes destroying the vehicles and gunning down dozens of people in the open desert."
The Russian Defence Ministry said the attack was conducted by four jets, including 2 A-10 (a single-seat aircraft operated solely by the U.S. military) and 2 F-16 close air support and ground attack aircraft and the U.S. Central Command stated that the attack was carried out by American, British, Danish, and Australian warplanes. The Royal Danish Air Force released a statement saying that two of its F-16's were involved in the airstrikes and the British released a statement saying that their armed Reaper drones also took part in the operation. Russia, which is in communication with the coalition via a special U.S.-Russia deconfliction hotline and an ally of the Syrian government, called the U.S. central command in Qatar but was unable to find the designated contact, who was, according to the U.S. Central Command, away from his desk at the time. The subsequent Russian call to the U.S. central command resulted in the airstrikes being called off "within minutes," according to a U.S. Central Command spokesman, who also said that “a good amount of strikes” had already taken place. An anonymous senior officer from the 123rd Regiment of the Syrian Arab Army (whose unit was reportedly one of those targeted) reportedly claimed that more than half of the Syrian army soldiers killed by the airstrikes died at points 1 and 2, which are right next to (and to the West of) the Deir ez-Zor airport, and that "the majority of the airstrikes were not conducted near the front-lines" [of where ISIS and the Syrian army were battling]. According to the pro-Syrian government outlet that conducted this interview, the airstrikes "took out" the Syrian army's defensive positions at points 1 and 2, points that had formed their last lines of defense of the airport, causing the Syrian army units fighting at the outskirts of Jabal Thardeh to retreat to defend these points and that one week later, ISIS had forced the Syrian army to completely withdraw from even these last two points.
Subsequent ISIL attack on the mountain
An Iranian military source said an ISIL ground attack was conducted seven minutes after the Coalition attack, which he, and later also the Syrian and Russian governments, took as an indication that the U.S. coalition had intended to aid ISIL capture the city. Pro-Syrian government outlets later asserted that this claim provided evidence of U.S.-ISIS collaboration.
Following the strikes, ISIL briefly captured the Tharda mountain. The mountain was seen as strategic as it looks over the government-held Deir ez-Zor military air base. By the end of the day, after heavy ground fighting combined with Russian and Syrian air-strikes that left over 38 ISIL fighters dead, the Syrian Army recaptured all of the positions they had lost on the mountain (including Tall Kroum). During the clashes, a Syrian MiG warplane was shot down by ISIL over the mountain and the pilot was killed. However, the next day, ISIL was once again in control of the mountain after the military withdrew, creating a serious threat to the airport's southern flank. Also, ISIL captured the Artillery Battalion (south of Deir ez-Zor Airport). In beginning of October 2016, The SAA recaptured Point 1 at Jabal Thardeh, paving the way to their most recent advances near the Panorama Checkpoint and Kroum Hill. The SAA also launched another attack that targeted Point 2 at Jabal Thardeh.
Diplomatic and media reactions
The attack triggered "a diplomatic firestorm", with Russia calling an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting in response of the incident, during which both the U.S. and Russian ambassadors chastised each other. Days later, on 19 September the Syrian government declared the ceasefire over effective at 7:00 p.m. (Damascus Time) and cited this U.S coalition's bombing at Deir ez-Zor as the reason. Shortly afterwards that same day, beginning sometime between 7:12 - 7:50 p.m. or at around 8 p.m., an aid convoy near Aleppo was attacked with the U.S. and its allies blaming the Syrian government for the attack, an accusation rejected by the Syrian government. The U.S. State Department later repeatedly cited the aid convoy attack as being the primary reason for the failure of the cessation of hostilities agreement as well as an important reason behind John Kerry's decision to end the U.S.'s bilateral Syrian peace talks with Russia. The Russian government, however, considered the Deir ez-Zor attack to be the key turning point in the breakdown of US-Russian bilateral talks.
The coalition asserted that the Deir ez-Zor bombing of Syrian troops was accidental while the Syrian and Russian governments said that they believed that the strikes were intentional which led to accusations, unequivocally rejected by the U.S. and its allies, that the coalition was acting as ISIS's airforce. That day, the U.S. military said in a statement that “coalition forces would not intentionally strike a known Syrian military unit” while the Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman was quoted as saying that “after today’s attack on the Syrian army, we come to the terrible conclusion that the White House is defending the Islamic State.” The Syrian government released a statement saying that that the air strikes were "conclusive evidence" of its long held assertion that the US and its allies were supporting ISIS and other jihadist groups as part of an effort to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian government's accusation that the U.S. and its allies had bombed Syrian forces to support the Islamic State was circulated widely and taken seriously by pro-government Syrian news outlets and to various extents among the outlets of some of Syria's allies, while very few media outlets run from the coalition's member states took the accusations seriously, largely considering them to be conspiracy theories. Both the Russian and Syrian governments considered this airstrike to be "proof" that the U.S. was sympathetic to ISIS, an accusation that they would later repeatedly try to justify by presenting what they considered to be evidence. This claimed evidence can be exemplified by the Russian U.N. permanent representative's statements, as reported by a pro-Syrian government outlet, during the special U.N. security council meeting, which the U.S. envoy to the U.N. later referred to as "a stunt". During the security council meeting, the Russian representative stated that "Russia believes the United States attack on the Syrian Army was not a mistake," declared that the "US Airstrike was intended to disrupt the ceasefire process and to drive the situation out of control," and suggested that "the airstrike has been conducted in order to derail the operation of the Joint Implementation Group and actually prevent it from being set in motion." He went on to ask accusatory questions such as why the U.S. would suddenly want to help the Syrian Army after years of doing nothing and why the U.S. did nothing when ISIS took Palmyra. The timing of ISIS's subsequent attack on the Syrian troops that reportedly occurred 7 minutes after the air strikes is also frequently claimed by pro-Syrian government outlets to be evidence of the U.S. government helping ISIS. All levels of the Russian and Syrian governments would continue to repeatedly refer to this airstrike. For instance, even the Russian president Putin, nearly a month after the attack, said in an interview with French television:
- Our American colleagues told us that this airstrike was made in error. This error cost the lives of 80 people and, also just coincidence, perhaps, ISIS took the offensive immediately afterwards. At the same time, lower down the ranks, at the operations level, one of the American military service personnel said quite frankly that they spent several days preparing this strike. How could they make an error if they were several days in preparation? This is how our ceasefire agreement ended up broken. Who broke the agreement? Was it us? No.
Regardless of their merits or validity, the Syrian and Russian accusations had value as propaganda and also had strategic consequences. On 6 October 2016, after Russia had recently deployed additional missile defense systems to Syria and after U.S. media indications that the coalition may attack the Syrian government, a Russian military spokesman gave a strong warning to the U.S. against attacking the Syrian military. In reference to the Deir ez-Zor attack, the spokesman said that "we have taken all the necessary measures to prevent any such 'mistakes' with regard to Russian servicemen and military facilities in Syria" and he further warned the U.S. coalition that in case of a perceived coalition threat to the Syrian military, the "Russian air defense missile crews will unlikely have time to clarify via the hotline the exact flight programme of the missiles or the ownership of their carriers."
- United States: Initially, the US Armed Forces did not outright admit that Coalition planes hit Syrian troops, but later the U.S.-led Coalition admitted their planes carried out the attack. The US stated they halted the strikes as soon as they became aware of the Syrian Army presence and regretted the unintentional loss of life.
- Australia: Australia's Department of Defence acknowledged its participation "among a number of international aircraft". It said it would "never intentionally target a known Syrian military unit or actively support Daesh (ISIS)" and offered its condolences.
- Denmark: Denmark's Ministry of Defence confirmed in a statement that 2 F-16s from the Royal Danish Air Force had participated in coalition airstrikes in Deir ez-Zor. Airstrikes were immediately stopped after it was revealed that they hit Syrian Army forces and the Defence Ministry "regretted" that the bombings hit anti-ISIL forces.
- UK: The United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence said in a statement it "can confirm that the UK participated in the recent coalition air strike ... fully co-operating with the coalition investigation."
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Putin also detailed his version of the breakdown of the long-negotiated joint operation between Washington and Moscow in Syria, claiming the key turning point was the September 16 US-led coalition strike on a Syrian army unit, which the Pentagon maintains was accident. "Our American colleagues told us that this airstrike was made in error. This error cost the lives of 80 people and, also just coincidence, perhaps, ISIS took the offensive immediately afterwards. At the same time, lower down the ranks, at the operations level, one of the American military service personnel said quite frankly that they spent several days preparing this strike. How could they make an error if they were several days in preparation?" said Putin. "This is how our ceasefire agreement ended up broken. Who broke the agreement? Was it us? No." Several western powers have since blamed Russia for what they claim was a retaliatory strike on a UN convoy on September 20.
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