Russian strikes killed Syrian soldiers in eastern Syria, the Pentagon said Monday, responding to reports that coalition aircraft had hit government forces — and bolstering its case that Moscow’s warplanes are dangerously indiscriminate and imprecise in their targeting.
“We’re certain it was the Russians who did this today,” a military official said Monday. The assessment is based on radar tracks showing Russian aircraft above Ayyash, a town in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, at the time of the incident, the official explained Tuesday.
“We maintain exacting procedures and strict protocol to be precise in our strikes,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Monday afternoon. “We do not have any reason to target the Assad regime or the Syrian army; we are at war only with ISIS.”
Col. Steve Warren, spokesman in Baghdad for Operation Inherent Resolve, confirmed Monday morning that U.S. warplanes had conducted four strikes in Dayr Az Zawr province, but said they struck oil wells some 55 kilometers southeast of Ayyash, and were not aimed at people or vehicles.
“We have no indication any Syrian soldiers were near our strikes,” Warren said in a statement.
The Pentagon said Russia had conducted long-range bomber strikes into Syria that same day.
The Obama administration and U.S. military officials have long accused Russia of indiscriminately targeting civilians, moderate Syrian rebels (some trained and equipped by the U.S. government), and other groups that oppose Assad. They say Moscow is primarily focused on propping up the regime, not fulfilling its stated aim of going after the Islamic State.
In October alone, between 255 and 375 non-combatants died in at least 44 Russian strikes, according to a recent report from Airwars, a watchdog group.
“Russia’s strikes against the moderate opposition only bolster the Assad regime, whose brutality has helped to fuel the rise of ISIL,” Obama said in a Nov. 24 press conference with French President Francois Hollande. He called for “active Russian support for a ceasefire and a political transition away from Assad to a democratically elected government that can unite the Syrian people against terrorism.”
By contrast, U.S. officials say, coalition strikes are performed to high standards and precision. (Last week, Warren called the current campaign in Iraq “the most precise air campaign in the history of war.”) U.S. and coalition aircraft often return from missions still laden with weapons they dared not drop for fear of hitting civilians and other non-targets.
“We take significant steps in the targeting process to prevent collateral damage,” Davis said Wednesday.
The U.S. hardly has a perfect record. The military is currently finalizing its investigation of a “mistaken attack” by U.S. forces on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on Oct. 3.
But the White House and Pentagon are still pushing back against U.S. politicians and former officials who suggest that U.S. leaders stop “tying the hands of the military” by being too wary of hitting civilians. Critics pointed to a recent mission in which aircraft dropped leaflets warning oil-truck drivers to get away before bombing the 116 trucks.
On Nov. 19, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he’d consider changing the rules of engagement against ISIS.
“We’re prepared to do that,” he said. “We’ve reviewed them the way we review them all the time.”
The Obama administration has maintained a constant refrain of “Assad must go,” while President Obama insists a military ouster is not a sustainable solution. On Sunday night in a rare Oval Office address, Obama sought to reassure the country following the deadliest attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, in San Bernardino, Calif., but reaffirmed his strategy against ISIS.
“We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That’s what groups like ISIL want,” Obama said. “But they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.”
This story has been updated.