WASHINGTON — Russian aircraft mistakenly bombed Syrian fighters who were being trained by the United States, the commander of the American-led operation in Iraq and Syria said on Wednesday. American advisers were about three miles away when the Russian strike occurred.
The episode pointed to the risk of unintended clashes among the myriad forces operating on a fluid battlefield in Syria, as the American command looks toward the fight to take Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in the country.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who commands the American-led task force that is fighting the militants in Iraq and Syria, said the Russian airstrike, which took place on Tuesday, led to casualties among the Syrian fighters, but he declined to say how many.
General Townsend said the Russian attack appeared to have been a mistake: The Russian military thought it was bombing villages held by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, but in fact they were recently occupied by Syrian Arab fighters.
“We had some Russian aircraft and regime aircraft bomb some villages that I believe they thought were held by ISIS,” General Townsend said. “Actually on the ground were some of our Syrian Arab coalition forces.”
There is a diverse array of forces near Al Bab, including Turkish-backed Syrian militias, Syrian government forces and Kurdish and Arab fighters. General Townsend said the United States was encouraging all sides to focus on the fight against Islamic State and not let tensions among the different groups divert them from the need to take Raqqa.
This is the second time in recent weeks that there has been an episode of friendly fire involving the Russians. Last month, Russian fighters mistakenly bombed Turkish soldiers near Al Bab.
General Townsend also said that some Islamic State fighters had sought to escape from Mosul, in northern Iraq, disguised as refugees, but that they had been detained. He said he did not anticipate that larger numbers of American troops would be needed for the campaign, which is under review by the Trump administration.
“The coalition is encouraged by the progress against ISIS in Al Bab by the Turkish military and their opposition forces,” General Townsend said. “We encourage all forces to remain focused on the counter-ISIS fight and concentrate their efforts on defeating ISIS, and not toward other objectives that may cause the coalition to divert energy and resources away from Raqqa.”