WASHINGTON — Russian and Syrian regime warplanes bombed U.S.-backed militia fighters in small villages near al-Bab, a northern Syrian city recently recaptured from the Islamic State group, the top U.S. commander in Iraq and Syria said Wednesday.
The targeting of the Syrian Arab Coalition in the hamlets to the south and east of al-Bab on Tuesday appeared unintentional and quickly ceased, once nearby U.S. troops alerted the Russians about which group had been hit, said Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of the Operation Inherent Resolve coalition. The Syrian Arab Coalition makes up about 60 percent of the Syrian Democratic Forces – the United States’ proxy force fighting the Islamic State group in Syria.
“I believe [the Russians and Syrians] thought [those villages] were held by [the Islamic State group], but who was actually on the ground were some of our Syrian Arab Coalition force,” Townsend told reporters at the Pentagon in a briefing from his headquarters in Baghdad. “As the regime and [Turkish forces] advanced on those villages, the [Islamic State group] fighters withdrew and the Syrian Arab Coalition fighters advanced into those villages.”
Townsend said the Syrian Arab Coalition forces suffered casualties in the attacks, but he did not say whether anyone was killed or how many fighters were injured.
The apparent mix-up highlights the complicated fight in Syria. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have been battling rebel groups for nearly six years and since September 2015 have been backed by Russian air power. Since 2014, U.S.-backed forces – and more recently Turkish military forces – have been targeting the Islamic State group, which has steadily ceded ground across northern and eastern Syria.
Al-Bab was liberated last week from the terrorist group by Turkish forces -- backed by some 50 U.S. airstrikes -- after months of fighting. It is near al-Bab where all of the major military forces fighting in Syria have converged “within hand grenade range of one another,” Townsend said Wednesday.
“It’s the most complicated environment or situation I’ve been in in my entire life,” he said.
Townsend urged the Russians, Syrians, Turks and U.S.-backed forces to all focus on fighting the Islamic State group, because it threatens everyone inside Syria and elsewhere.
“That’s what we should all keep our efforts focused on and not on fighting the [other] liberators accidentally – one another,” he said.
The Russian and Syrian strikes did not endanger any American troops in the area. There are some 500 U.S. special operators working as advisers to anti-Islamic State forces in Syria. Some of the U.S. troops were within about five miles of the airstrikes Tuesday, Townsend said.
After observing the attacks, the American troops alerted the coalition who contacted the Russians through standard communication lines that the two forces use to ensure flight safety over Syria.
“The Russians acknowledged and stopped bombing there,” Townsend said. “We used that mechanism and it worked.”
It is not the first time the communication line, which officials have said is used daily to ensure Russian and coalition warplanes maintain safe distances in Syria, has been needed to stop the wrong target from being bombed.
Russia blamed a U.S. airstrike near Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria for the deaths of more than 60 Syrian regime forces in September. Russian officials contacted the coalition using the communication line, but they did not immediately report that Syrian troops had been hit. The Russians later informed the coalition that it had bombed Syrian forces and the attack was halted.
Following an investigation, the United States announced in November that it thought it had been targeting Islamic State militants in the airstrikes.