The Pentagon has completed a lengthy investigation into a deadly 2019 strike by US forces in Syria.
The internal US Army investigation focused on an operation by a special US force operating in Syria, which launched an airstrike on an ISIS bastion in Baghouz on March 18, 2019.
In a memo released on Tuesday, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said he was “disappointed” with deficiencies in the handling of the initial review of the operation, which he said “contributed to a perception that the Department was not committed to transparency and was not taking the incident seriously.”
That perception could have been prevented with a “timely review and a clear explication of the circumstances surrounding the strike.”
Austin directed relevant authorities to improve their way in handling reports on casualties among civilians.
“Protecting innocent civilians is fundamental to our operational success and is a strategic and moral imperative,” he stressed.
The investigation was sparked last year after the New York Times reported that in the original strike the US military had covered up dozens of non-combatant deaths.
The report said that 70 people, many of them women and children, had been killed in the strike.
It said a US legal officer “flagged the strike as a possible war crime” and that “at nearly every step, the military made moves that concealed the catastrophic strike.”
But the final report of the investigation rejected that conclusion Tuesday.
It said that the US ground force commander for the anti-ISIS coalition received a request for airstrike support from Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the extremists.
The commander “received confirmation that no civilians were in the strike area” and authorized the strike.
However, they later found out there were civilians at the location.
“No Rules of Engagement or Law of War violations occurred,” the investigation said.
In addition, the commander “did not deliberately or with wanton disregard cause civilian casualties,” it said.
The report said that “administrative deficiencies” delayed US military reporting on the strike, giving the impression that it was being covered up.
Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby said that 53 combatants were killed, 51 of them adult males and one child, while four civilians died, one woman and three children.
Another 15 civilians, 11 women and four children, were wounded, he added.
Asked if anyone was being punished for the civilian deaths, Kirby said the investigation did not find the need to hold any individuals accountable.
The probe “did not find that anybody acted outside the law of war, that there was no malicious intent,” Kirby said.
“While we don’t always get everything right, we do try to improve. We do try to be as transparent as we can about what we learn,” he said.