According to a report by the New York Times that was released on Saturday, the U.S. covered up airstrikes that killed 64 women and children during the last days of the siege of Raqqa, Syria against the Islamic State.

The New York Times claim that its report is based on classified documents, confidential reports, and interviews with the personnel involved.

According to the report, the remnants of ISIS were trapped along the Euphrates River in the town of Baghuz on March 18, 2019. A drone circled overhead searching for targets and spotted a large group of civilians (women and children) along the riverbank. 

Then, a U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle dropped a 500-pound bomb on the crowd killing and wounding many of them. As the survivors stumbled away toward cover, two bombs 2,000-pound bombs killed nearly all of the survivors. 

The Times reported that at the Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar, an analyst wrote on the chat log “We just dropped on 50 women and children.” An initial battle damage assessment quickly found that the number of dead was closer to 70.

The strike was coordinated with and ordered by a classified special operations unit, Task Force 9. The unit consists of Green Berets from the 5th Special Forces Group and Delta Force operators working with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

SDF is a coalition of Kurdish fighters opposing ISIS and the Syrian government. 

 

A Possible War Crime

SDF fighters in Syria trying to oust ISIS from their territory. (File photo)

The Times report claims that an Air Force legal officer who was in the Ops Center flagged the airstrike as a possible war crime, but the military, through the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), made every effort to conceal the strike. 

It wasn’t until this week that CENTCOM addressed the airstrikes for the first time, acknowledging that 80 people were killed in the attacks, including 16 ISIS fighters and four civilians. CENTCOM said that it was unclear if the other 60 people were civilians, partly because women and children could have been combatants.

The military said the attacks were acts of “legitimate self-defense,” proportional, and that “appropriate steps were taken to rule out the presence of civilians.”

Central Command spokesman Captain Bill Urban said, “We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent them. 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 said that the number of civilians among the 60 fatalities could not be determined because “multiple armed women and at least one armed child were observed,” adding that the majority of the 60 were likely combatants.

The Times report claims that Task Force 9 routinely circumvented the checks and balances required to conduct airstrikes by claiming that their troops and partners were in life-threatening situations, in this case, in danger of being overrun. This allowed them to call in the airstrikes directly, skirting the Air Ops Center under military regulations that refer to the “inherent right of self-defense.”

The Pentagon launched an investigation through the Inspector General’s office. The resultant report was delayed and subsequently “stripped” of any mention of the airstrike. An independent investigation never took place. 

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At dawn on the day of the airstrikes, Task Force 9 operators reported and drone footage clearly showed that ISIS fighters, trapped against the Euphrates, launched an attack against SDF fighters, sending some of men forward with suicide vests. Coalition aircraft obliterated most of them, using up all of their missiles in the process. 

Syrian SDF fighters with American Green Beret advisors based out of Al-Tanf, Syria. (File photo)

Around 10 a.m., SDF fighters reported they were under fire and in danger of being overrun, and called for an airstrike, An officer of the 5th Special Forces Group reviewed the drone footage, reportedly didn’t see any civilians, and gave the order to fire. With no missiles left, the F-15E Strike Eagle unleashed 500- and 2,000-pound bombs. The official strike log classified it as a self-defense airstrike. 

The Times report claims that video evidence refutes the entirety of Task Force 9’s report. Soon afterward, the U.S.-led coalition forces bulldozed the blast site. 

On Sunday, the U.S. Embassy in Syria said that the U.S. will continue its support for the SDF, and its mission to fight ISIS in Syria will continue “to ensure that the terrorist group threat is eliminated.”

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