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Pentagon Investigates Airstrike That May Have Hit Syrian Soldiers

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A seven-day partial cease-fire in Syria was meant to build confidence. The seven days ended yesterday along with a lot of the confidence. The period of reduced violence, as some called it, was agreed upon by Russia and the United States - sponsors of rival sides in the civil war. NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, is here to talk about what happens now. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how'd the cease-fire work out?

BOWMAN: Well, Steve, there's been some violations, but the cease-fire has held up reasonably well. The biggest failure is that no aid has reached Aleppo. And that was one of the core goals of this agreement...

INSKEEP: Oh, there's lots of rebels besieged there. And they were hoping to get supplies.

BOWMAN: Exactly, get supplies in.

INSKEEP: There was news of, like, convoys moving over the weekend. That still hasn't really happened, you're saying.

BOWMAN: Right. Some convoys have moved, but not to Aleppo. That was a key part of this agreement. And of course there was a weekend airstrike by U.S. and coalition aircraft that killed more than 62 Syrian army soldiers - soldiers - wounded dozens more. The U.S. says it was a mistake, that they were targeting ISIS. But Syria wasn't buying it.

They said, listen, you never wanted our leader, Bashar al-Assad. You're basically working as the - you know, with ISIS. And the Russians also said, you didn't want this coordination, this agreement. So we're not buying your - what you say is a mistake as well.

INSKEEP: And this gets - this gets into the complexity of the whole thing because the U.S. is against Assad and is on the opposite side of the civil war but wasn't supposed to be bombing Syrian troops.

BOWMAN: Exactly, they were supposed to be working with Russia to go after ISIS and the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria.

INSKEEP: Now, you said the Russians accused the Pentagon of not really wanting this deal. Isn't that actually true? The Pentagon didn't want this deal.

BOWMAN: The Pentagon did not want this deal. Ash Carter, the defense secretary, just doesn't trust the Russians, especially after the airstrikes in Aleppo that was actually targeting hospitals, killing a lot of doctors, a lot of civilians. So he didn't want it. But they actually did work out a deal finally. They were going to set up this coordination center outside Geneva...

INSKEEP: Sharing intelligence in some way?

BOWMAN: Right. And that was difficult because a lot of this is classified. So how do you share intelligence with the Russians...

INSKEEP: With the Russians, yeah.

BOWMAN: Right. And how do you scrub the intelligence? But this was all set up, ready to go today in - outside of Geneva. They we're going to have Russian officers there, the U.S. - maybe not sitting side by side, but actually working on airstrikes against ISIS and the al-Qaida affiliate. But right now, we're not even sure if that's going to happen or not.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. The Pentagon, after saying we're not even sure how we're going to do this, found a way to do it. They say they're ready today. But because of this airstrike, it's not clear that the U.S. and Russia will actually cooperate?

BOWMAN: That's right. A lot of this is going to be handled diplomatically. You know, clearly Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov - they're going to have to figure out whether they can get this back on track again - this deal. And that's highly uncertain at this point.

INSKEEP: Can I get some understanding of what it matters whether the United States and Russia share intelligence? It sounds significant symbolically because you would like these two great powers to be on the same page against ISIS. But they don't really have compatible capabilities. It's hard to see the U.S. saying that there would be an occasion where the Russians would be better off bombing somebody than the U.S. with its better equipment, for example.

BOWMAN: Right. One of the big problems is the Russians use dumb bombs. They don't use precision weapons. So the U.S. could give them a target, let's say, and the Russians could miss that target and hit some civilian areas. That was a big part of this problem. And again, the other part is the intelligence. They're not going to give them classified drone feeds for a target.

The talk I heard was to give them maybe a picture of the target and the coordinates itself - just hand it to them. So that was part of the problem that the Pentagon had to work out. And how do you actually do this?

INSKEEP: In just a couple of seconds, has the war against ISIS at least continued over the last seven days?

BOWMAN: It has. The U.S. is - of course, is still striking ISIS. The big question is, will they work with Russia for that effort?

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much, as always.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tom Bowman in our studios this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.