U.S.-led Coalition Airstrikes Mistakenly Hit Syrian Military Base

Published: December 7, 2015

Update (12/7/15, 8:45pm EST): According to the New York Times, an unnamed U.S. official came closer to directly implicating Russia in the airstrike on regime forces near Ayyash, stating: “We’ve got a radar track showing a Backfire bomber flying directly over the town that the Syrians named a few minutes before the first claims that we killed some Syrian troops.” The Backfire (TU-22M) is a Cold War-era Russian fighter jet, many of which were refurbished in 2014 for use in Russia’s expanding global military operations. The aircraft were first used in Russia’s operations Syria last month.

On Sunday, December 6 an airstrike reportedly hit al-Sa’eqa Syrian military base near the town of Ayyash in Deir Ezzor province, killing as many as four soldiers and damaging buildings and vehicles. If confirmed this would be notable as the first airstrike against a regime military installation in the course of the nearly 5-year conflict.* The Syrian regime was the sole party using airpower in Syria for much of the conflict. Syrian airspace has recently become more crowded with Russia flying air raids in support of the Syrian regime, and the U.S.-led international coalition, which has been insistent that it is only targeting ISIS and not the Syrian regime.

Location of reported U.S. airstrike that mistakenly hit a Syrian military base in Deir Ezzor on Sunday

Location of reported U.S. airstrike that mistakenly hit a Syrian military base in Deir Ezzor on Sunday

Initial reports from both pro-opposition and pro-regime sources suggest that the U.S.-led Coalition was behind the attack. Pro-opposition sources stated that the attack was likely a mistake, while the pro-regime source hinted that perhaps it was intentional. A spokesman for the U.S.-led Coalition denied that the coalition was responsible via Twitter: “No coalition strikes within 55km of claimed incident on Syrian base in #DeirEzzor. Reports of coalition involvement are false.” An unnamed US official suggested that Russia may have targeted the area on Sunday, in an apparent attempt to shift blame. The Syrian government condemned the attacks, and wrote letters to the UN Security Council and Secretary General calling for immediately action to prevent such an incident from happening again.

There are reportedly ongoing clashes in the area between ISIS and pro-regime forces, and airstrikes by both the Russian and U.S.-led Coalition air forces are targeting ISIS in other areas of Deir Ezzor. The U.S. does not coordinate with Russia or the Syrian regime on its operations in Syria, although there is a basic deconfliction mechanism in place with Russia to prevent any unintended run-ins as both countries operate in Syrian airspace.

For the moment there is little to indicate that this incident will have any serious fallout or that the U.S. will even acknowledge the errant air strike. We will update this post with any further developments as they occur.

* This is with the caveat that Israel has intervened several times, with airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets, primarily weapons convoys. One or more of these incidents may have hit Syrian military targets including the Jamraya chemical research facility and possibly targets near Damascus International Airport, but the details of these strikes remain unconfirmed, and the Syrian military was never the primary target.