How the US hid an airstrike that killed dozens of civilians in Syria
The Times investigation found that the bombardment was triggered by a classified US special operations unit, Task Force 9, which was in charge of ground operations in Syria. The task force operated in such secrecy that it sometimes did not even inform its own military partners of its actions. In the case of the Baghuz bombing, the U.S. Air Force command in Qatar had no idea the strike was coming, said an officer who served at the command center.
Within minutes of the strike, an alarmed air force intelligence officer at the operations center called an air force lawyer tasked with determining the legality of the strikes. The lawyer ordered the F-15E squadron and the drone crew to keep all videos and other evidence, according to documents obtained by The Times. He went upstairs and reported the strike to his chain of command, saying it was a possible violation of the law of armed conflict – a war crime – and that the regulations required a thorough investigation and independent.
But a thorough and independent investigation never took place.
This week, after The New York Times sent its findings to the U.S. Central Command, which oversaw the air war in Syria, the command acknowledged the strikes for the first time, saying 80 people were killed but the airstrikes were justified. He said the bombs killed 16 fighters and four civilians. As for the other 60 people killed, the statement said it was unclear whether they were civilians, in part because ISIS’s women and children sometimes took up arms.
“We abhor the loss of innocent lives and take all possible measures to prevent them,” Captain Bill Urban, chief spokesperson for the command, said in the statement. “In this case, we have self-declared and investigated the strike based on our own evidence and take full responsibility for the unintentional loss of life.”
The only assessment made immediately after the strike was made by the same ground unit that ordered the strike. He determined the bombing was legal because it only killed a small number of civilians while targeting Islamic State fighters in an effort to protect coalition forces, the command said. Therefore, no formal war crime notification, criminal investigation or disciplinary action was warranted, he said, adding that the other deaths were accidental.
But Air Force attorney Lt. Col. Dean W. Korsak believed he had witnessed possible war crimes and repeatedly urged his officials and Air Force criminal investigators to act. When they didn’t, he alerted the independent Inspector General of the Ministry of Defense. Two years after the strike, seeing no evidence that the monitoring agency was taking action, Colonel Korsak emailed the Senate Armed Services Committee, telling his staff that he had top secret information to discuss and adding: “I put myself at great risk of military reprisals for sending this.”
“Senior US military officials intentionally and systematically bypassed the deliberate strike process,” he wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Times. Much of the material was classified and should be discussed via secure communications, he said. He wrote that a unit intentionally entered false entries in the strike log, “clearly seeking to cover up the incidents.” Calling the classified death toll “shocking,” he said the military had failed to follow its own requirements to report and investigate the strike.