A Pentagon investigation has determined that US troops did not commit war crimes or deliberately kill civilians in 2019 airstrikes in Syria that killed dozens of people, including women and children.
The strikes on Baghuz, where desperate ISIS fighters were holed up and making their final stand, killed at least four civilians, but were kept secret for years until they came to light last fall.
In the findings released on Tuesday, the Pentagon acknowledged that the military committed ‘policy compliance deficiencies’ in the aftermath of the airstrikes, but said that no one, including the ground force commander, was disciplined as a result of the strike.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who ordered a new review of the airstrike last November, said he was ‘disappointed’ with deficiencies in the handling of the initial review of the operation, which missed deadlines and led to delays in reporting to Congress and the public about civilian casualties.
Heavy smoke rises above the Islamic State (IS) group’s last remaining position in the village of Baghouz on March 18, 2019, the same day as the strikes that killed civilians
Smoke rises in the ISIS group’s last remaining position on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River in the village of Baghouz on March 18, 2019
ISIS fighters are seen firing their weapons during clashes with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Baghouz on March 18, 2019
‘The process contributed to a perception that the Department was not committed to transparency and was not taking the incident seriously – a perception that could have been prevented by a timely review and a clear explication of the circumstances surrounding the strike,’ Austin said in a memo released Tuesday.
The airstrikes in question were launched in support of Syrian allies who were under heavy fire from the Islamic State group near the town of Baghuz, in eastern Syria.
Called in by the secretive special operations group Task Force 9, the strikes were carried out by American F-15E attack jets that dropped one 500-pound bomb and two 2,000-pound bombs.
U.S. Central Command, which oversaw U.S. air operations in Syria, acknowledged the strikes for the first time in November 2021 and claimed they were justified.
In a statement to DailyMail.com at the time, Central Command said at that time that 80 people were killed in the strikes including 16 Islamic State fighters and four confirmed civilians, with the identity of the other casualties uncertain.
At a briefing on Tuesday, a Pentagon official amended that estimate and said that a total of 56 people were killed.
Of those, four were civilians and 52 were enemy combatants. The enemies included one child who had taken up arms, and the rest were adult males.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon, Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
A Syrian woman holds two little girls against her chest as they joined hundreds of civilians who fled the final ISIS stronghold in Baghuz on March 5, 2019, days prior to the bomb strikes
The strike unfolded as ISIS fighters were making their final stand in a crowded, dirty camp (above) on the banks of the Euphrates River in Baghuz
The Pentagon’s investigation into the Baghuz strikes comes amid new scrutiny on the U.S. military for strikes that cause innocent deaths.
And it has all prompted Austin to order the department to create a new ‘Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan’ to better prevent civilian deaths in military operations.
He also ordered Army Gen. Michael Garrett, currently the head of U.S. Army Forces Command, to do an independent review of the Baghuz strike.
Late last year, another independent review concluded that a U.S. drone strike that killed innocent Kabul civilians and children in the final days of the Afghanistan war was not caused by misconduct or negligence.
It found breakdowns in communication and in the process of identifying and confirming the target of the bombing.
The strike killed a longtime employee of an American humanitarian organization and nine of his family members, including seven children.
The U.S. has promised to pay financial reparations to the family, and potentially get them out of Afghanistan, but none of that has happened yet.
Although many women and children fled Baghuz (as seen above) before the final battle, the Pentagon says that some remained and took up arms
Smoke rises behind destroyed vehicles and damaged buildings in the village of Baghuz in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province near the Iraqi border on March 24, 2019
Wreckage and the body of an ISIS fighter are seen after SDF forces wiped out the group’s final stronghold in Baghuz on March 24, 2019
In the Tuesday memo, Austin directed department leaders to meet deadlines in reporting civilian casualties, conduct thorough reviews, and reinforce the importance of the procedures to commanders across the force.
The initial investigation into the attack concluded that the strike constituted legitimate self-defense in support of Syrian partner forces under fire from the Islamic State group. Garrett, in his investigation, agreed with that conclusion.
According to Garrett’s investigation, 52 enemy combatants were killed and two were injured, and four civilians were killed and 15 were injured.
Of the civilians, one female and three children were killed, and 11 women and four children were wounded. One of the enemies killed was a child.
Asked why no one was being held personally accountable for the civilian deaths, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Tuesday that Austin was holding the department accountable, and that’s why he ordered changes in the process.
‘I understand the questions about accountability, I get it,’ Kirby told Pentagon reporters.
U.S. Central Command acknowledged the strikes for the first time in November 2021 and claimed they were justified. Strikes are seen on March 18, 2019
U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter fire on Islamic State militant positions in Baghouz, Syria on March 18, 2019
‘In this case, Gen. Garrett found that the ground force commander made the best decisions that he could, given the information he had at the time, given a very lethal, very aggressive (Islamic State) threat, in a very confined space. It is deeply regrettable … we apologize for the loss of innocent life.’
Garrett, in an unclassified summary of his report, said that the ground force commander ‘did not deliberately or with wanton disregard cause civilian casualties.’
He said the decision to strike was necessary to defend the Syrian Democratic Forces and that ‘multiple efforts to distinguish civilians’ from Islamic State insurgents were made.
Garrett added, however, that information not available to the commander at the time, showed that he relied on data ‘that was not fully accurate.’
But he said the commander’s actions can’t be judged on information available only in hindsight.
Garrett, in his review, also said that while he found problems with policy compliance, ‘I found no evidence to support the allegation that these deficiencies were malicious or made to conceal decisions or actions.’