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US: Pentagon rejects claims it hid civilian casualties in 2019 Syria strike

Defence department says mistakes were made but no wrongdoing in its air strike, which The New York Times reported killed dozens of civilians
Heavy smoke rises above the village of Baghouz Syria during battles between the Islamic State group and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on 18 March 2019.
Heavy smoke rises above the village of Baghouz, Syria, during battles between the Islamic State group and Syrian Democratic Forces, on 18 March 2019 (AFP)
By in
Washington

A probe by the Pentagon has concluded that American troops did not violate the law of war or deliberately cause civilian casualties in a 2019 air strike in Syria that killed dozens of people, including women and children, rejecting accusations that it deliberately covered up the killing of civilians.

The US defence department said on Tuesday that no one, including the ground force commander, was disciplined as a result of the strike, but said that its investigation did find that the military committed procedural mistakes in the aftermath of the attack.

Asked why no one was being held personally accountable for the civilian deaths, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said on 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.

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"In this case, Gen. [Michael] 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 apologise for the loss of innocent life.”

In November last year, a report by the New York Times accused the Pentagon of covering up the deaths of up to 64 women and children in strikes conducted in support of Syrian partner forces who were under heavy fire from the Islamic State (IS) group near the town of Baghouz, in eastern Syria.

According to the tally from the Pentagon's probe, headed by Army Gen Michael Garrett, 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, according to the Pentagon.

Garrett, in an unclassified summary of his report, said that the ground force commander "did not deliberately or with wanton disregard cause civilian casualties", adding that the decision to strike was necessary to defend Washington's Syrian allies, and "multiple efforts to distinguish civilians" from IS fighters were made.

The general said the commander did not have "fully accurate" information at the time of the strike.

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".

In a memo released on Tuesday, defence secretary Lloyd Austin, who ordered a new review of the air strike 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.

“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.

Lack of accountability

The US military has come under increased scrutiny since The New York Times released a trove of documents detailing how the American-led air war in the Middle East caused scores of civilian casualties.

The newspaper found, based on confidential military assessments of more than 1,300 reports of civilian casualties, that the US air campaign against IS was marked by flawed intelligence, confirmation bias and minimal accountability.

But despite the bombshell report, the Pentagon has done little to hold itself accountable for the deaths of innocents.

The US-led coalition has disclosed at least 1,417 civilian deaths since it started operations against the IS group in Syria and Iraq in 2014. But monitoring group Airwars believes the actual figure is between 8,192 and 13,244.

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 US-led war in Afghanistan was not caused by misconduct or negligence.

It found breakdowns in communication channels and in the processes of identifying and confirming the target of the bombing.

The strike killed a longtime employee of an American humanitarian organisation and nine of his family members, including seven children.

The US has promised to pay financial reparations to the family, and potentially get them out of Afghanistan, but none of that has happened yet.