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A Pentagon investigation has determined that US forces committed no war crimes or intentionally killed civilians in 2019 airstrikes in Syria that killed dozens of people, including women and children.
The attacks on Baghuz, where desperate ISIS fighters holed up and took their final stand, killed at least four civilians but were kept secret for years until they were revealed last fall.
In the findings released Tuesday, the Pentagon acknowledged that the military had committed “policy flaws” in the wake of the airstrikes, but said no one, including the ground forces commander, was disciplined as a result of the strike.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who ordered a new assessment of the airstrike last November, said he was “disappointed” at the shortcomings in the handling of the initial assessment of the operation, which fell short of deadlines and led to delays in the operation. reporting to Congress and the public on civilian casualties.
Heavy smoke rises over the last remaining Islamic State (IS) position in Baghouz village on March 18, 2019, the same day as the attacks that killed civilians
Smoke rises in the last remaining position of the ISIS group on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River in the village of Baghouz on March 18, 2019
ISIS fighters fire their weapons during clashes with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Baghouz on March 18, 2019
“The trial contributed to a perception that the ministry was not committed to transparency and not taking the incident seriously — a perception that could have been avoided with a timely review and clear explanation of the circumstances surrounding the strike,” Austin said in a statement. declaration. memo released Tuesday.
The airstrikes in question were launched in support of Syrian allies under heavy fire from the Islamic State group near the city of Baghuz, in eastern Syria.
Called in by the secret special operations group Task Force 9, the attacks were carried out by US F-15E strike aircraft that dropped a 500-pound bomb and two 2000-pound bombs.
The US Central Command, which oversaw US air operations in Syria, first recognized the strikes in November 2021, claiming they were justified.
In a statement to DailyMail.com at the time, Central Command said 80 people were killed in the attacks, including 16 Islamic State fighters and four confirmed civilians, with the identities of the other victims uncertain.
At a briefing on Tuesday, a Pentagon official changed that estimate, saying that a total of 56 people were killed.
Of these, four were civilians and 52 were enemy combatants. Among the enemies was a child who had taken up arms, and the rest were grown men.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks at a media briefing at the Pentagon, Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
A Syrian woman holds two little girls to her chest as they join hundreds of civilians who fled the last ISIS stronghold in Baghuz on March 5, 2019, days prior to the bombings
The strike unfolded as ISIS fighters engaged in their final battle in a crowded, dirty camp (above) on the banks of the Euphrates River in Baghuz
The Pentagon’s investigation into the Baghuz attacks comes amid new investigations into the US military for attacks that cause innocent deaths.
And all of this has prompted Austin to instruct the department to draft a new Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan to better prevent civilian deaths in military operations.
He also ordered Army General Michael Garrett, currently the head of the US Army Forces Command, to conduct an independent assessment of the Baghuz attack.
Late last year, another independent review concluded that a US drone strike that killed innocent Kabul civilians and children in the final days of the war in Afghanistan was not caused by misconduct or negligence.
It discovered breakdowns in communications and in the process of identifying and confirming the target of the bombing.
The strike killed a longtime employee of a US humanitarian organization and nine of his family members, including seven children.
The US has promised to give the family financial reparations and possibly get them out of Afghanistan, but it has not yet happened.
While many women and children fled Baghuz (as seen above) before the final battle, the Pentagon says some stayed and took up arms
Smoke rises behind vandalized 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 body of an ISIS fighter are seen after SDF forces wiped out the group’s last stronghold in Baghuz on March 24, 2019.
In Tuesday’s memo, Austin directed division leaders to meet deadlines for reporting civilian casualties, conduct thorough assessments and reinforce the importance of procedures for commanders across the force.
The initial investigation into the attack concluded that the attack constituted legitimate self-defense in support of Syrian partner forces under fire from the Islamic State group. Garrett agreed with that conclusion in his research.
According to Garrett’s investigation, 52 enemy fighters were killed and two were wounded, four civilians were killed and 15 were wounded.
Of the civilians, a woman and three children were killed, and 11 women and four children were injured. One of the enemies killed was a child.
When asked why no one was held personally responsible for the civilian deaths, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Tuesday that Austin held the department responsible and that he was therefore ordering changes to the process.
“I understand the liability questions, I get it,” Kirby told Pentagon reporters.
The US Central Command first recognized the strikes in November 2021, claiming they were justified. Strikes are seen on March 18, 2019
US-backed fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Islamic State militant positions in Baghouz, Syria on March 18, 2019
“In this case, General Garrett found that the Ground Forces Commander was making the best decisions he could, given the information he had at the time, given a very deadly, very aggressive (Islamic State) threat, in a very confined space. It is most regrettable… our apologies for the loss of innocent lives.’
Garrett said in an unclassified summary of his report that the ground forces commander “did not cause civilian casualties intentionally or with wanton contempt.”
He said the decision to strike was necessary to defend the Syrian Democratic Forces and that “several attempts have been made to distinguish civilians from Islamic State insurgents.”
However, Garrett added that information not available to the commander at the time showed that he was relying on data “which was not completely accurate.”
But he said the commander’s actions cannot be judged on the basis of information available only in retrospect.
Garrett also said in his review that while he found issues with policy compliance, “I found no evidence to support the claim that these deficiencies were malicious or made to conceal decisions or actions.”