The image provided by the Russian defense ministry was damning: three Islamic State trucks led by an armored vehicle on their way to a key battlefield in eastern Syria, allowed safe passage by the United States.
Russian drones, its foreign ministry said on social media, spotted the convoy fleeing Bukamal on Nov. 9, the same day Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces said they captured the key militant stronghold on the Euphrates River. Their safe passage was “irrefutable evidence” the United States allows the Islamic State to wreak havoc to meet their interests in the region, the ministry said on Facebook and Twitter.
If you’re a gamer interested in air combat simulators, you may have already seen the convoy before you gunned downed digital enemies on your computer screen while playing AC-130 Gunship Simulator: Special Ops Squadron, released in 2015 by the Byte Conveyor game studio.
The game, developed for smartphones and shown in videos posted by what appears to be a now-defunct company, allows users to destroy enemy vehicles from the controls of the AC-130, the military’s go-to aircraft for close air support and ground strikes using weapons that transform the plane into a piece of artillery with wings.
How the image ended up in the mix of infrared images posted by the Russian defense ministry is unclear. But the posts for both Twitter and Facebook were deleted (a web cache of the Facebook page is available). Similar messages are still found on the ministry’s Twitter feed. The Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of amateur digital sleuths that tracks Russian operations in Syria, concluded other photos in the post were from a June 2016 video of Iraqi airstrikes on Islamic State positions in Fallujah.
The images “represent just one more episode of a recurrent pattern of defamation, distortion, distraction that seeks to discredit the U.S. and our successful coalition fight against ISIS in Syria,” Marine Corps Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement Tuesday, referring to an acronym for the Islamic State. Galloway said the episode comes at a strange time following a Saturday joint statement from Presidents Trump and Vladimir Putin, which highlighted efforts by the countries to de-conflict Syrian airspace to avoid collisions and other mishaps.
“To date, the Syrian regime and Russian Federation have not demonstrated long-term success in ridding large pieces of terrain from ISIS influence, then establishing the conditions necessary to prevent terrorists’ return,” Rankine-Galloway added.
Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State, told reporters Tuesday the Russian image was “about as accurate as their air campaign,” riffing on accusations Russia has carried out airstrikeswithout concern for civilian deaths. Monitoring groups have accused the United States for increasing civilian deaths in Raqqa in the operation to rid Islamic State militants from their de facto capital.
There is a grain of truth to U.S. efforts to allow passage to fleeing ISIS fighters, though it is more complicated than allowing militants to leave.
A Hezbollah-brokered deal in September allowed militants and their families to head from the Lebanon-Syria border toward the Syria-Iraq border. U.S. warplanes cratered the highway to block their escape and trap them in the open, even releasing Hellfire missiles to strike fighters leaving the convoy to urinate during the two-week standoff.
“If we have a clean shot against an ISIS fighter, we take that shot,” Rankine-Galloway said.