Inside the Combined Air and Space Operations Center


BERLIN/DAMASCUS/WASHINGTON (Own report) - The German Bundeswehr's concrete role in the widely criticized air attacks carried out by the anti-IS coalition and its members has not become clear, even after the coalition's air strikes on Syrian government forces near Deir al-Zor. The Bundeswehr is supporting air strikes on IS/DAESH not only by furnishing in-flight refueling - already more than 1,100 times - but also by supplying intelligence information. This information is passed on to all coalition members through the "information space" in the anti-IS coalition's Combined Air and Space Operations Center at the Al Udeid Air Base (Qatar), where several Bundeswehr officers are stationed. Observers assume that some of this intelligence, for example, can be used also by Turkey to prepare its operations against Kurdish units in Northern Syria. It is not clear, whether this data has played a role also in preparing attacks, resulting in civilian casualties, such as the anti-IS coalition's air strikes on Manbij in mid-July, wherein more than 100 people were killed. Last June, the Bundeswehr declared that it had already evaluated more than 11,000 reconnaissance photos and passed them on to its allies fighting the war against IS.

Huge Contribution

At the end of last week, Germany's Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen explicitly praised the Bundeswehr's involvement in the international coalition against IS/Daesh. She particularly underlined the "huge contribution" in the war against Daesh made by the German contingent stationed at the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey.[1] The German Airbus A-310 MRTT stationed at the air base has already made more than 1,100 in-flight refuelings, thus facilitating numerous airstrikes. Six Recce-Tornados have completed more than 500 three to five hour reconnaissance flights, according to the Bundeswehr. Already in June, Colonel Holger Radmann, commander of the German anti-Daesh contingent in Incirlik, reported that more than 11,000 reconnaissance photos from sectors of Syria and Iraq have been evaluated and passed on to the allies of the anti-IS coalition.[2]

Data in the Information Space

Cooperation among the allies is carried out in the United States' Combined Air and Space Operations Center, CAOC, at the Al Udeid Air Base, 30 km Southwest of the Qatari capital, Doha. The CAOC is not only directing general air operations against Daesh, it is particularly planning and commanding also German flights. Eight Bundeswehr officers are stationed at the CAOC, who coordinate and control the air force operations, and obtain "insight into the operational command" during air strikes on Daesh, as the Bundeswehr explicitly confirms.[3] One obtains a really "profound insight into the work and functioning of such commandos in action," according to a German soldier.[4] Allied states convey their information needs to the Bundeswehr. After evaluating their intelligence information, the Bundeswehr feeds the required data into the "information space" to which all coalition members, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have access. The data is also made available to the headquarters of the anti-IS coalition, the Combined Joint Task Force, CJTF, in Kuwait.

Trust is Better

The fact that, in principle, Turkey also has access to the "information space" intelligence data in Al Udeld's CAOC has continuously come under criticizism, because Turkey is fighting Kurdish units in Syria. Criticism began even before German Tornados began their mission. The fact that Saudi Arabia and Qatar - both also having access to the "information space" - are following their own agendas in Syria and are supporting the Salafist militias, has led as well to the speculation that they may be furnishing them undoubtedly useful intelligence from the "information space," for example on the positions of Syrian troops. The German government claims to have taken adequate steps to insure that the Bundeswehr's intelligence data would not be used against Kurdish units or in support of Salafist militia's such as Ahrar al Sham.[5] Before the data has been entered into the CAOC's "information space," a German officer appropriately labels it with the notice "For Counter-Daesh Operation only." The Bundeswehr contends, this is fully sufficient. "It is basically expected that the partner nations trust each other to abide by the specific purpose of the reconnaissance results."[6] Of course, Turkey is using the data "to fight the Kurds," said Jan van Aken, Foreign Policy Spokesperson for the Left Group in the German parliament in early September. "That means that there is active military support for the brutal struggle against the Kurds."[7]

Civilian Victims

Still unclear is what role German reconnaissance played in the West's anti-Daesh coalition's numerous air strikes resulting in civilian casualties. In mid-July, Amnesty International indicated that more than 100 civilians are reported to have been killed in suspected coalition attacks on the Manbij area of northern Syria.[8] At the time, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which can hardly be characterized as anti-western, estimated the civilian death toll at 167, while residents in the area say the death toll could be even higher.[9] The US military has attributed other Syrian civilian casualties in late August and the first half of September, in part, to the fact that civilian vehicles unexpectedly entered the targeted area after the missile had been fired. Other cases remain unexplained. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had complained already in February of 15 civilian casualties resulting from the Al Udeid directed anti-Daesh coalition's bombing campaign.

Reconnaissance Mistake

What led to Saturday evening's US air strike on the Syrian military positions - killing, according to Russian sources, 62, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, around 80 - has also not been clarified. According to the New York Times, based on a US military official, "Military intelligence" had identified the cluster of vehicles, as belonging to the Islamic State - erroneously. The attack went on for about 20 minutes, with the planes destroying the vehicles and gunning down dozens of people. The attack was only halted when a Russian official called CAOC in Al Udeld demanding an immediate end to the bombing. The attack was halted "within minutes."[10] Regardless of whether German reconnaissance data played a role in that air strike or in those resulting in civilian casualties, there remains also the question of whether German in-flight refueling has played a role in the attacks. If this is the case, the Bundeswehr must also assume its share of the responsibility for the deadly consequences of the attacks.

[1] Von der Leyen: "Muslimische Soldaten sind unverzichtbar". 17.09.2016.
[2] Incirlik: "Wir arbeiten eng mit unseren Partnern zusammen." 30.06.2016.
[3] Fragen und Antworten zur Operation Inherent Resolve. 30.03.2016.
[4] Katar: Acht Soldaten, zwei Medaillen, ein Stein. 19.08.2016.
[5] See In Alliance with Al Qaeda and Wie man Jihadisten fördert (II).
[6] Fragen und Antworten zur Operation Inherent Resolve. 30.03.2016.
[7] Linke kritisieren Aufklärungsflüge der Bundeswehr. 06.09.2016.
[8] Syria: Call for investigation into civilian deaths in US-led airstrikes. 19.07.2016.
[9] Syria war: Dozens killed in "US-led strikes" on Manbij. 20.07.2016.
[10] Anne Barnard, Mark Mazzetti: U.S. Admits Airstrike in Syria, Meant to Hit ISIS, Killed Syrian Troops. 17.09.2016.