Beirut: U.S.-led coalition jets bombed a Syrian army position at Jebel Tharda near Deir al-Zor airport on Saturday, killing at least 80 Syrian soldiers according to credible sources, paving the way for Islamic State to briefly overrun the area.
The U.S. military, in an apparent admission that it may have hit the position, said in a statement that coalition air strikes near Deir al-Zor had been halted when Russia told coalition officials they may have hit the Syrian army.
At the time of publication, a report on the Australian network ABC said the airplanes involved may have been from Australia.
Syria‘s army general command said in a statement that the air strike was “conclusive evidence” of U.S. support for Islamic State, noting that the strike was “dangerous and blatant aggression”.
Islamic State said in a statement on its Amaq news channel that it had gained “complete control” over Jebel Tharda but both Syrian state television and Russian state media said the positions lost to the militant group were later recaptured.
The defence ministry in Russia, which has been aiding Syria‘s President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war, said U.S. jets had killed more than 60 Syrian soldiers in four air strikes by two F-16s and two A-10s coming from the direction of Iraq.
“Syria is a complex situation with various military forces and militias in close proximity, but coalition forces would not intentionally strike a known Syrian military unit,” U.S. officials said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group with contacts across the country, cited a military source at Deir al-Zor airport as saying that at least 80 Syrian soldiers had been killed in the strike.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said that if the coalition bombing was a mistake, it was evidence of Washington’s “stubborn refusal” to coordinate its actions with Russia’s government.
The U.S.-led coalition has been conducting air strikes against Islamic State since September 2014 and is also supporting rebels against Assad elsewhere in Syria.
The Observatory said that Russian jets had been conducting bombing in the area at the same time, and that violent clashes took place afterwards between Islamic State and the Syrian army around the position.
Syria‘s army controls Deir al-Zor airport and parts of the city which are otherwise entirely surrounded by territory held by Islamic State.
The United States and Russia agreed a deal on Syria last week, involving a ceasefire which came into effect on Monday, aid deliveries to besieged areas and eventual joint targeting of militant jihadist groups if the truce works out.
Syria‘s war between Assad and rebels seeking to topple him has drawn in regional and global powers and allowed militant jihadist groups including Islamic State to gain territory and inspire attacks.
US, Russia spar at the UN
Meanwhile, the US accused Russia of grandstanding on Saturday by calling a U.N. Security Council meeting over U.S.-led coalition air strikes in Syria, as Russia said the attacks killed dozens of Syrian soldiers and could endanger a truce deal between Moscow and Washington.
The 15-member council met for an hour on Saturday evening after news of the latest attack emerged.
US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said Washington was investigating the air strikes and “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 Russia’s decision to call a council meeting was “cynical and hypocritical” as Moscow had never expressed such outrage at the killing of civilians by Syrian government forces during more than five years of conflict.
“Russia really needs to stop the cheap point scoring and the grandstanding and the stunts and focus on what matters, which is implementation of something we negotiated in good faith with them,” Power told reporters.
The deal reached last Saturday aims to put Syria‘s peace process back on track. It included a fragile nationwide truce, improved humanitarian aid access and joint military targeting of banned Islamist groups.
When asked if Saturday’s air strikes spelled the end of the deal, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said: “This is a very big question mark.”
“I would be very interested to see how Washington is going to react. If what Ambassador Power has done today is any indication of their possible reaction then we are in serious trouble,” Churkin told reporters.
Churkin said it was a crucial time in the efforts to bring peace to Syria and the fight against terrorism. He said the United States could have waited until Moscow and Washington were to start joint military cooperation in two days instead of carrying out a “reckless” operation.
“Who is in charge in Washington? Is it the White House or the Pentagon? Because we have heard statements from the Pentagon which simply fly in the face of what we have heard from President Obama and Secretary Kerry,” he said.
Both parties to the Syrian conflict have accused each other of being responsible for aid deliveries being stuck far from Aleppo.
“All the permissions the Syrian government was supposed to give have been given for humanitarian supplies to reach people in need in various parts of Syria and that the humanitarian convoy to eastern Aleppo is supposed to leave tomorrow morning,” Churkin said.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Louise Ireland and Dominic Evans)