Fires in Baghouz, Syria in the final days of attacks by the US and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to remove the Islamic State, March 2019
UPDATE, MAY 18:
The Pentagon has cleared US commanders of any wrongdoing over the killing of about 80 people, including civilian women and children, in airstrikes in eastern Syria on March 18, 2019.
Officials said that the investigation, still mostly classified, has examined the strikes near Baghouz, the last Islamic State-held village in Syria. The attack came as the US-supported, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces were trying to take the village, prompting civilians to flee.
The inquiry was prompted by a complaint to the Defense Department Inspector General’s office, and then by revelations in The New York Times, including extensive documentation, in December 2019. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had warned that a lack of transparency risks undermining public trust in the Pentagon’s accountability for fatal mistakes.
Maj. Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday that 56 victims were recorded from the strikes: 51 men and one child deemed to be enemy forces and one woman and three children identified as civilians. He
said two men identified as enemy fighters, 11 civilian women, and four civilian children were wounded.
The senior investigating officer investigating the Baghouz strike, Army Gen. Michael X. Garrett, found commanders did not violate any rules of engagement or laws of armed conflict, nor did they act with “wanton disregard” for human life.
Instead, Garrett concluded that the decision to strike was necessary to defend the US-supported SDF forces and that “multiple efforts to distinguish civilians from ISIS were made”. The investigator said the ground commander established hostile actions by Islamic State fighters in the area and “repeatedly received confirmation that no civilians were in the strike areas”. Thus, he was unaware that civilians “were within the blast radius” of the strike.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirmed that Garrett decided there was no case to discipline any military personnel involved in the operation.
Defending decisions made under duress, Kirby said Garrett found that the ground commander made the best assessments in the situation. The spokesman insisted:
We have to have a high bar for accountability for something like this given that it was in the midst of combat in the fog of war. If you can prove that an individual deliberately caused civilian casualties and violated the wars … then of course, there will be cause for holding people accountable.
He added, “Did anybody get fired because of Baghouz? No. But it’s not because we’re trying to protect careers.”
UPDATE, DEC 19:
The New York Times publishes documents of US airstrikes killing civilians in Syria and Iraq.
The strikes targeting Islamic State positions included a July 2016 attack on Tokhar in northern Syria, where more than 120 villagers — seeking sanctuary from ground fighting and bombing — were slain in houses far from the frontline.
The Times obtained the US military’s confidential assessments of more than 1,300 reports of civilian casualties. In only a handful of cases were assessments made public. There is no evidence of any finding of wrongdoing or disciplinary action. Less than 12 payments were made to injured and disabled victims or to families of the slain.
Capt. Bill Urban, the US Central Command spokesman, responded:
Even with the best technology in the world, mistakes do happen, whether based on incomplete information or misinterpretation of the information available. And we try to learn from those mistakes. We work diligently to avoid such harm. We investigate each credible instance. And we regret each loss of innocent life.
He insisted that the US military was “minimizing the risk of harm to civilians as “a strategic necessity as well as a legal and moral imperative”.
The US military has acknowledged 1,417 civilians killed by its airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in the fight against the Islamic State. But The Times found many allegations of civilian casualties discounted with little evaluation, with hundreds of deaths never recorded.
UPDATE, DEC 13:
The New York Times publishes further information about the secret US military unit that killed about 80 civilians, including scores of women and children, in an airstrike in northeast Syria in March 2019.
Talon Anvil had fewer than 20 personnel at times, but it oversaw the release of 10,000s of bombs and missiles against the Islamic State inside Syria from 2014 to 2019.
The mass killing near Baghouz in March 2019, as ISIS was removed from its last village in the country, was far from the first slaying of civilians. Multiple sources said the unit circumvented rules to protect non-combatants. Casualties including farmers at harvest, children in the street, families fleeing the fighting, and villagers sheltering in buildings.
A former Air Force intelligence officer who worked on Talon Anvil summarizes, “They were ruthlessly efficient and good at their jobs. But they also made a lot of bad strikes.”
Pilots sometimes refused to carry out bombing because Talon Anvil, made up of US Army Delta Force commandos, ordered strikes on questionable targets in densel- populated areas. Senior CIA officers filed complaints with Special Operations commanders, as Air Force intellligence teams argued with Talon Anvil’s operatives. There were even personnel within Talon Anvil who refused to participate in some strikes.
Larry Lewis, a former Pentagon and State Department advisor, said the rate of civilian casualties in Syria was 10 times that of similar operations in Afghanistan. He claimed Gen. Stephen Townsend, who commanded the offensive against ISIS in 2016 and 2017, was dismissive of widespread reports from media and human rights organizations of the killings.
Gen. Townsend, now head of US Africa Command, responded, “There’s nothing further from the truth.” He blamed civilian casualties on “the misfortunes of war” and not because “we didn’t care”.
Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of Central Command at the time, maintained, “Our ability to get out and look after a strike was extraordinarily limited — it was an imperfect system. But I believe we always took this seriously and tried to do our best.”
UPDATE, NOV 30:
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered a new high-level investigation into the US airstrike in northeast Syria in March 2019 that killed about 80 civilians, including scores of women and children.
Gen. Michael Garrett, the four-star head of the Army’s Forces Command, will lead a 90-day inquiry into the strike carried out by the Special Operations unit Task Force 9.
The investigation will also consider the US military initial, inadequate examinations of the attack.
The House and Senate Armed Services Committees are also investigating the strike near Baghouz, the last organized position in Syria of the Islamic State, on March 18, 2019.
ORIGINAL ENTRY, NOV 14: The US military killed scores of women and children in airstrikes in northeast Syria in March 2019, then covered up the attacks.
The US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces had reduced the Islamic State to its last organized position in Syria, in the town of Baghouz near the Iraq border, on March 18.
In a nearby dirt field on the bank of a river, an American drone monitored the frontline. There were no fighters present, only a large crowd of women and children.
But an F-15E attack jet suddenly cut across the drone and dropped a 500-pound bomb. A second jet dropped two 2,000-pounds bomb.
About 80 people had been killed.
An analyst at the US air command center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, asked, “Who dropped that?” Another responded, “We just dropped on 50 women and children.”
“Leadership Set on Burying This”
A legal officer assessed that the strike was a possible war crime requiring an investigation. But rather than carry out the inquiry, US officials hid the strike. The death toll was minimized, as reports were delayed and sanitized. The bombing site was bulldozed.
A report by the Defense Department’s independent inspector general was stalled and purged of any reference to the airstrikes.
Gene Tate, an analyst who worked in the inspector general’s office, explained:
Leadership just seemed so set on burying this. No one wanted anything to do with it.
It makes you lose faith in the system when people are trying to do what’s right but no one in positions of leadership wants to hear it.
Tate said he was eventually forced out of his job because of his criticisms.
The bombing was ordered by a classified US special operations unit, Task Force 9, which had not notified the Qatar operations center of its intention to strike. Air Force lawyer Lt. Col. Dean Korsak, alerted by an inteligence officer in Qatar, ordered the F-15E squadron and the drone crew to preserve all evidence. He notified his chain of command about the possible war crime.
The inquiry never happened. Instead, the ground unit that ordered the strike carried out the only assessment. It claimed a legal bombing, with only a few civilians slain.
Korsak alerted the Defense Department’s independent inspector general. However, he saw no progress in two years. So earlier this year, the lawyer e-mailed the Senate Armed Services Committee, notifying them of material he collected:
I’m putting myself at great risk of military retaliation for sending this….Senior ranking U.S. military officials intentionally and systematically circumvented the deliberate strike process.
Korsak said that there was a good chance, “the highest levels of government remained unaware of what was happening on the ground”.
“Misleading Information” and Denying Civilian Deaths
After a months-long investigation by the New York Times, US Central Command finally acknowledged the strikes and the death toll. However, it claimed justification for the attacks and questioned the extent of civilian casualties. The military said that bombs killed 16 fighters and four civilians, and that it was unclear if the other 60 victims were combatants as women and children in the Islamic State sometimes were armed.
Capt. Bill Urban, the Command’s chief spokesman, maintained:
We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent them. 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.
But CIA officers were so alarmed about the strikes of Task Force 9 that they notified the Department of Defense inspector general. His report is still top secret, but a former task force officer said it covers about 10 incidents in which the unit struck targets while knowing that civilians would be killed.
Nevertheless, the officer said the report determined that all strikes were legal.
Officers in the Qatar operations center suspected that Task Force 9, invoking “self-defense” in 80% of its strikes, was including misleading information for justification. However, they did not pursue the issue until the Baghouz attack.