US orders new investigation into airstrike that could have killed dozens of Syrian civilians

US orders new investigation into airstrike that could have killed dozens of Syrian civilians
The US Defence Secretary ordered a new investigation Monday into an airstrike in Syria 2019 that killed up to 64 civilians and which the military has been accused of trying to cover up.
3 min read
30 November, 2021
Human rights groups have criticised the US military for grading their own homework over the incident [Getty-file photo]

US Defence Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III ordered a new investigation Monday into an American airstrike in Syria two years ago that could have killed dozens of women and children, the Pentagon said. 

US General Michael Garrett, head of the Army Forces Command, has 90 days to examine the airstrike that occurred on 18 March 2019 in Baghouz Syria, the last hold-out of the Islamic State group.

The inquiry will look at the number of civilian casualties, if the laws of war were violated, possible mistakes in record-keeping, and whether measures from previous inquiries were heeded. 

This is one of several probes into the incident, among the largest episodes of civilian casualties in the war against IS, which the US military did not publicly acknowledge until pressed by reporters, according to the New York Times. As many as 64 civilians may have died in the attack.

“[General Garrett] will review the reports of [the] investigation already conducted” and "will conduct further inquiry into the facts and circumstances related to [the incident]," Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said on Monday.

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The New York Times claimed previous reports into this attack were "delayed, sanitized and classified", accusing the US military of a cover-up. 

Although a US task force concluded there had been no wrongdoing, legal officers have flagged the bombing as a possible war crime.

US Central Command did not follow up on the probe, so senior officials in Iraq and the United States never reviewed the strike, according to the newspaper. 

Those who witnessed the strike said "senior ranking US military officials intentionally and systematically circumvented the deliberate strike process," reported NYT.  

"The highest levels of government remained unaware of what was happening on the ground," they said. 

The US daily reported that three bombs were dropped on a crowd of women and children huddled against a riverbank next to a camp.

The attack was carried out by Task Force 9, a classified American special operations unit in charge of ground operations in Syria. 

The target was a small patch of land next to an IS camp in the final days of the group's so-called caliphate. 

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Fighters trapped in the camp launched a predawn counteroffensive with rifles and grenades, according to US Central Command. 

The US military said the task force tracked a group of fighters as they made their way through the camp to the riverbank and dropped bombs after assessing with a low-quality camera that no civilians were present. 

However, military personnel accused the secretive task force of sidestepping procedures by claiming there was an imminent threat. The military personal said this threat was not present, according to NYT

US military operations in Qatar were confused and alarmed by the incident as they watched on a high-quality drone, with lawyers immediately questioning the necessity and legality of the strike, the newspaper reported.  

It was only after the US newspaper told Central Command about their investigation that the military acknowledged some 80 deaths. It is estimated that 16 fighters and four civilians died. It is unclear whether or not the other 60 were civilians. 

Human rights groups have criticised the US military for grading their own homework over the incident. 

"I've seen these investigations into civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. In none of them was anyone held accountable," said Sarah Holewinski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch.

Nearly 1,000 US strikes hit targets in Syria and Iraq in 2019. 

The official military tally of civilian dead for that entire year is only 22. The strike from 18 March is not on the list.