The U.S. military has acknowledged a March 2019 drone strike in Syria that killed dozens of people, including civilians, for the first time this weekend.
The strike, which occurred on March 18, took place during the final days of the battle against the Islamic State. It was conducted in a field near the town of Baghuz.
Central Command commented on the strike following an investigation into it by the New York Times that was published over the weekend.
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“We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent them,” Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for CENTCOM, said in the statement. “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.”
CENTCOM, which oversaw the aerial war campaign in Syria, acknowledged that 80 people were killed in the strike, adding that 16 of them were fighters and four were civilians, but the status of the other 60 people was unclear.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called for Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of CENTCOM, to brief him on the strike, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday. Kirby said that Austin did not call for a full review of the strike.
Personnel at the U.S. military’s Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar were in “stunned disbelief” immediately after an American F-15E attack jet, without warning, dropped a 500-pound bomb, while another jet dropped two 2,000-pound bombs on the people who survived the first one, the New York Times reported.
An Air Force intelligence officer in the operations center called an Air Force lawyer responsible for determining the legality of a strike, who commanded the Air Force to preserve all video and other evidence. There was a chance the strike was a war crime.
A classified American special operations unit, Task Force 9, which was in charge of ground operations in Syria, called in the bombing. The military command in Qatar was unaware of the impending strike at the time.
The unit also investigated the strike ordered, finding that it was lawful because it killed a small number of civilians and because it was conducted in an attempt to protect coalition troops.
Lt. Col. Dean W. Korsak, an Air Force lawyer, repeatedly pressed his leader and criminal investigators to act, and he went to the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General afterward.
The inspector general’s report was stalled, and “leadership just seemed so set on burying this,” Gene Tate, an evaluator who worked on the case for the inspector general, told the New York Times. “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.”
He criticized the lack of action by the Pentagon and was eventually pushed out of his job.
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Two years after the strike, Korsak went to the Senate Armed Services Committee about the apparent cover-up.
“Senior ranking U.S. military officials intentionally and systematically circumvented the deliberate strike process,” he wrote in the email to the committee. He added that a unit had entered false strike logs intentionally, “clearly seeking to cover up the incidents,” and that “the highest levels of government remained unaware of what was happening on the ground.”