How the US hid an airstrike that killed dozens of civilians in Syria

1. Syria Coverup new
Ruins in the Syrian city of Raqqa on June 3, 2018. (Photo: NYTimes)
In the last days of the battle against Daesh in Syria, when members of the terror organization were cornered in a dirt field next to a town called Baghuz, a US military drone circled high overhead, hunting for military targets. But it saw only a large crowd of women and children huddled against a river bank.اضافة اعلان

Without warning, a US F-15E attack jet streaked across the drone’s high-definition field of vision and dropped a 500-pound bomb on the crowd. Then a jet dropped one 2,000-pound bomb, then another.

It was March 18, 2019. At the US 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.

“Who dropped that?” a confused analyst typed on a secure chat system being used by those monitoring the drone. Another responded, “We just dropped on 50 women and children.”

An initial battle damage assessment quickly found that the number of dead was actually about 70.

The Baghuz strike was one of the largest number of civilians killed by US forces in its intervention in Syria, but it has never been publicly acknowledged by the US military. The details show that the death toll was almost immediately apparent to military officials.

A legal officer flagged the strike as a possible war crime that required an investigation, but the US military made moves at every step to cover up the strike. The death toll was downplayed. Reports were delayed, sanitized, and classified. US-led coalition forces bulldozed the blast site. And top leaders were not notified.

The US Defense Department’s independent inspector general began an inquiry, but the report containing its findings was stalled and stripped of any mention of the strike.

“Leadership just seemed so set on burying this,” said Gene Tate, an evaluator who worked on the case for the inspector general’s office and agreed to discuss the aspects that were not classified.

Tate said he criticized the lack of action and was eventually forced out of his job.

The details of the strikes were pieced together by The New York Times over months from confidential documents and descriptions of classified reports as well as interviews with personnel directly involved and officials with top secret security clearances who discussed the incident on the condition that they not be named.

The NYT investigation found that the bombing had been 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 at times it did not inform even its own military partners of its actions. In the case of the Baghuz bombing, the US Air Force command in Qatar had no idea the strike was coming.

After the strike, an alarmed Air Force intelligence officer in the operations center called over an Air Force lawyer in charge of determining the legality of strikes. The lawyer ordered the F-15E squadron and the drone crew to preserve all video and other evidence. He went upstairs and reported the strike to his chain of command, saying it was a possible violation of the law of armed conflict — a war crime — and regulations required a thorough, independent investigation.

But a thorough, independent investigation never happened.

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