Secretary of defense orders review of US airstrike that killed civilians in Syria in 2019

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has ordered a review of a US airstrike conducted in Syria in 2019 that the Pentagon only recently admitted had killed civilians after the publication of a New York Times report, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said during a briefing on Monday.

The review will be conducted by Gen. Michael Garrett, the commander of US Army Forces Command. Garrett will review “reports of investigation already conducted” but will also “conduct further inquiry into the facts and circumstances” related to the incident, Kirby said.

Garrett has 90 days to complete the review, which will cover “civilian casualties that resulted from the incident, compliance with the law of war” and “whether accountability measures would be appropriate,” Kirby added.

Austin ordered the review after The New York Times published an extensive investigation into the airstrike earlier this month. Shortly after the investigation published, US Central Command, the part of the US military that oversees forces in the Middle East, publicly acknowledged that civilians, including women and children, had been killed in the 2019 airstrike.

The number of civilians killed is unknown but US Central Command acknowledged it was “multiple civilians.”

On March 18, 2019, the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces called for air support when they came under attack from ISIS forces, Capt. Bill Urban, spokesman for US Central Command, said in a statement. US and coalition forces surrounded the last ISIS holdout in Baghouz, Syria, but in the final days of fighting ISIS launched a counterattack, using small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide bombings.

The only aircraft on location capable of carrying out the strikes was an F-15, Urban said. At the same time, the only unmanned aerial vehicle overhead was capable of recording only 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 fighting.

Syrian Democratic Forces fighters, the nearest US special operations forces and the UAV flying above the battlefield reported or observed no civilians in the area before the airstrike was conducted, Urban said. The F-15 then dropped three 500-pound precision-guided bombs, potentially killing dozens of people.

Several hours after the strikes, the UAV operator reported possible civilians in the area when the bombs had been dropped, Urban said.

The acknowledgment of the civilian casualties was the first time the Defense Department had publicly disclosed that civilians may have been killed as a result of the 2019 airstrike.

The revelation comes as the Department of Defense is facing increased scrutiny over its handling of civilian casualties following a drone strike in Afghanistan in late August that killed 10 civilians, including seven children. A review of the botched strike in Kabul found that “execution errors” led to what Pentagon officials had called a “tragic mistake” and that the killings did not violate the law of war, but it left the question of accountability up to the combatant commands.

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