On March 18, 2019, F15-E Strike Eagle multirole strike fighters dropped a 500-pound bomb and two 2,000-pound bombs on Islamic State (IS) members cornered in a dirt field next to Syria’s Iraqi border town of Baghuz, killing 64 people. What was shocking was the fighter jet streaked across the high-definition field of vision of an American drone hunting for military targets without warning despite the unmanned aerial vehicle spotting only a large crowd of women and children huddled against a riverbank.
“Who dropped that?” a confused analyst typed on a secure chat system being used by those monitoring the drone, according to The New York Times (NYT), which reported the details of the cover-up, which could constitute a war crime, on Sunday. Personnel at the US military’s Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, were stunned. “We just dropped on 50 women and children,” another analyst replied. According to an initial battle damage assessment, the number of casualties was 70.
The US Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversaw the American air operations in Syria, acknowledged the strike for the first time after the NYT report last week and even justified them. The report, according to the newspaper, was based on confidential documents, description of classified reports and interviews with personnel directly involved.
In a statement on Saturday, the CENTCOM reiterated the account it gave the NYT that 80 people, including 16 IS members and four civilians, were killed in the strikes, news agency Reuters reported. The military said that it was unclear if the other 60 people were civilians partly because “women and children could have been combatants”.
The strikes were “legitimate self-defence” and “appropriate steps were taken to rule out the presence of civilians”, the CENTCOM said. “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.”
US military spokesman Navy Captain Bill Urban said in a lengthy statement on Sunday that strikes were carried out after Syrian forces allied with the US requested assistance and nearby American troops reported seeing no civilians in the area, according to The Washington Post. But the US military, according to Urban, was “unable to conclusively characterise the status of more than 60 other casualties”. That group, he said, included “multiple armed women” and “at least, one” armed child.
“Likely, a majority of those killed were also combatants at the time of the strike. However, it is also highly likely that there were additional civilian casualties,” Urban added.
In an email sent to the Post on Sunday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that the department of defence and defence secretary Lloyd Austin seriously take “the obligation to avoid civilian harm” in military operations. “Without speaking to this specific event or any potential future decisions, secretary Austin remains focussed on making sure we do everything we can to both prevent these tragic outcomes and to be as forthcoming as we can be about them,” he wrote.
A US military officer requesting anonymity told the Post the CENTCOM never released any details about the incident. The US military admitted to the strike on Saturday only when the NYT reported that some American officers, including from the military and Central Intelligence Agency, had questioned the strike’s legitimacy, whether it constituted a war crime and if there was a deliberate effort to hide the truth.
A US Air Force lawyer present at the operations centre during the strike believed that it was a possible war crime and alerted the defence department’s inspector general and the Senate Armed Services Committee when no action was taken, the NYT reported.
The units involved in the attack, including the elite Army’s 5th Special Forces Group, had reported the possibility of civilian casualties internally. According to the NYT, the US military wanted to conceal the strike and multiple probe reports scrutinising what had happened were “delayed, sanitised and classified”.
The defence department’s inspector general launched an investigation into the incident, but its report was “stripped” of any mention of the bombing, according to the NYT.
The Baghuz strike was one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war against the IS. The attack occurred during the last days of the IS in Syria and “multiple entreaties to ISIS to allow family members to depart the area were rebuffed,” Urban claimed, adding that the Syrian forces called for help as they feared being overrun. The F-15E was the only remaining coalition fighter jet that could assist the Syrian forces as the drone was out of missiles and “unable to discern any civilians in the area”, he added.
Urban admitted that a coalition drone operator who was watching the situation on high-definition, full-motion video reported the possibility of civilian casualties. US Special Operations troops who relayed the request for airstrikes “did not have access to their feed,” he claimed.
According to Urban, a US military investigation concluded that the airstrikes were legitimate in defence of the US-backed Syrian fighters on the ground and proportional because of the unavailability of smaller bombs or missiles at the time.
“It is important to understand that ISIS decided to put their own families at risk when all avenues of escape were afforded to them. It is also important to note that some women and children, whether through indoctrination or choice, decided to take up arms in this battle and as such could not strictly be classified as civilians,” Urban further claimed.