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Classified: 2019 U.S. Airstrike in Syria Killed Dozens of Innocent Civilians

Image obtained from BBC

On Mar. 18, 2019, one of the last days of the battle against the Islamic State in Syria, a U.S. drone circled over the town of Baghuz in search of members of a caliphate who were known to be hiding in the area. Soon, the drone was able to see a large group of people huddled by a riverbank. 

Then, without warning, an American F-15E attack jet flew in, creating a streak across the drone’s high-definition field of vision, and dropped a 500-pound bomb on the crowd. The group was completely engulfed in the explosion. Once the smoke cleared, a few survivors made their way out of the wreckage, but as they searched for cover, a jet tracking them dropped a 2,000-pound bomb, then another, leaving almost no survivors in the end. 

70 people died in Baghuz that day. None of them were part of an Islamic caliphate. All 70 were innocent civilian women and children. 

At the U.S. military’s Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, uniformed officials watched the live drone footage of the attack in utter shock and disbelief, according to an officer who was there. The New York Times reports that a confused analyst typed “Who dropped that?” into a secure chat system being used by those monitoring the drone. 

How the U.S. Hid an Airstrike That Killed Dozens of Civilians in Syria -  The New York Times
Image obtained from The New York Times

The Baghuz Strike is now labeled as one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war against the Islamic State, yet it has never been publicly acknowledged by the U.S. The New York Times released an investigative piece in November based on confidential documents and classified intel detailing how the death toll was almost immediately apparent to military officials but was downplayed by officials who delayed, sanitized, and classified reports. A legal officer marked the strike as a possible war crime that required an investigation, but the military made multiple efforts to conceal the true tragedy of the strike. 

According to The NYT, Gene Tate – a former Navy officer, a civilian analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agence, and the evaluator who worked on the Baghuz case for the inspector general’s office, shared that “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.”

Due to the high caliber attack and its catastrophic effect, the officials who discussed the incident with The Times requested that they not be named. They were able to provide information describing how the bombing had been called in by Task Force 9, a classified American special operations unit responsible for ground operations in Syria. Task Force 9 is so secretive that it sometimes will not share information with its own American military partners. This is why the drone team in Qatar on March 18th was completely unaware that an F-15 was about to strike and kill so many innocent civilians. 

In the immediate aftermath of the strike, an Air Force Intelligence officer called an Air Force lawyer regarding the legality of the strike and the lawyer ordered the F-15 squadron and drone crew to preserve all evidence, including video and audiotapes. According to The Times investigation, the lawyer then reported the strike to his chain of command, acknowledging how it possibly violated the law of armed conflict. In other words, the strike could be a war crime and, as a result, would require a thorough, independent investigation.

Two years and almost 9 months later, – on Nov. 29, 2021 – the Pentagon finally announced that a 90-day investigation led by Army General Michael X. Garett would commence. The review was ordered by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after a Nov. 17 briefing, during which he discussed both an internal and external review on U.S. airstrike and civilian casualties. The internal review is an annual requirement from Congress. 

According to Military Times, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby stated that Garrett would review the strike itself, as well as how its results were investigated and briefed up the chain of command. “He will review the reports of the investigation already conducted into that incident and will conduct further inquiry into the facts and circumstances related to it,” Kirby said in a press conference. The report will detail civilian casualties, compliance with the law of war, reporting procedures, whether lessons learned in previous investigations were implemented, whether discipline is recommended for those involved and whether any policies or procedures need an update as a result. 

The delay in acknowledgment and investigation of the 2019 Baghuz Airstrike reveals an incredibly dangerous conflict of interest with the military investigation of civilian casualties and how information about these casualties can be withheld from the public. Dozens of innocent women and children were killed and the U.S. Central Command, which oversaw the air war in Syria, acknowledged the strike for the very first time after The New York Times sent their findings to the command last month. The command then stated that the airstrike killed 80 people and was justified as the bombs killed 16 fighters and only four confirmed civilians. In terms of the other 60 people, the statement from the command said it was not clear that they were civilians because women and children in the Islamic State sometimes took up arms. 

In his statement, Capt. Bill Urban, the chief spokesman for the command, said, “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.” However, according to The Times investigation, the only “investigation” done immediately after the strike was the one performed by the same ground unit that ordered the strike in the first place. They determined the bombing was lawful since it killed only a small number of civilians while targeting Islamic State fighters. Consequently, no formal war crime notification, further investigation, or disciplinary action was necessary. The other deaths were simply accidental collateral damage. 

Lt. Col. Deann W. Korsak, the Air Force Lawyer mentioned earlier, disagrees. He believed he witnessed a possible war crime on Mar. 18, 2019, and—according to The Times investigation—repeatedly requested his leadership at the Air Force and investigators to look into the situation. When they did not respond to his requests, he alerted the Defense department’s independent inspector general. After getting no response from the inspector general, Col. Korsak emailed the Senate Armed Services Committee, informing them that he had important top-secret material to discuss and that he was “putting [himself] at great risk of military retaliation for sending [the information].” He also wrote, “Senior ranking U.S. military officials intentionally and systematically circumvented the deliberate strike process.” He went on to share that a unit had intentionally entered false strike log entries, “clearly seeking to cover up the incidents” that led to a “shockingly high” death toll. His main point: the military did not follow its own standards of reporting and investigating the civilian casualties of the strike and it is very likely that the “highest levels of government remained unaware of what was happening on the ground.”

Now that an official independent investigation by the Pentagon is underway, the public may soon learn the details of what truly occurred in Baghuz on Mar. 18, 2019, as well as the truth about what happened in its aftermath. Our military is an incredibly honorable group of men and women that represent the best of society and fight for America’s freedom and the protection of our allies. However, this does not permit officials in a higher power to suppress information about civilian casualties in fear of public condemnation. Civilians of the nations in which the U.S. and other powers have ongoing warfare are unjustifiably caught in the crossfire of wars they do not want nor ever asked for. They too are victims of the terrorist regimes in their nations. Leaving their deaths unacknowledged and unexplained is stripping them of their basic human rights. These victims can still receive humanitarian justice if the complete truth about the Baghuz Strike is released.