Pindo strikes on Syrian troops: Report data contradicts ‘mistake’ claims
Gareth Porter, Middle East Eye, Dec 6 2016
The summary report on an investigation into Pindosi and allied air strikes on Syrian government troops has revealed irregularities in decision-making consistent with a deliberate targeting of Syrian forces. The report released by CENTCOM on Nov 29 shows that senior USAF officers at the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at al-Udeid Airbase in Qatar, who were responsible for the decision to carry out the September airstrike at Deir Ezzor:
- misled the Russians about where Pindostan intended to strike, so Russia could not warn that it was targeting Syrian troops
- ignored information and intelligence analysis warning that the positions to be struck were Syrian government rather than Daesh
- shifted abruptly from a deliberate targeting process to an immediate strike in violation of normal USAF procedures
Last week Brig-Gen R Coe, the lead Pindo boxtop on the investigating team, told reporters that US air strikes in Deir Ezzor on Sep 17, which killed at least 62 and possibly more than 100 Syrian army troops, were the unintentional result of “human error.” The report itself says that the investigators found “no evidence of misconduct,” but it is highly critical of the decision process and does not offer any explanations for that series of irregularities. The strikes against two Syrian army positions were the pivotal event in the breakdown of the Syrian ceasefire agreement reached between Pindostan and Russia in September. Both Moscow and Damascus denounced the strikes as a deliberate move by the Obama administration to support Daesh and cited the attacks as the reason for declaring an end to the ceasefire on Sep 19. Lt-Gen J L Harrigan, commander of USAF CENTCOM and of the CAOC, who was the central figure in all the decisions, apparently had a motive for a strike against Syrian forces. Ashtray Carter had strongly opposed a provision in the Pindo-Russian ceasefire agreement that would have established a Pindo-Russian “joint integration centre” to coordinate air strikes against both Daesh and Nusra, which was to become active after seven days of effective ceasefire. But Obama supported Jackass Kerry’s position and overrode Pentagon objections. In a press briefing on Sep 13, Harrigan stated:
My readiness to join such a joint operation with the Russians is going to depend on what the plan ends up being. It would be premature to say we’re going to jump right into it. And I’m not saying yes or no. I’m saying we’ve got work to do to understand what the plan is going to look like.
Three days later, Harrigan’s command sent a drone to investigate a site 3 km south-west of Deir Ezzor airfield. It showed images of a tunnel entrance, two tents and 14 adult males, according to the investigation report. That move led to a swiftly moving decision process that resulted in the air strike against two Syrian army bases the following day. The investigation report summary reveals that the CAOC sent misleading information to the Russians before the strike about the location of the targets. The Russians were informed that the targets were 9 km south of Deir Ezzor airfield. They were actually only 3 km and 6 km from that airfield, respectively, according to the summary of its findings. Brig-Gen Coe, who briefed reporters on the team’s report, acknowledged that the misleading information had prevented the Russians from intervening to stop the strike, telling reporters:
Had we told them accurately, they would have warned us.
Coe said that the provision of that misleading information to the Russians before the strike was “unintentional.” However, neither he nor the redacted summary of the report offered any explanation as to how such misleading information could have been passed to the Russians unintentionally. From its initial position above the site 3 km from the airfield, the drone followed a vehicle to two other positions nearby, both of which also had tunnels as well as “defensive fighting positions” including tanks and APCs. All those characteristics would have been consistent with a Syrian Army position, especially in Deir Ezzor. At the time the Syrian Army was fighting from fixed defensive positions to prevent the Deir Ezzor airport, the lifeline for the entire government-held portion of the city, from being overrun. Nevertheless, those positions were quickly identified as belonging to Daesh, primarily because of the clothing worn by the personnel at the sites. The report describes the personnel at the two sites as dressed in “a mix of traditional wear, civilian attire and military style clothing that lacked uniformity.” But a former Pindosi intelligence analyst with long experience in image interpretation in combat situations told MEE:
The claim that Daesh could be distinguished from SAA troops on the basis of their clothing sounds completely bogus. I’ve seen images of Syrian Republican Guards in the field who were not wearing regular uniforms, or were dressed in various colours.
The report also mentions a series of what it calls “breakdowns” regarding intelligence reporting and analysis, (as a result of which, concerns) on the identification of the positions (of Daesh were) allegedly never seen by those making the decisions on targeting. The regional station belonging to the USAF’s Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) is the main source of USAF analysis of intelligence from aerial surveillance. It responded to the initial identification of the positions as belonging to Daesh by raising “concerns” that the ground force in question could not have belonged to them. But those concerns never reached Harrigan or his staff, according to the report. Thirty minutes before the strike was scheduled, someone called into the CAOC to report a “possible flag” in one of two target areas. The call, which contradicted the accepted identification based on the absence of flags at the site, “went unacknowledged”, according to the report. The report also reveals that a map that was available at the CAOC, prepared by an intelligence agency whose identity is redacted, contradicted the classified map showing areas occupied by the SAA and Daesh in the vicinity of the Deir Ezzor airfield. The classified map supported the decision to proceed with the strike. But the officials involved in targeting decisions denied any knowledge of another map.
The report and Coe’s press briefing both explained the conclusion that the positions were under Daesh control as a result of “confirmation bias,” which means that people seek and accept information that confirms their existing biases. But citing that concept implies that those responsible for the strike began with an interest in finding evidence to justify an action they already wanted to take. The report is critical of the discussion on the identification issue within CAOC for focusing only on “what could be seen on the ground rather than what we knew about the ground situation.” That language clearly suggests that Harrigan and his staff were ignoring basic facts about the positions of the SAA and Daesh in the area that were well known to USAF intelligence. Journalist Elijah Magnier of the Kuwait daily newspaper al-Rai has followed the struggle between the SAA and Daesh for control of Deir Ezzor closely for years. He told MEE in an email that at the time of the air strike the defence of the airport depended entirely on four interconnected SAA positions on the Thardeh mountain chain. Magnier said Daesh had been carrying out “daily attacks” on Deir Ezzor airport prior to the Pindo airstrikes but had failed, mainly because of the higher elevation of the four Syrian bases in relation to the positions occupied by Daesh further south. Fabrice Balanche, a leading French expert on Syria who is now at WINEP, said in an interview with MEE that the SAA had maintained continuous control over the base at Thardeh mountain from Mar 2016 until the Pindo airstrikes, which then resulted in Daesh gaining control of it.
The report faults those who made the decisions on the targeting of the strike for failing to follow normal USAF procedures. Originally, the CAOC had initiated a process called “Deliberate Targeting” which is used for fixed targets and requires extensive and time-consuming work to ensure the accuracy of the intelligence on the targets, according to the report. But that had been changed abruptly to “Dynamic Targeting,” which involves “fleeting targets,” those that are either moving or about to move, for which intelligence requirements are less stringent. The authors of the report found that change to be improper, given that the sites being targeted were clearly identified as defensive positions and could not justify such a switch to a hastily-prepared strike. But again it offers no explanation as to why. The report revealed more than previous investigations into Pindo military operations that resulted in embarrassment. This can be explained by the role of its co-author, whose identity was redacted as “foreign government information.” He or she is most likely a general belonging to one of the other three members of the “Operation Inherent Resolve” coalition whose planes participated in the Deir Ezzor strike, which would narrow it down to Britain, Denmark or Australia. The two co-authors also went through lengthy negotiations to resolve the differences in the summary report. This is indicated by the repeated postponement of the report’s release, which was originally planned for two weeks earlier, according to sources at CENTCOM. As a result, the report was certainly less pointed in describing the decision-making than the unidentified co-author would have preferred. The report observes:
It is unclear who has the responsibility/authority to decide between continuing deliberate target development versus conducting a dynamic strike.
However, such decisions could only have been made with the approval of the commander of CAOC, Lt-Gen Harrigan, who is also commander of USAF CENTCOM. The decision to avoid identifying Harrigan as responsible for that decision may be related to the fact he was also the recipient of the report.