On March 18, 2019, the United States’ allied Syrian Democratic Forces called for air support when they were attacked by ISIS forces, according to a statement from Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for the United States Central Command. US and coalition forces surrounded the last ISIS stronghold in Baghouz, Syria, but in the final days of the fighting, ISIS launched its own counterattack, using small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide bombings.
The only plane at the scene capable of carrying out the strikes was an F-15, Urban said. At the same time, the single unmanned aerial vehicle on the roof was only capable of recording standard definition video. Other aircraft and UAVs capable of recording high-definition video, which would have provided a clearer picture of the battlefield, had left the area after hours of combat.
Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces, the closest US special operations forces and the UAV flying over the battlefield reported or observed that there were no civilians in the area, Urban said. The F-15 dropped one 500-pound precision-guided bomb and two 2,000-pound precision-guided bombs, potentially killing dozens of people.
The special operations strike cell, which authorized the bombing, was unaware that another coalition UAV capable of recording high-definition video was operating in the area.
Several hours after the attacks, Urban said the UAV operator reported possible civilians in the area when the bombs were dropped.
The defense secretary has requested a briefing on the attack in Syria.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asked U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie for a briefing on a U.S. airstrike in Syria in March 2019, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said during a press conference at the Pentagon on Monday. McKenzie assumed command of Central Command days after the strike.
“No army in the world works as hard as we do to avoid civilian casualties,” Kirby said. “It doesn’t mean that we don’t always get it right, we don’t, but we work hard to prevent harm to civilians.”
A military investigation launched in the wake of the attacks in Syria found them to be “legitimate self-defense attacks” in support of the SDF that killed “at least” 16 ISIS fighters, Urban said. The attacks also killed “at least” 4 civilians and injured 8 others, but the military was unable to “conclusively characterize the state” of more than 60 killed in the attacks, leaving open the possibility of a much higher death toll. civilians.
“The exact mix of armed and unarmed personnel could not be conclusively determined,” and the video had observed “several armed women and at least one armed child,” Urban said. But he acknowledged that “it is also very likely that there will be more civilians killed by these two attacks.”
Despite the investigation and acknowledgment of the civilian deaths, the military did not disclose the attacks until the New York Times reported that some US officials questioned the legitimacy of the attack.
The annual report on civilian casualties does not mention the strike
In its annual report on civilian casualties in 2019, the Defense Department does not mention an attack in Syria on March 18, 2019 that killed civilians.
Earlier that month, the Defense Department listed an airstrike that killed a civilian in the same area in Syria, but there are no more on Baghouz’s list. The military said it received 277 reports of civilian casualties as part of Operation Inherent Resolv and the coalition to defeat ISIS in 2019. But as of last March, following an assessment, the military had found that only 11 of them were “credible.” .
A total of 22 civilians were killed in those incidents and another 13 were injured, the army said. The undisclosed attacks on March 18 could dramatically increase the number of civilians killed in an incident.
Five days after the previously undisclosed attack, US officials hailed the campaign against ISIS as a major victory.
“We and our Coalition partners salute the heroic sacrifices of the men and women who fought together against Daesh,” said General Joseph Votel, commander of the US Central Command at the time, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS, “and We mourn the loss of innocent civilians caught in the midst of his reign of terror. “
Kirby said the Defense Department “takes seriously” its responsibility to prevent harm to civilians.
“Without talking about this specific event or possible future decisions, Secretary Austin remains focused on ensuring that we do everything we can to avoid these tragic outcomes and be as forthcoming as possible about it,” Kirby said in a statement.
The military investigation found that “no disciplinary action was warranted” after the attacks and that appropriate actions were taken to rule out the presence of civilians at the site, Urban said. The investigation recommended requiring high-definition video broadcasts for similar attacks in the future. Such a video could have better delineated armed combatants from civilians before the attack was authorized.
The investigation also found that the use of 500- and 2,000-pound bombs was “proportional” because smaller arms were not available.
“We self-reported and investigated the strike based on our own evidence and took full responsibility for the unintended loss of life,” Urban said. Ultimately, the determined effort by US forces, the coalition, and the SDF culminated in ISIS’s final territorial defeat on March 23, 2019, but it did not come without significant US casualty cost. And partners or without the regrettable loss of civilian life. “
On Monday, Kirby said the Pentagon is working on two studies looking at damage to civilians, one of which focuses specifically on Syria.