In the worst "friendly fire" incident of the war against ISIS, Syrian opposition forces trained by the U.S. called in an errant strike from the U.S.-led coalition on one of their own positions Tuesday, killing at least 18 of the fighters who were part of the offensive against the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, U.S. Central Command said.
The mixed Kurdish and Syrian Arab militias of the Syrian Democratic Forces had called for an airstrike on an ISIS fighting position near the town of Tabqa, about 25 miles west of Raqqa, but apparently gave the wrong coordinates to a ground attack coalition aircraft overhead, CentCom said in a statement Thursday.
"The strike was requested by the partnered forces, who had identified the target location as an ISIS fighting position. The target location was actually a forward Syrian Democratic Forces fighting position," the statement said.
At least 18 of the SDF fighters who were heavily engaged in fighting off ISIS counter-attacks with vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDS) were killed, the statement said.
"The Coalition's deepest condolences go out to the members of the SDF and their families," the statement said. The friendly fire accident underlined the hazards of relying on local forces to call in airstrikes but "our SDF partners have expressed a strong desire to remain focused on the fight against ISIS despite this tragic incident," the statement said.
The incident at Tabqa came amid stepped up airstrikes in Syria and Iraq under the "accelerated" campaign to defeat ISIS planned by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and authorized by President Donald Trump. At the White House Thursday, Trump appeared to acknowledge that he has given the military broader discretion at lower command levels to strike enemy targets.
Commenting on a strike in Afghanistan with a MOAB, or Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, Trump said he has given general directions to his military chiefs and left it up to them to decide on targeting and methods of attack -- whether it was the Tomahawk cruise missile strikes on the Syrian airfield last week, or the MOAB bomb in Afghanistan, or the airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.
"What I do is I authorize my military," Trump said. "We have the greatest military in the world and they've done a job as usual. We have given them total authorization and that's what they're doing and frankly that's why they've been so successful lately."
The Tabqa airstrike was believed to be the worst friendly fire incident in three years of war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria but other mistakes by coalition aircraft have resulted in greater losses of life.
Last September, U.S. A-10 Thunderbolts, Australian F-18 Hornets and Danish F-16 Fighting Eagles mistakenly bombed and strafed columns and positions of the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in eastern Syria near the flashpoint town Deir Ezzor. The coalition said the aircraft mistook the Syrian forces for ISIS. Syria charged that more than 60 of its soldiers were killed.
U.S. military officials have stressed that the air campaigns in Syria and Iraq are the most meticulous in the history of air warfare and have repeatedly said that strikes are called off at the hint that there might be civilian casualties. They also have stressed that the rules of engagement have not been relaxed to accommodate the accelerated campaign.
However, human rights and activist groups have pointed to recent spikes in civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria.
At least 300 civilians have been killed in the offensive against ISIS in the western half of Mosul since mid-February, according to the United Nations human rights office, including 140 killed in a single March 17 airstrike on a building. Dozens more are claimed to have been killed in another strike last weekend, according to Amnesty International, and by similar airstrikes in neighboring Syria in the past month.
In Syria, as fighting around Raqqa intensified, civilian fatalities from coalition airstrikes rose to 198 in March -- including 32 children and 31 women -- compared to 56 in February, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors Syria's six-year-old civil war, according to ABC News.
In a video briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon on Tuesday, Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, spoke to the intense fighting between the SDF and ISIS around Taqba.
He said that the SDF fighters were "continuing to make progress in clearing ISIS fighters from the territory and the vicinity of Tabqa." Other SDF elements have already cleared areas east and north of Raqqa and were nearing positions for the eventual assault to liberate the city, he said.
Around Tabqa, the SDF fighters have "repelled a significant number of ISIS attacks as the enemy struggles to slow their advance. Our partnered forces have encountered tough resistance from ISIS in the area, encountering VBIED, direct and indirect fire attacks, as well as the use of human shields which the enemy continues to use to slow their advance," Dorrian said.