Beirut: Syrian troops counter-attacked against Daesh around a key eastern airbase Sunday after a US-led coalition air strike killed scores of soldiers forcing a retreat, military sources said.
The Pentagon said that coalition pilots had believed they were hitting Daesh and had halted the raid as soon as Damascus ally Moscow informed commanders that army positions were coming under attack.
The Syrian government insisted that the strike was not a mistake. Instead, the government said it was “a very serious and flagrant aggression” that aided the Daesh and proved its long-held assertion that the United States supports Daesh as part of an effort to oust President Bashar Al Assad.
“These attacks confirmed that the US clearly supports the terrorism of Daesh,” SAMA television, a state-run news outlet.
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 Daesh,” as well as create a pretext for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to avoid his commitments under the ceasefire deal. Miller added that the episode would create opportunities for President Vladimir Putin of Russia “to blast the US on the eve of the UN. General Assembly,” the global meeting in New York starting this week.
Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, accused Russia of pulling a “stunt” by calling for an emergency Security Council meeting over the episode.
Russia has blamed the United States for failing to separate the rebel groups it supports from an extremist group that until recently was officially linked to Al-Qaida.
In recent months, the Syrian opposition has accused the United States of effectively siding with Al Assad by teaming up with Russia and focusing only on hitting designated terrorist groups and not the government, whose warplanes have levelled rebel-held areas, hospitals and civilian homes in indiscriminate strikes.
In 2013, President Barack Obama threatened to strike Al Assad’s forces in retaliation for chemical attacks on rebel-held suburbs that killed more than 1,000 people. He instead struck a deal with Russia to dismantle Al Assad’s chemical weapons programme.
The strike forced Syrian troops to pull back from two strategic hilltops overlooking the besieged airbase on the outskirts of the city of Deir Al Zor.
“The Syrian army has returned to the offensive,” a military source told AFP on Sunday.
“After the American raids, it withdrew from several positions but now it has gone back on the attack.”
A second military source inside Deir Al Zor airbase said that troops had already regained some of the lost ground.
“The army has retaken most of its positions on Jabal Therdeh with Russian and Syrian air support,” the source said, referring to one of the two hills lost on Saturday.
“The two countries’ air forces bombed the area around the airbase, neighbourhoods held by the militants and the road linking Deir Al Zor to Mayadeen,” a Daesh-held town 45 kilometres (30 miles) to the southeast, the source added.
Retaking the heights around the airbase is vital for the army as control of them would allow Daesh to fire on all aircraft trying to take off or land.
The airbase and adjacent government-held neighbourhoods of the Deir Al Zor city have been under siege since 2012 and have been dependent on resupply by air.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 30 militants were killed in Sunday’s counterattack by the army.
The Britain-based monitoring group said 90 soldiers were killed in Saturday’s air strike, sharply higher than the death toll of 62 given by Moscow on Saturday.
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, voiced regret for the loss of life.
“If we determine that we did indeed strike Syrian military personnel, that was not our intention. And we of course regret the loss of life,” she said.
Australia, which said it was one of several coalition countries whose aircraft took part, offered its “condolences to the families of any Syrian personnel killed or wounded.”
“While Syria remains a dynamic and complex operating environment, Australia would never intentionally target a known Syrian military unit or actively support Daesh,” a statement from the military said on Sunday.
How it happened:
The strike began in the early evening, when planes attacked a group of vehicles that US surveillance aircraft had been watching for several days, according to a CENTCOM official who requested anonymity because the episode was still being investigated. Military intelligence had identified the cluster of vehicles, which the official said included at least one tank, as belonging to Daesh, the official said.
The attack went on for about 20 minutes, with the planes destroying the vehicles and gunning down dozens of people in the open desert, the official said. Shortly after this, an urgent call came into the US military command center in Qatar, the outpost in the Arabian Gulf that coordinates the aerial campaign in Syria and Iraq.
The call was from a Russian official who said that the US planes were bombing Syrian government troops and that the strike should immediately be called off. The CENTCOM official said the attack was halted within minutes, but not until dozens had been killed.
Russian planes would most likely have been providing air support to government forces in the province during the fighting there. Russian warplanes had also been targeting the area where the government’s clashes with the Islamic State occurred, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain.