Pentagon chief orders briefing on 2019 airstrike in Syria that killed dozens

WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has ordered the Middle East Army Commander-in-Chief to brief him on details of a U.S....


WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has ordered the Middle East Army Commander-in-Chief to brief him on details of a U.S. airstrike in Syria in 2019 that killed dozens of women and children, the Pentagon announced on Monday.

Senior Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby said Mr. Austin, who became secretary this year after the Biden administration took office, requested the briefing after reading a investigative report published this weekend by the New York Times detailing the strike and allegations that senior officers and civilian officials sought to cover up the victims.

General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., head of Army Central Command, who oversaw the air war in Syria, “will brief him more specifically on this particular airstrike” and how it was handled, Kirby said. to journalists.

Mr Kirby declined to comment on the details of the strike, a bombing in Baghuz, Syria on March 18, 2019, which was part of the final battle against Islamic State fighters in the latest outburst. of a once-sprawling religious state across Iraq and Syria. It was one of the largest incidents of civilian casualties in the multi-year war against ISIS, but had never been publicly acknowledged by the US military.

“I am not going to question a strike that occurred in March 2019,” Mr Kirby said.

Instead, he sought to uphold US military standards and procedures for conducting modern precision strike warfare that also emphasizes mitigating risk to civilians.

“No army in the world works as hard as us to avoid civilian casualties,” Kirby said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t always do things right. We don’t. We are working hard to prevent harm to civilians. We also want to look at ourselves.

The Times investigation showed that the death toll from the strike was almost immediately apparent to military officials. A lawyer flagged the bombing as a possible war crime that needed investigation. But at almost every step, the military took action that masked the catastrophic strike. The death toll has been minimized. Reports were delayed, cleaned up and filed. US-led coalition forces razed the site of the bulldozer blast. And the top executives were not warned.

An initial battle damage assessment quickly revealed that the death toll was around 70.

The Times investigation found that the bombardment by Air Force F-15 attack aircraft was called in 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 air command center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar had no idea the strike was coming, said an officer who served at the command center .

The independent Inspector General of the Defense Ministry opened an investigation, but the report containing his findings was blocked and stripped of any mention of the strike.

Mr Kirby said, however, that two studies examining civilian casualties commissioned by the Pentagon were nearing completion and would be released to the public soon.

A study, launched under the Trump administration by the Pentagon’s Office of Special Operations Policy, specifically examines civilian casualties caused by military operations in Syria. Mr Kirby said he was unsure whether the March 2019 airstrike would be included in that review.

A second study, commissioned by Congress as part of a recent military policy bill, examines the broader issue of civilian casualties in U.S. military operations, Kirby said.

“We are ready to continue to watch each other with regard to the damage to civilians and to do everything possible to try to mitigate this,” he said.

Last week, after The Times sent its findings to U.S. Central Command, the command acknowledged the attack for the first time, saying 80 people were killed but the airstrike was justified. He said three bombs – one of 500 pounds and two of 2,000 pounds – killed 16 fighters and four civilians. As for the other 60 people killed, the statement said it was not clear whether they were civilians, in part because ISIS’s women and children sometimes took up arms.

Human rights activists on Monday expressed outrage at the strike and the way the military handled it, and demanded that Congress open an independent investigation.

“Obviously, the US military is not going to fix it,” said Sarah Holewinski, director of Human Rights Watch in Washington and former senior human rights adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. army. “The Pentagon has never prioritized civilian damage. Already. I’m sick of this talking point.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Pentagon chief orders briefing on 2019 airstrike in Syria that killed dozens
Pentagon chief orders briefing on 2019 airstrike in Syria that killed dozens
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