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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Coalition Air Attack on the Saeqa Army Base

December 12, 2015
last edits Dec. 20

Aircraft of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition almost certainly did deliberately attack the Saeqa military camp near Deir Ezzour the  night of December 6, killing four Syrian army soldiers and wounding 13 others. 

This is probably why the coalition knew they could/had to deny it immediately, unlike a subsequent claim of civilians killed in another strike in Hasakeh. That one, maybe - they were bombing in the area. But Saeqa, no way. Their operations in that area and that time only hit ISIS targets and were 55 kilometers (35 miles) away from the base, to its southeast. It's a day's walk at least, and takes way longer if you're dragging a fighter jet. How on EARTH could they be here and also get over there in the same night?

No, that's not all - they have other evidence: a radar track of a Russian "backfire bomber" that passed by the same place and time and hit that base, presumably on accident. Well, it's been repeated by everyone, with suspended disbelief, but they can only cite one or two anonymous officials so far speaking of this from knowledge. The claim may solidify with confirmation by other, named people. Or it might still melt away into a complicated accident story. But so far, the US is clear it was not them or anyone allied.

I still haven't read everything available or studied any videos, and there will be plenty of new information coming anyway - but I got a sort of incoherent start (rough week) at the talk page for the ACLOS page Airstrike on Saeqa military camp near Deir ez-Zor Here, I'll share a quick copy of main points and the mapping. Sources etc. soon. We can see why this non-coalition explanation is not going to stick.

The Significance of this Area
Saeqa base is (apparently) the northern base shown here in orange, just outside Ayash. The pink-shaded area here is government-held, with the gray ISIS/Daesh-held. Blue = oil fields. Ignore the goof up at the bottom.

Note just this one oil field (el-Mashash, see below) is still government-held. For many miles on all sides and miles on the other side of the nearby Iraq border, is Daesh gray.

See overall situation map, small form - the pink spot right of center. This is the last little island of  "regime control" - outer Deir Ezzor, Ayash, and a small swathe of land including two army bases and the one government-held oil field in the whole region.  the last slight roadblock speedbump between Mosul and Raqah. This is Syria holding on by its fingers to its last and shrinking island in a sea of Deashbags. Someone with jets stomped on those fingers.
Below is the area in detail.
Daesh forces just 2 km away in fact took advantage of the attack to attack the base themselves, but this was "repelled," for the moment.They still plan to overrun it and everything else here. More attacks like the one on December 6 could really help them out.

As Damascus worded it in their official letter of complaint, "This hampers efforts to combat terrorism and proves once again that this coalition lacks seriousness and credibility to effectively fight terrorism."

Who has a potential, logical motive to remove more territory from Syria's government control and balkanize the place, and has openly lobbied for just that? The US-led coalition side is the one with a strong possible motive to hit this base, obviously. That's why Russia's doing it must've been a mistake. They have zero motive. 
Mapping Syria's Story
From the soldiers at the base up to Damascus and the Kremlin, so far ... it seems like this is what they're saying happened (subject to revision):

4 US-led coalition jets flew north from the Bukamal area at the Iraq border (after flying from or through Iraq?). Two of them behaved like the US says its acknowledged jets acted  - they hit targets about 55 km southeast of Ayash, which is all ISIS turf. (no US details on flight directions yet to compare)

The other two - nationality to be announced, but coalition member state(s) - peeled off a bit to the west and blasted the Saeqa base. 

Sources say the attackers then flew north and hit target (of no mentioned interest) in Daesh-held Shadadi. 

Here's how that maps out compared to US claims. This is how they deny the area. 55 km southeast, it seems, is just a bit further back on the attack flight path. 

They MAY still officially deny this by saying it was the Russians who snuck in between them all and launched this goof-up. But they may well admit this too merits investigation. Then they would investigate it for a long time.

An Hour Earlier?
They also deny it by time, and that also fails. An anonymous official told US News how a dozen Russian bombers flew in from Russia, on an unusual route via Iran and Iraq, and secretly bombed Bukamal and Deir Ezzour. This was all seen on radar. "One senior official said the Russian aircraft were in the air around 9 p.m. Sunday near the city of Deir el-Zour, whereas the coalition aircraft were flying an hour earlier about 55 kilometers away."

The time zone this is rendered in isn't certain; local time (GMT +2) is usually given, but they may be using Iraq time (GMT +3), meaning 8 pm in Syria. It's either this or there's disagreement when the attack happened. The officials say "one of the TU-22s made a pass over the area of the army camp within one minute of the explosion that killed the Syrian troops" at around 9. But the Syrians always said the attacks was shortly before 8 pm, give or take ("according to the Syrian General Staff ... between 19:40 and 19:55 local time (+2 hours GMT)." - RT).

So did it happen about the same time coalition jets were said to be there, making that acknowledged strike on about the same path witnesses describe? If so, the coalition confirms their presence in the location and time to be the attackers, and their alleged Russians got there too late to fit the bill. Otherwise, he's using the wrong time zone and confusing things, while claiming to have done its local strikes at around 7pm local. We shall see if anyone bothers sorting that out.

Coordinated with ISIS?
Syrian Perspective passes on a unique story where ISIS was already attacking the Saeqa base and called in support strikes to Turkey, who called them into the coalition. There's enough logic to that it's possible, bit I doubt it. More likely, they just took advantage. I'm curious though if they were extra-prepared at the moment.

No News, My Guess
Added December 20: It's now been almost 2 weeks since the event, and over 10 days since the last word from either side. That was by Russia. They said on the 9th (MoD statement, via Facebook) "As soon as the Syrian officials publish the results of the incident investigation and munition inspection, the Russian Defence Ministry is to get information about the aircraft, which performed the airstrike on the Syrian troops."

They and everyone knew it seemed to be a coalition attack, maybe just by its flight path from and maybe back into Iraq. However, the coalition blaming Russia says the Russian attackers flew in through Iraq, so that's their explanation for that.

And only one side has specified a model of aircraft; the coalition says the Russians used a TU-22, long-range "backfire bomber" (jet-style bomber), and had about a dozen of them in the group.

Both sides claim good evidence against the other, but neither has come out with any more of it. My guess is this: the Syrians and Russians finished the munition inspection are are now stumped over how to break the news that it was apparently a Russian-made jet that hit the base. Now they're left with proposing a "conspiracy theory" that the coalition somehow (Kiev?) acquired a TU-22 or a few of them (probably not a dozen), and used that to implicate Russia.

And that can't be done on accident, but as part of a deliberate plan to stomp on Syria's fingers in this delicate location - and blame Russia for it (with Iranian and Iraqi airspace complicity at least built into the story).

But the alternative the coalition offers makes virtually no real-world sense. So, if my hunch is true, Moscow and Damascus should come on out with it. And maybe they will, but they want a well-assembled case first. Will it be more days? Weeks? Months? Decades/forever?

Base Location
A stitched panoramic view from attack site video shows the place has trees. the most common indicated area doesn't seem to have any. Syrian Perspective's map here points to "Camel Corps" base almost in Ayash, and there are trees. Another map I found on Twitter points to army storage next to that, also maybe consistent. (anyone trying, this is most likely a morning shot, so the gate is south of the camera, and remember panoramic views "bend" the scene, so don't take visible angles too literally) (also, it's quite possible two or more areas were hit.)

We'll probably have an exact geolocation someday. But all sources agree it was somewhere in that pink, well-known pocket of government control, so exactly where doesn't matter so much except for pinning down finer points of the story (we may or may not get that far).


  1. CL,
    Do you follow the air strike reports on airwars? The report for Dec 6-7 has some insight.


    "Near Dayr Ar Zawr, four strikes struck four ISIL oil well-heads."

    Dayr Ar Zawr is an alternative spelling of Deir Ezzor. The use of "Near" has to mean they are referring to the city, not the province, otherwise they would say "in Dayr Ar Zawr."

    Here's the headline summary for the report that date:

    December 6th-7th 2015
    Iraq 11 strikes (5,707-5,717)
    Syria 9 strikes (3,004-3,012)
    Confirmed actions: US, Canada
    3 ‘friendly forces’ alleged killed at Al Ayyash, Syria
    3 civilians reported killed at Dayr ez Zawr, Syria

    The last two lines are in red and were added days after the other part and the description. Canadian jet jocks hit the wrong target? Definitely admission that coalition were flying well N of where they told the press.

    1. Awesome add, I love comments! Do not usually follow that but might now. I'd say they definitely acknowledge there was 3 (then 4) "friendly" (not allied) deaths that were alleged.

      3 civilians in the area - have not heard of that. Same number, different ways of saying 3 accidental deaths? Alleged?

      Not mentioned - strikes on Bukamal or Shadadi.

      Confirmed is 2 countries including the US, and we were expecting the other(s) to be Turkey, KSA, something - not Canadian. But maybe...

    2. One other thing, FWIW - most civilian dead are listed as "reported," including the three here, and the 26-36 next day near al-Hawl. The "friendly forces" aren't "reported" but ''"alleged."''

    3. "The observatory also said a woman and two children were killed in another air attack by the US-led coalition in the city of Deir al-Zour overnight." Missed that before.

    4. oh and one more point I noticed later - the red is not coalition admission later, but Airwars added later. So the different words chosen are also theirs, and limited in relevance.


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