In March of 2019, the U.S. military conducted a pair of airstrikes that killed dozens of civilians in Baghouz, Syria — one of the deadliest civilian-casualty incidents in the U.S. fight against ISIS in Syria — then subsequently covered up most of the details, according to a new New York Times investigation.
The death toll from the back-to-back airstrikes, which had been called in by a classified American special-operations unit named Task Force 9, was apparent to military officials from the start, according to documents obtained by the Times. (An analyst typed “We just dropped on 50 women and children” in chat logs used to operate the drones, which were hunting for ISIS targets.) In the immediate aftermath, a lawyer flagged the strikes as a possible war crime requiring an investigation and ordered drone crews to preserve all evidence. But an independent investigation was never done:
Air Force lawyer, Lt. Col. Dean W. Korsak, believed he had witnessed possible war crimes and repeatedly pressed his leadership and Air Force criminal investigators to act. When they did not, he alerted the Defense Department’s independent inspector general. Two years after the strike, seeing no evidence that the watchdog agency was taking action, Colonel Korsak emailed the Senate Armed Services Committee, telling its staff that he had top secret material to discuss and adding, “I’m putting myself at great risk of military retaliation for sending this.”
“Senior ranking U.S. military officials intentionally and systematically circumvented the deliberate strike process,” he wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Times. Much of the material was classified and would need to be discussed through secure communications, he said. He wrote that a unit had intentionally entered false strike log entries, “clearly seeking to cover up the incidents.” Calling the classified death toll “shockingly high,” he said the military did not follow its own requirements to report and investigate the strike.
In fact, the only unit that assessed whether civilians had been killed or laws had been broken was the same unit that called in the strike. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found they had done nothing wrong.
The day following the bombings, civilian observers who visited the site found “piles of dead women and children.” According to the Times, satellite images from four days later show that the bombing site had been bulldozed in order to cover up the incident. David Eubank, a former U.S. Army Special Forces soldier who walked through the area a week later, said, “There was a lot of freshly bulldozed earth and the stink of bodies underneath, a lot of bodies.”
The military is now acknowledging the strikes for the first time — after the Times reached out — claiming they took the lives of 80 people. The Pentagon said the bombs killed 16 fighters and four civilians; as for the other 60 who perished, it was “not clear that they were civilians, in part because women and children in the Islamic State sometimes took up arms.”
“We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent them,” Captain Bill Urban, the chief spokesman for the U.S. Central Command — which oversaw the air war in Syria — said in the statement. “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.”