Advocacy groups, human rights defenders, fellow reporters, and other readersThis is The New York TimesSaturday was a terrible day for journalists Eric Schmitt & Dave Philipps. publishedTheir investigation into the deadly 2019 U.S. Airstrike in Syria, and all that followed.
“This NYT report on the cover-up of U.S. war crimes in Syria should make your blood boil,” Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the anti-war group CodePink, tweeted Sunday. “The U.S. wantonly kills civilians, covers it up, and then tells other countries how ‘democracy’ works. Infuriating.”
Evan Hill, a journalist at the Times‘ visual investigations team, said that “this is a long, complicated story, but it’s one that touches on nearly every problem with the global U.S. air war. At every attempt, the military tried to cover it up.”
US forces aren’t good at policing themselves. Surprised?
“At nearly every step, the military made moves that concealed the catastrophic strike. The death toll was downplayed. Reports were delayed, sanitized & classified. [They] bulldozed the blast site.”https://t.co/BUOXiqhwGB
— Jon Rainwater (@jonrainwater) November 14, 2021
The TimesThe scene was two years ago when the U.S. military used a drone to search for militants from the Islamic State of Iraq or Syria. They encountered children and women along a riverbank.
Without warning, an American F-15E attack jet streaked across the drone’s high-definition field of vision and dropped a 500-pound bomb on the crowd, swallowing it in a shuddering blast. A few people fled in search of shelter as the smoke cleared. The bomb dropped by a jet following them, weighing in at 2,000 lbs, killed most of the survivors.
It was March 18, 2019, At the U.S. military’s busy Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, uniformed personnel watching the live drone footage looked on in stunned disbelief, according to one officer who was there.
“Who dropped that?” a confused analyst typed on a secure chat system being used by those monitoring the drone, two people who reviewed the chat log recalled. Another responded, “We just dropped on 50 women and children.”
Initial battle damage assessments quickly revealed that the actual number of dead was around 70.
After the strike, civilian observers “found piles of dead women and children,” reported Philipps and Schmitt, who spent months investigating one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war against ISIS, relying on confidential documents, descriptions of classified reports, and interviews.
“A legal officer flagged the strike as a possible war crime that required an investigation. But at nearly every step, the military made moves that concealed the catastrophic strike,” the pair explained. “The death toll was downplayed. Reports were delayed and sanitized before being classified. The blast site was bulldozed by United States-led coalition forces. And top leaders were not notified.”
There are many, many worrying aspects to the story, but two particular ones raise concerns.
Under the principle of ‘imminent Danger’, a secretive special forces unit called Tasked Force 9 called in the strike.
This designation meant that oversight was loosen. pic.twitter.com/ZAfIWxkS0X
— Airwars (@airwars) November 13, 2021
Gene Tate, a former U.S. Navy officer who worked on the Defense Department inspector general’s inquiry into the strike, told the TimesHe was critical of the lack of action and was forced to leave his position.
“Leadership just seemed so set on burying this. No one wanted anything to do with it,” Tate said. “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.”
According to Schmitt and Philipps:
This week, after The New York TimesIt sent its findings to U.S. Central Command. This command oversaw the air war against Syria. The command acknowledged the strikes for first time. It stated that 80 people had been killed and that the airstrikes were justified. It stated that the bombs had killed 16 fighters as well as four civilians. The statement also said that 60 others were killed by the bombs. This was partly due to the fact that children and women sometimes took up arms in the Islamic State.
“We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent them,” Capt. In the statement, Bill Urban, chief spokesman for command, stated. “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 ground unit that ordered and executed the strike performed the only assessment immediately following the strike. The command stated that the bombing was legal because it only killed a few civilians and targeted Islamic State fighters to protect coalition forces. According to the command, there was no formal war crime notification or criminal investigation. There was also no disciplinary action.
Both Tate and an Air Force lawyer—who didn’t respond to the Times‘ requests for comment—reached out to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee to share concerns. Chip Unruh, a spokesperson for the panel’s chair, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), declined to comment on the incident.
Unruh, however, told the Times more broadly that “when tragic errors occur on the battlefield, the United States, as the leader of the free world, has an obligation to be transparent, take responsibility, and do everything we can to learn from and prevent future mistakes.”
The article also demonstrates how military officials have repeatedly blocked inquiries and questions into the strike.
One section shows something we have long argued – without media & civil society pressure investigations into civilian harm aren’t taken as seriously. pic.twitter.com/PYMhvbZUXc
— Airwars (@airwars) November 13, 2021
Nahal Toosi, senior foreign correspondent at Politico, asked what the point is of having a Defense Department inspector general “if they a) don’t do their job b) never release public reports of what they find in a case like this.”
This story raises so many issues. I don’t know where to start. But one worth asking is WTF is the point of having a DOD inspector general if they a) don’t do their job b) never release public reports of what they find in a case like this. They are supposed be the watchdogs!
— Nahal Toosi (@nahaltoosi) November 13, 2021
“This is nothing short of criminal conspiracy,” saidCenter for Civilians in Conflict Daniel Mahanty “They bulldozed the strike site and manipulated logs. Who is going to jail for this?”
— Arabs For Bernie (@ArabsForBernie) November 13, 2021
“The U.S. needs to leave Syria ASAP,” declaredTrita Persi, executive vice-president at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “Our military presence there makes us LESS safe!”
CodePink also reached the same conclusion regarding the U.S. presence on the Middle East. tweeting Saturday: “Make no mistake. We must not allow these atrocities to continue and the dirty cover-ups to increase if we do not leave. We cannot allow that.”