A New York Times investigation has found that in the last days of the battle against the Islamic State in Syria, a United States military drone hunting for military targets killed a large crowd of women and children huddled against a riverbank.
The report published Saturday said an American F-15E attack jet streaked across the drone’s high-definition field of vision and dropped a 500-pound bomb on the crowd, swallowing it in a shuddering blast.
“As the smoke cleared, a few people stumbled away in search of cover. Then a jet tracking them dropped one 2,000-pound bomb, then another, killing most of the survivors.”
The strikes happened on March 18, 2019, and an initial battle damage assessment quickly found that the number of dead was actually about 70.
To date, the Baghuz strike was one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war against Syria “but it has never been publicly acknowledged by the U.S. military.”
The details of the strikes were pieced together by The New York Times from confidential documents and descriptions of classified reports, as well as interviews with personnel directly involved, and officials with top-secret security clearances who discussed the incident on the condition that they not be named.
It said the lethality of the strike was almost “immediately apparent” to military officials but the “death toll was downplayed; reports were delayed, sanitized and classified.”
The Times investigation found that the bombing had been called in by a classified American special operations unit, Task Force 9, which was in charge of ground operations in Syria.
But it operated in such secrecy that at times it did not inform even its own military partners of its actions, the report said, adding that in the minutes after the strike, an alarmed Air Force intelligence officer in the operations centre called over an Air Force lawyer in charge of determining the legality of strikes.
“The lawyer ordered the F-15E squadron and the drone crew to preserve all video and other evidence saying it was a possible violation of the law of armed conflict — a war crime — and regulations required a thorough, independent investigation.”
But a thorough and independent investigation never happened.
When the New York Times sent its findings to the U.S. Central Command, which oversaw the air war in Syria, the command acknowledged the strikes for the first time.
It said 80 people were killed but the airstrikes were justified. “The bombs killed 16 fighters and four civilians. As for the other 60 people killed, it was not clear that they were civilians, in part because women and children in the Islamic State sometimes took up arms,” the newspaper quoted the command as saying.
“We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent them,” It added. “In this case, we self-reported and investigated the strike according to our own evidence and take full responsibility for the unintended loss of life.”
This means the only assessment done immediately after the strike was performed by “the same ground unit that ordered the strike.”
“It determined that the bombing was lawful because it killed only a small number of civilians while targeting Islamic State fighters in an attempt to protect coalition forces.”
Therefore no formal war crime notification, criminal investigation or disciplinary action was warranted, the command told the Times, adding that the “other deaths were accidental.”
The U.S. had portrayed the air war against Syria as the most precise and humane bombing campaign in its history.
It said every report of civilian casualties was investigated and the findings reported publicly, creating what the U.S. military called a “model of accountability.” But the strikes on Baghuz tell a different story.
Further details suggest that while the military put strict rules in place to protect civilians, the Special Operations task force repeatedly used other rules to skirt them.
The Times said civilian deaths are often undercounted even in classified reports and troops rarely faced repercussions when they caused civilian deaths.
“Nearly 1,000 strikes hit targets in Syria and Iraq in 2019, using 4,729 bombs and missiles. The official military tally of civilian dead for that entire year is only 22, and the strikes from March 18 are nowhere on the list.”
The battle at Baghuz represented the end of a nearly five-year United States-led campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Syria and was a foreign policy triumph for the then President Donald Trump.
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