A U.S. drone struck and killed at least 18 members of an allied Syrian force this week, the Pentagon said, in the worst friendly-fire incident of the war against the Islamic State.
The strike Tuesday south of Tabqa, a strategic town in northern Syria, deepens questions about targeting methods used in the ongoing American air campaign over Iraq and Syria, which activists allege has resulted in a surge in civilian deaths this year.
The U.S.-led coalition said this week’s incident occurred after Syrian forces erroneously identified another allied unit as a group of Islamic State fighters.
The incident comes a week after the Trump administration, promising a tough stance on a range of foreign-policy issues, launched a barrage of ship-borne cruise missiles against a Syrian government air base in retaliation for a deadly chemical attack on Syrian civilians.
The assault using standoff weapons against a Syrian military facility, the first direct U.S. attack on a Syrian government target since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, appeared to be a momentary deviation from the campaign the United States and its Syrian allies are waging to defeat the Islamic State.
According to a U.S. official with knowledge of the accidental strike, a series of missteps contributed to the errant strike.
First, an SDF unit operating close to Islamic State lines incorrectly reported its own location to the U.S.-led coalition, the official said. Typically, friendly forces share their locations with the United States to keep themselves safe from foreign air power.
Then, a separate SDF unit, which spotted the first unit from afar, mistakenly reported its fellow SDF fighters to be Islamic State elements, requesting an airstrike on their location.
Armed with what American officials believed were coordinates for a legitimate target, the drone then conducted the attack, with deadly results.
The strike occurred at night, and the SDF units did not have night-vision gear, the official said.
The Pentagon has struggled in recent weeks to explain why there has been a surge of reported civilian casualties in its air campaign against the Islamic State. Officials say the principal cause is that the fight against the Islamic State is entering a new, more intense phase. But activists have wondered whether changes to the military’s approvals process for strikes have contributed.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Missy Ryan