An emergency U.N. Security Council meeting was called and an already tenuous cease-fire agreement is under further strain after U.S.-led coalition bombers on Saturday killed nearly one hundred Syrian army soldiers who were battling Islamic State (ISIS) fighters near the Deir al-Zor airport in eastern Syria.
Early reporting indicated that between 62 and 90 Syrian troops may have been killed in the U.S.-led airstrikes. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group with contacts across Syria, cited sources at the airport saying at least 90 Syrian soldiers had been killed and 120 wounded. Meanwhile, Anti-War.com's Jason Ditz described the massacre as perhaps "the single biggest blunder of the entire US war in Syria."
"The latest US attack—this time on Syrian troops ostensibly surrounded by ISIS fighters—demonstrates once again why using war against terrorism fails. The inability and/or unwillingness to distinguish troops from other troops, or more often, troops from civilians, remains a hallmark of the US wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond."
—Phyllis Bennis, Institute for Policy StudiesA statement released by U.S. Central Command acknowledged that airstrikes had been carried out in the area claiming coalition aircraft believed they were targeting ISIS units, but said the bombing was "halted immediately when coalition officials were informed by Russian officials that it was possible the personnel and vehicles targeted were part of the Syrian military."
The mass-casualty bombing comes less than a week after the start of a cease fire brokered by the U.S. and Russia whose stated purpose was to allow aid convoys to reach besieged areas while also separating various rebel factions in hopes that further progress could be made towards longer-term political negotiations.
According to Ditz's analysis, the errant bombing and killing of 90 soldiers "during a ceasefire may not be the worst of the story, incredibly enough"—explaining:
Those troops had been defending the area from ISIS, who quickly overran what was left of the base’s defenses, and are now even closer to the Deir [Al-Zor] airport.
The airport has been one of the last major government holdouts in the Deir Ezzor capital, and at times the Syrian warplanes flying out of the airport were the only thing keeping ISIS from overrunning the entire eastern half of the country. The US airstrikes seriously softened up the defenses in the area, and might finally do what years of ISIS offensives couldn’t, put ISIS in control of the airport.
Experts who spoke to the New York Times also expressed worry about the diplomatic and on-the-ground implications of the attack:
Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst at the Wilson Center, said the episode was certain to make “an already complex situation more byzantine.” He said the strikes would “feed conspiracy theories that Washington is in league with ISIS,” as well as create a pretext for Mr. Assad to avoid his commitments under the cease-fire deal.
Mr. Miller added that the episode would create opportunities for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia “to blast the U.S. on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly,” the global meeting in New York starting this week.
In a statement from its foreign office, the Russian government reacted harshly to the U.S. attack, saying the airstrikes were "on the boundary between criminal negligence and direct connivance with Islamic State terrorists."
The statement continued, "If this air strike was the result of a targeting error, it is a direct consequence of the U.S. side's stubborn unwillingness to coordinate its action against terrorist groups on Syrian territory with Russia.
The accusation that the U.S. was intentionally helping ISIS by targeting Syrian Army troops received fierce rebuke from Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, who emerged from an emergency Security Council meeting late Saturday night, one demanded by Moscow, by calling Russia's stance on the incident "uniquely cynical and hypocritical."
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, meanwhile, said the U.S. airstrike has put "a very big question mark" over the future of the U.S. and Russian-brokered cease-fire agreement in Syria. Indicating the level of tensions inside the closed-door meeting, Churkin told reporters that in long career as a diplomat he had "never seen such an extraordinary display of American heavy-handedness as we are witnessing today."
And according to the Guardian:
[Churkin] said that if Power’s actions were any indication of Washington’s possible reaction then the cease-fire agreement is "in serious trouble" but expressed hope the US would convince Moscow it was serious about finding a political solution in Syria and fighting terrorism.
Churkin said the timing of the US airstrike was “frankly suspicious” as it came two days before the US and Russia were supposed under the ceasefire agreement to begin joint planning for air operations against Isis and the former Nusra front, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, deemed to be terrorist groups by both states.
In an email exchange with Common Dreams, foreign policy expert Phyllis Bennis, who directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, reacted to the latest developments in Syria by placing Saturday's bombing in the broader context of the post-9/11 era's so-called "Global War on Terror"—which fifteen years after the initial attacks by Al-Qaeda on U.S. soil shows no signs of waning.
"The problem with a mistake of this Himalayan proportions is that it will be extremely difficult in the aftermath to convince Syria that the US did not intentionally aid [ISIS]." —Juan Cole, Middle East historian"The latest US attack—this time on Syrian troops ostensibly surrounded by ISIS fighters—demonstrates once again why using war against terrorism fails," Bennis argues. "The inability and/or unwillingness to distinguish troops from other troops, or more often, troops from civilians, remains a hallmark of the US wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond."
Bennis says that "though unlikely," it remains "possible" that Saturday's attack on Syrian troops exposes a U.S. strategy of direct war against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. However, she says, "Far more likely, it is one more piece of evidence of the inability of the US military or any other to use war against terrorism and think it will work. As is always the case, whether the 'wrong' or the 'right' people are killed, the 'war on terror' continues to fail."
Writing for his site, Informed Comment, historian and foreign policy analyst Juan Cole said the killing of nearly 100 Syrian troops, in addition to the political implications vis-a-vis Russia, exposes the serious shortcomings of overal U.S. policy in Syria and the greater Middle East.
"Air strikes from 30,000 feet are always open to being inexact, and to producing civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure," Cole writes. "Moreover, the US is hostage to local informants for information on targets, and sometimes they turn out to be double agents or mentally fragile or have other reasons for delivering false intel to the US military."
He concluded, "The problem with a mistake of this Himalayan proportions is that it will be extremely difficult in the aftermath to convince Syria that the US did not intentionally aid [ISIS]."
And so what's the solution or pathway out of what continues to appear an intractable situation?
According to Bennis, the answer has long been the same.
"Only arms embargoes, negotiations and diplomacy have any chance to end this crisis," she said.