U.S. Airstrike In Syria Throws Wrench In Cease-Fire Plans

Sep 18, 2016
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Syria, the future of a cease-fire and a pledge of cooperation between the U.S. and Syria are all up in the air. That's after a U.S. coalition airstrike hit Bashar al-Assad's forces in eastern Syria killing at least 62 and wounding dozens more. For more on the story, we turn now to NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks so much for joining us.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Sure. Good to be here.

MARTIN: So exactly what happened and how could this have happened?

BOWMAN: Well, that's what the Pentagon is trying to find out. An investigation has started, of course. Now, military officials say U.S. and coalition warplanes were targeting what they thought were Islamic State forces in an area around the town of Deir ez-Zor. Now, they said they'd been watching this location for days, and right before the strike, they called the Russians and said, hey, we'll be bombing in this area. The Russians said simply, thank you, according to a military official I spoke with. Then they launched the airstrikes, and they hit a tank and a half dozen vehicles. Twenty five minutes into this attack, the Russians called and said you're bombing Syrian troops, and the attacks stopped.

Now, the question is - you're right. How could this possibly have happened? The U.S. uses sophisticated means for hitting a target. There's a drone surveillance, sometimes intercepts of phone or radio conversation to make sure they have the right target. So this is clearly a massive intelligence bungle. In the past, you know, my time in Iraq or Afghanistan, you may see a mistake hitting a wedding party or friendly forces, but the scale of this is unusual - dozens dead and wounded.

Now it also comes at a particularly bad time. There was a cease-fire worked out with Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. And as part of that deal, the Syrians were not supposed to fly any combat missions against rebels. Humanitarian aid was supposed to flow to hundreds of thousands of stranded Syrians, and the U.S. and Russia was supposed to coordinate bombing runs against both the Islamic State and al-Qaida. And that was supposed to start on Monday.

MARTIN: You know, you've given us what we know so far about the U.S. officials' account of what occurred. Have we heard from either the Russians or the Syrians about this?

BOWMAN: Well, the Russians have basically said, listen, you guys never wanted this coordination center anyway, you know, there was tensions within the U.S. government. The White House was pushing - or the State Department. The Pentagon was dragging its feet. They didn't want it. So the Russians are saying, you guys, you know, never wanted this anyway. What the Syrians are saying is, listen, you don't want Bashar al-Assad, our leader, to stay in power. You're basically serving as the air force of the Islamic State. So they don't buy that it was a mistake. They think it was actually intentional.

MARTIN: Does this signal the end of this week-old cease-fire? Is it being viewed that way?

BOWMAN: Well, the Russians say it's very shaky at this point, and that's going to be the big question into this week. Now, again, the cease-fire wasn't doing all that well anyway. The - there was still fighting between the Syrians and the rebels, and there was supposed to be that movement of humanitarian aid, food, water and medicine. That has yet to flow. So it was all pretty questionable anyway. Now we have no sense of the way ahead. Again, the Russians are complaining about it and so are the Syrians. So we'll just have to see starting this week whether they can put this back together again. That's very questionable.

MARTIN: Finally, world leaders are gathering at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York this week. I imagine this would be a big part of the conversation.

BOWMAN: Absolutely it will be. And there's already a meeting of the UN Security Council on Saturday called by the Russians, and Russian officials sharply criticized the U.S. And the American UN Ambassador Samantha Power criticized the Russians for calling the meeting saying it was a stunt. And the Russians said of Samantha Power, you're being pretty heavy-handed here. So very undiplomatic talk at the UN from the Russians and the Americans. It really smacked of the Cold War. So you're right. The president will be at the UN this week. And clearly this will be a huge topic of discussion.

MARTIN: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.