Near the end of the conflict with the Islamic State in Syria, the U.S. military carried out a bombing that killed dozens of women and children in a town called Baghuz, The New York Times reported Saturday.
On March 18, 2019, an American F-15E attack jet dropped two bombs — first one weighing 500 pounds, then another weighing 2,000 pounds — onto a crowd made up mostly of women and children. The military action was part of President Donald Trump’s campaign to defeat ISIS in Syria.
Moments before the bombing occurred, a drone was hovering above the crowd searching for potential military targets, the Times reported. After the first bomb detonated, one of the drone’s analysts typed in a secure chat for people monitoring the drone, “Who dropped that?” because they hadn’t been forewarned that the strike was coming.
Another analyst replied, “We just dropped on 50 women and children.” The final casualty count would end up being much higher. Responding to the Times’ inquiry about the incident, the military acknowledged it for the first time. It said that the bombs killed 80 people but claimed the strike was justified, adding that the bombs killed 16 fighters and four civilians. But the military said it was unclear whether the other 60 people who died were civilians or fighters because women and children in ISIS were known to take up arms.
Task Force 9, a highly secret special operations unit that was leading ground operations in Syria, called in the bombing, the Times’ investigation found. The task force, the paper reported, had a pattern of using a loophole in the law of arm conflict that allows the military to bypass lawyers and bureaucratic review for a strike if it is exercising its “inherent right of self-defense.” Toward the end of 2018, some 80 percent of airstrikes called in by the unit had used the self-defense claim, an Air Force officer who reviewed the strikes told the Times.
Documents obtained by the paper showed that an Air Force intelligence officer based in the operations center asked Air Force lawyer Lt. Col. Dean W. Korsak to review the bombing shortly after it occurred. Korsak believed the strike may have constituted a war crime because it potentially violated the law of armed conflict, so he reported it up the chain of command and ordered the drone crew and F-15E squadron to preserve evidence related to the strike, including video.
Despite Korsak’s actions, however, an independent investigation didn’t materialize. After pressing his superiors to act, Korsak notified the DOD’s inspector general, but when it had been two years since the strike and he didn’t see any indication the IG was going to act either, he reached out to Congress.
“Senior ranking U.S. military officials intentionally and systematically circumvented the deliberate strike process,” Korsak wrote to the Senate Armed Services Committee in an email obtained by the Times, acknowledging that doing so was putting him “at great risk of military retaliation.”
Gene Tate, who worked as an evaluator for the inspector general’s office and agreed to speak with the Times about unclassified matters, said it appeared that the military did not want to address the airstrike. “Leadership just seemed so set on burying this,” he told the paper. “No one wanted anything to do with it. It makes you lose faith in the system when people are trying to do what’s right but no one in positions of leadership wants to hear it.”
In a statement to the paper, Capt. Bill Urban, the chief spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said that the military conducted an internal investigation of the strike. “We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent them,” Urban said. “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.”
The news of the Syria bombing comes not long after the military admitted it made an error when it launched a drone strike that killed 10 civilians, including seven children, in Kabul, Afghanistan, this past August. Originally, the military had said the strike was a successful effort to ward off an impending attack.