Tag Archives: special forces Syria

A Humane Bombing Campaign? the Baghuz Strike

In the last days of the battle against the Islamic State in Syria, when members of the once-fierce caliphate were cornered in a dirt field next to a town called Baghuz, a U.S. military drone circled high overhead, hunting for military targets. But it saw only a large crowd of women and children huddled against a river bank. Without warning, an American F-15E attack jet streaked across the drone’s high-definition field of vision and dropped a 500-pound bomb on the crowd, swallowing it in a shuddering blast. As the smoke cleared, a few people stumbled away in search of cover. Then a jet tracking them dropped one 2,000-pound bomb, then another, killing most of the survivors.

It was March 18, 2019. At the U.S. military’s busy Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, uniformed personnel watching the live drone footage looked on in stunned disbelief, according to one officer who was there. “Who dropped that?” a confused analyst typed on a secure chat system being used by those monitoring the drone, two people who reviewed the chat log recalled. Another responded, “We just dropped on 50 women and children.”

The Baghuz strike was one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war against the Islamic State, but it has never been publicly acknowledged by the U.S. military. The details, reported by the New York Times on November 13, 2021, show that the death toll was almost immediately apparent to military officials. A legal officer flagged the strike as a possible war crime that required an investigation. But at nearly every step, the military made moves that concealed the catastrophic strike. The death toll was downplayed. Reports were delayed, sanitized and classified. United States-led coalition forces bulldozed the blast site. And top leaders were not notified.

The Defense Department’s independent inspector general began an inquiry, but the report containing its findings was stalled and stripped of any mention of the strike. “Leadership just seemed so set on burying this. No one wanted anything to do with it,” said Gene Tate,  a former Navy officer who had worked for years as a civilian analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Counterterrorism Center before moving to the inspector general’s office….

The details of the strikes were pieced together by The New York Times over months from confidential documents and descriptions of classified reports, as well as interviews with personnel directly involved, and officials with top secret security clearances who discussed the incident on the condition that they not be named. The Times investigation found that the bombing had been called in by a classified American special operations unit, Task Force 9, which was in charge of ground operations in Syria. The task force operated in such secrecy that at times it did not inform even its own military partners of its actions. In the case of the Baghuz bombing, the American Air Force command in Qatar had no idea the strike was coming, an officer who served at the command center said.

The only assessment done immediately after the strike was performed by the same ground unit that ordered the strike. It determined that the bombing was lawful because it killed only a small number of civilians while targeting Islamic State fighters in an attempt to protect coalition forces, the command said. Therefore no formal war crime notification, criminal investigation or disciplinary action was warranted, it said, adding that the other deaths were accidental.

But the Air Force lawyer, Lt. Col. Dean W. Korsak, believed he had witnessed possible war crimes and repeatedly pressed his leadership and Air Force criminal investigators to act. When they did not, he alerted the Defense Department’s independent inspector general. Two years after the strike, seeing no evidence that the watchdog agency was taking action, Colonel Korsak emailed the Senate Armed Services Committee, telling its staff that he had top secret material to discuss and adding, “I’m putting myself at great risk of military retaliation for sending this.”..

The United States portrayed the air war against the Islamic State as the most precise and humane bombing campaign in its history. The military said every report of civilian casualties was investigated and the findings reported publicly, creating what the military called a model of accountability. The details suggest that while the military put strict rules in place to protect civilians, the Special Operations task force 9 repeatedly used other rules to skirt them. The military teams counting casualties rarely had the time, resources or incentive to do accurate work. And troops rarely faced repercussions when they caused civilian deaths.

On the ground, Task Force 9 coordinated offensives and airstrikes. The unit included soldiers from the 5th Special Forces Group and the Army’s elite commando team Delta Force, several officials said. Over time, some officials overseeing the air campaign began to believe that the task force was systematically circumventing the safeguards created to limit civilian deaths. The process was supposed to run through several checks and balances. Drones with high-definition cameras studied potential targets, sometimes for days or weeks. Analysts pored over intelligence data to differentiate combatants from civilians. And military lawyers were embedded with strike teams to ensure that targeting complied with the law of armed conflict.  But there was a quick and easy way to skip much of that oversight: claiming imminent danger….By late 2018, about 80 percent of all airstrikes Task Force 9 was calling in claimed self-defense, according to an Air Force officer who reviewed the strikes. The rules allowed U.S. troops and local allies to invoke it when facing not just direct enemy fire, but anyone displaying “hostile intent,”… Under that definition, something as mundane as a car driving miles from friendly forces could in some cases be targeted…..

The aftermath of that approach was plain to see. A number of Syrian towns, including the regional capital, Raqqa, were reduced to little more than rubble. Human rights organizations reported that the coalition caused thousands of civilian deaths during the war. Hundreds of military assessment reports examined by The Times show the task force was implicated in nearly one in five coalition civilian casualty incidents in the region…Publicly, the coalition insisted the numbers were much lower. Privately, it became overwhelmed by the volume of civilian casualty claims reported by locals, humanitarian groups and the news media, and a backlog of civilian casualty assessment reports sat unexamined for months, two people who compiled the reports said…..

Excerpts from How the U.S. Hid an Airstrike That Killed Dozens of Civilians in Syria, NY Times, Nov. 13, 2021

The Hornet’s Nest in Syria

Tensions between Russia and the United States are coming to a head over the civil war in Syria. Washington has suspended bilateral talks with Russia to end the five-year old war. Moscow has suspended an agreement to destroy 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium that was reached during the year 2000, using especially harsh rhetoric. Meanwhile, Syrian regime forces—with the backing of Russian airpower—are continuing to mount a fierce attack on the partially rebel-held city of Aleppo with Washington seemingly powerless to influence events on the ground….Among the four options that may be under consideration [in the United States] are a no-fly-zone, safe zones, attacking the Syrian air force and arming the Syrian rebels with additional weaponry. But each option carries with it significant risk of escalation or blowback.
While the United States has the capability to defeat Russian and Syrian regime air forces and air defenses, which is necessary to establish a no-fly zone or safe-zone, or to destroy the regime’s airpower, there are several risks from a legal and military standpoint. The legal problem comes from the fact that the United States is not technically at war with the Syria, nor is there a UN resolution authorizing American forces to operate inside that nation… [On the contrary] Russia is invited in by the legitimate regime.

A no-fly zone or safe zone would require U.S. combat aircraft to intercept and possibly shoot down Russian and Syrian warplanes entering into the area designated by Washington and its allies…. [But] It is highly unlikely that any U.S. President would be willing to risk war against a nuclear-armed power with only four months left in office in a conflict with few—if any—vital American interests at stake. The Russians know that and might not be willing to back down in the event of an air-to-air confrontation with American forces because too much national prestige—and even Mr. Putin’s personal prestige—would be on the line. Thus, such an encounter could escalate in unpredictable ways…

A worse option still would be for the U.S. military to attack the Syrian air force and its bases directly since it would an overt act of war against Syria—even more so than a no-fly or safe zone. As Secretary Kerry pointed out, without a U.N. Security Council resolution, the United States does not have legal grounds to go to war. But moreover, the military difficulties with directly attacking Syrian forces are more problematic.

The United States Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps could easily annihilate Syrian and even Russian air defenses—and airpower—inside Syria. Moscow—even with the fearsome capabilities of its S-400 air and missile defense system—is not able to defeat the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of stealthy Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors, which are able to fly inside zones protected by those system and defeat them. In fact, defeating advanced air defenses is one of the Raptor’s primary missions. Nor would Russian Su-30SM or Su-35S Flankers survive long against the Raptor, which was specifically designed to counter advanced next-generation Soviet fighters that ultimately never materialized….

[But] Russia might not limit its retaliation to just American and NATO forces in Syria. Given Moscow’s arsenal of Kaliber-NK cruise missiles and long-range bombers and submarines, the Kremlin has options to strike back across a huge geographic range. It is not outside realm of the possible that Russia would hit back at U.S. bases in Qatar, United Arab Emirates or Turkey using long-range precision-guided cruise missiles. The Russian Black Sea fleet and the Caspian Sea flotilla can easily hit such targets. Then there is Moscow’s formidable bomber fleet which can target the continental United States itself….

It might be prudent to exercise restraint before launching a new war—against a nuclear-armed power—that the American people don’t necessarily want to fight. That’s especially true in a conflict where the lines are blurry and there are no clear-cut good guys—where even so-called “moderate” rebels backed by the U.S. government are beheading children.  Under such circumstances, the best policy for the United States might simply be to leave well enough alone—there is simply no need to stick our fingers into yet another hornet’s nest.

Excerpts from Dave Majumdar, Why the United States Should Exercise Restraint Before Launching A New War in Syria, National Interest, Oct. 3, 2016

The Genius Puppetry behind the Syrian War

By most accounts, America’s efforts to covertly train and supply moderate rebels in Syria aren’t going so well. Apart from the obvious (Assad is still firmly entrenched in power and continuing to receive ever-growing external support),The New York Times recently reported that some arms provided by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Saudi Arabia haven’t quite reached their intended targets. According to the report, some individuals in Jordan’s intelligence bureau — ostensibly partnering to funnel weapons to Assad’s opponents — stole weapons destined for U.S.-backed rebels and instead sold them on the black market…..

American involvement in Syria comes in two main flavors. The first is a limited covert operation to support moderate rebels in their quest to unseat Assad. The second is an overt military campaign to combat ISIL. .

Deliberations over what the United States ought to do militarily in Syria began as early as 2012. The first rebels trained, funded, and armed by the CIA — a small “50-man cell” of fighters — were reported to have arrived in the fall of 2013, a few months after Obama gave the green light. Since then, America’s CIA covert operation against the Syrian regime, known as Timber Sycamore, has grown substantially. In 2014, reports suggested that the United States was “ramping up” its support to the rebels through the provision of TOW anti-tank guided missiles. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that America wasn’t acting alone. Timber Sycamore had become a joint effort with Saudi Arabia: The Saudis provided cash and arms, while the Americans provided training.

To date, efforts to replace Assad or bring him to the negotiating table haven’t succeeded….[and]America’s efforts to replace Assad are further complicated by a parallel but distinct effort to degrade and destroy ISIL…

Covert intervention allows major powers to “back stage” their role. As a result, any escalatory incidents or clashes can be obscured from the “audience” (i.e. domestic publics and third party states), which preserves face-saving ways to de-escalate. “Back-staging” outside meddling can protect the “front stage” performance of a localized war with limited geopolitical stakes and the potential for diplomatic resolution. The CIA’s Timber Sycamore program embodies this logic in key respects. By rejecting an overt and acknowledged relationship with Syrian rebel groups, the Obama White House has retained greater flexibility to tweak the program as the war evolves. Even relatively porous secrecy may help to evade the daily media reporting, public justifications, and regular congressional involvement that so often accompany overt programs. Moreover, by embracing a “back stage” role in Syria, the United States has avoided a naked geopolitical challenge to other states. Doing so reduces the chances of a public diplomatic crisis should American-supplied weaponry advertently or inadvertently be used in a clash with, say, Iranian personnel in Syria. Russia’s “front stage” air intervention and American overt air strikes against ISIL only strengthens this limited war logic. With Russian and American pilots in the skies, keeping the American program against Russia’s ally in Damascus low-profile makes U.S.-Russian crisis prevention measures easier.

Excerpts from AUSTIN CARSON AND MICHAEL POZNANSKY, THE LOGIC FOR (SHODDY) U.S. COVERT ACTION IN SYRIA, from War on the Rocks, July 21, 2016