Broken telephone: US-Russia emergency hotline put Moscow on hold as US bombed Syrian Army

by Robert Bridge  --  3 Dec 2016

Despite cutting-edge communications, the US seems to be losing its touch when it comes to handling phone calls. This had disastrous consequences for the Syrian Army, as it fell victim to an 'accidental' bombing by Coalition warplanes in September.

A Pentagon investigation released this week shows that Russian and American officials were caught in a 27-minute game of "fatal phone tag," as CNN dubbed the incident, while US and Coalition fighter jets were carrying out a bombing on Syrian Army forces in the city of Deir ez-Zor, in the east of the country.

The US military accepted blame for the tragic incident, which led to the death of 62 Syrian soldiers and many more wounded.

"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, which was in fact an understatement.

"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 lead investigator of the incident, said. "[W]e concluded based upon post-strike analysis that a number of 'human factors' resulted in incorrect identification of forces on the ground."

While it is encouraging to see the Pentagon admit its faults, the long list of errors that were committed that tragic day are very difficult to comprehend. 

First, although the Pentagon patted itself on the back for taking the "unprecedented step" of relaying information to the Russians about its attack plans on targets in the region - which the US military apparently mistook for Islamic State militants - the airstrikes were wildly off course.

Coe admitted that the coordinates provided to the Russians were "off by several kilometers."

Exactly how many "several" kilometers he doesn't say, but even one kilometer sounds extremely strange when we are talking about surveillance technology that can accurately pinpoint motorcycles from outer space slated for drone strikes. 

However, judging by the Russian military's response to the bombing, no advance warning of any kind had been received. “If this airstrike was the result of a targeting error,” Russian major general Igor Konashenkov said in a statement, “it is a direct consequence of the US side’s stubborn unwillingness to coordinate its action against terrorist groups on Syrian territory with Russia." 

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, expressed some disturbing conclusions over the airstrikes.

Speaking on Rossiya 24 television Zakharova said: "If earlier we had suspicions that the Nusra Front is protected this way, now, after today's airstrikes on the Syrian army we come to a really terrifying conclusion for the entire world: the White House is defending IS [Islamic State or Daesh]."

And then there is the ridiculous business related to the 'emergency hotline' that was supposed to be manned 24/7 between the US and Russia, but somehow went missing in action at the same time the US opened its strike on the suspected terrorists.

The narrative of events laid out by CNN makes it seem like the Russians were only recently introduced to telephone technology."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 called back and the point of contact was still inexplicably out to lunch, so to speak, Coe said, "They elected not to leave a message and went on hold" pending the return of the officer, who I would hope, yet sincerely doubt, is being detained in a military prison for dereliction of duty.

As anybody who has dealt with answering machines can attest to, the Russians must have been besides themselves with rage trying to get through the urgent message to 'stop bombing' while this game of "phone tag" continued.

I can only imagine what kind of messages the Russians would have heard on the Pentagon answering machine:

- 'If you are calling about an accidental attack on a non oil-producing country, please press 1'

- 'If you are calling about an accidental attack on a wedding party, please press 2'

- 'If you are calling about an accidental attack on a hospital, please press 3'

- 'If you would like to to a live person, please hold the line and the next available attendanspeak t will assist you. 

It's really no wonder the Russians opted not to leave a message and held the line. It didn't do anybody much good anyways since 27 minutes elapsed between the first Russian call and the cessation of the bombing.So we are expected to believe that not only did the technologically advanced Americans fail to pass along the correct coordinates of their airstrike, they failed to make sure somebody was working the so-called "emergency hotline" set up between the Russians and Americans to avoid minor screw ups, you know, like World War III breaking out, for example.

"In that 27 minutes, 15 of the 32 strikes happened," Coe admitted, as reported in the CNN article. The statement added: “The coalition airstrike was halted immediately when coalition officials were informed by Russian officials that it was possible the personnel and vehicles targeted were part of the Syrian military.”

And then there is the striking coincidence of when this attack took place: Just one week prior, the US and Russia brokered a ceasefire agreement that allowed for joint strikes on jihadi militants. The US-led attack on the Syrian troops, which the Pentagon insists was an accident, happened on the day before the ceasefire was supposed to be extended.

Needless to say, that accidental bombing happened at the very worst of times.

Finally, there was the outrageous outburst by US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, after Russia called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to address the deadly bombing.

"Why are we having this meeting tonight? It is a diversion from what is happening on the ground. If you don't like what is happening on the ground then you distract. It is a magician's trick… we encourage the Russian Federation to have emergency meetings with the Assad regime and deliver them to this deal," Power said, clearly proving that one need not play a childish game of 'broken telephone' to have a total breakdown in communication between two nuclear powers.

It would be the ultimate tragic irony if a major escalation in the Syrian conflict - and potentially beyond - were to occur because of a failed telephone call while we are living in such technologically advanced times.

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