Washington (CNN)A US military investigation revealed Tuesday that Russian and coalition officers engaged in a 27-minute game of phone tag while American and coalition warplanes were mistakenly bombing and killing fighters allied with the Syrian regime in September.
“In this instance, we did not rise to the high standard we hold ourselves to, and we must do better than this each and every time,” Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of US Air Forces in the Middle East, said in a statement accompanying the completion of the classified investigation into the deadly September 17 strike. A redacted executive summary of the report was released Tuesday.
“The decision to strike these targets was made in accordance with the law of armed conflict and the applicable rules of engagement,” US Brig. Gen. Richard Coe, the officer charged with investigating the airstrike, said in a statement. “But we concluded based upon post-strike analysis that a number of ‘human factors’ resulted in incorrect identification of forces on the ground.”
Military officials said the US took the unprecedented step of informing the Russian military in advance of its intent to strike the targets — which the Americans believed were ISIS — via a hotline that had been established to ensure mistakes were not made in the airspace used by Russian and US warplanes.
Coe acknowledged that the information provided to the Russians was “off by several kilometers.”
The investigation found that once the strikes began, Russian officials called the hotline and waited to speak to the designated point of contact but were told that the person was unavailable.
Coe said the other officer in the operations center offered the chance to pass a message along, but the Russians “hung up on that phone call to call back later.”
When the Russians rang up a second time and the point of contact was still not available, Coe said, “They elected not to leave a message and went on hold” pending the arrival of the officer in question.
Coe said 27 minutes elapsed between the first Russian call and the cessation of airstrikes.
“In that 27 minutes, 15 of the 32 strikes happened,” he said, noting that once the Russian information was received and understood, the coalition “immediately halted strikes.”
Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for Central Command, told reporters that the coalition had asked the Russians to immediately convey critical information in the future.
The US and its coalition allies had previously said they believed their warplanes were targeting ISIS fighters. Russia said at the time the strikes jeopardized a cessation of hostilities that Washington and Moscow had negotiated and that the Syrian regime resumed striking rebel areas soon after, with the accord eventually collapsing.
The hotline difficulties were one of several errors highlighted by the investigation, which said “human error” in the targeting process was largely to blame for the deadly mistake.
Speaking to reporters on a conference call, Coe said there was “no intent to target Syrian forces” and added that the units struck on September 17 near Deir Ezzor “looked and acted like the forces the coalition has been targeting,” referring to ISIS fighters.
“They were not wearing uniforms, they had no flags or insignia,” Coe said, adding that the coalition now believes “those forces were aligned with the Syrian regime more likely than not.”
Review of targeting procedures
One critical error involved the incorrect identification of a vehicle that targeting analysts believed belonged to ISIS. That vehicle met up with the larger force that was eventually struck, with analysts believing those fighters were also associated with ISIS due to the vehicle’s presence there.
Coe said Harrigian had ordered a review of targeting procedures to prevent similar incidents from happening.
The attack involved 32 strikes carried out by F-16s, A-10s, F/A-18s jets and remotely piloted aircraft. The coalition said 34 precision-category weapons were dropped and 380 30mm rounds were fired on the targets.
Representatives from Australia, Denmark and the UK took part in the investigation as they had also been involved in the strikes, along with the US.
The coalition said it could only substantiate 15 deaths as a result of the errant attack, but Coe said “we certainly believe more than 15 individuals were killed,” although the US was not able to determine the precise number of fatalities.
In the days following the attack, the Russian military put the number at 62 Syrian fighters killed.