Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

US Secretary of Defense Orders Investigation into Syria Airstrike that Killed Civilians in 2019

US Secretary of Defense Orders Investigation into Syria Airstrike that Killed Civilians in 2019

Wednesday, 1 December, 2021 - 10:00
US-backed forces engaged in heavy fighting against ISIS militants in the Syrian city of Baghouz in March 2019. Photo: Stringer/Reuters

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has ordered a renewed investigation into a 2019 airstrike in Syria's Baghouz that resulted in the deaths of civilians.

US Army Forces commander Gen. Michael Garrett has been assigned to conduct the investigation, which will review "reports of investigation already conducted" while also conducting "further inquiry into the facts and circumstances" of the strike, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Monday.

Garrett will have 90 days to finish the review that will cover "civilian casualties that resulted from the incident, compliance with the law of war" and "whether accountability measures would be appropriate," Kirby said.

Austin’s decision comes after a New York Times investigation report this month that described allegations that top officers and civilian officials had sought to conceal the casualties from the airstrike.

The report showed that the death toll — 80 people — was almost immediately apparent to military officials. A legal officer flagged the bombing as a possible war crime that required an investigation.

In a news conference two weeks ago, Austin vowed to overhaul military procedures and hold top officers responsible for civilian harm, but he did not outline any systemic problems that had allowed civilian casualties to persist on battlefields in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The attack was part of the final battle against ISIS.

The Baghouz strike was one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war against ISIS, but it has never been publicly acknowledged by the US military.

A F-15E attack plane hit the spot with a 500-pound bomb. Five minutes later, when ground forces saw people fleeing the blast site, the F-15E dropped two bombs of the same weight on the survivors.

The task force that investigated the Syria strike acknowledged that four civilians were killed, but it also concluded that there had been no wrongdoing by the Special Operations unit. In October 2019, the task force sent its findings to the Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla.

Austin, who became defense secretary this year, received a classified briefing this month about the strike and the military’s handling of it from General McKenzie, who oversaw the air war in Syria.

In an email to the Senate Armed Services Committee this spring, the legal officer who witnessed the strike warned that “senior ranking US military officials intentionally and systematically circumvented the deliberate strike process,” and that there was a good chance that “the highest levels of government remained unaware of what was happening on the ground.”

A spokesman for the Armed Services Committee, Chip Unruh, said that the panel “remains actively engaged and continues to look at the matter.”

Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, announced this month that his panel would also investigate the strike and the military’s handling of it.

Editor Picks