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Pentagon inquiry rejects claims U.S. covered up civilian deaths in Syria

Nevertheless, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said a lack of transparency in such cases undermines public perception that the United States will hold itself accountable for such mistakes

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, shown here on Capitol Hill this month, pressed military officials to be more thorough with investigations of civilian casualties. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The findings of a U.S. military investigation reject allegations that commanders covered up the killing of civilians in Syria, officials said Tuesday, even as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned that a lack of transparency in such cases risks undermining public trust that the Pentagon will hold itself accountable for fatal mistakes.

The investigation, which remains mostly classified, examined U.S. strikes targeting Islamic State fighters in Baghouz, Syria, on March 18, 2019. Maj. Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday that 56 people were recorded killed in the strikes, including 51 men and one child deemed to be enemy forces. One woman and three children identified as civilians also were killed.

Two men identified as enemy fighters, 11 civilian women, and four civilian children were wounded in the strikes, Lodewick said.

Concerns about the mission’s execution first were raised in a complaint to the Defense Department inspector general’s office, and later in a series of reports by the New York Times.

Under scrutiny, U.S. admits airstrikes killed numerous civilians in Syria

Austin, in a memo released Tuesday along with a declassified summary of the investigation’s findings, admonished commanders to meet their “moral responsibilities” to investigate civilian casualties and ensure that those examinations are thorough.

“Failure to do so may deprive the Department of vital information necessary to meet our obligations to report incidents of civilian harm and to improve our mitigation efforts going forward,” Austin wrote. “It can also foster the false perception that the Department is not upholding our commitment to these responsibilities.”

Army Gen. Michael X. Garrett, the senior investigating officer, found that commanders involved in the Baghouz incident did not violate any rules of engagement or laws of armed conflict, nor act with “wanton disregard” for human life.

Rather, Garrett concluded in a two-page summary memo released by the Pentagon, the decision to strike the Islamic State fighters was necessary to defend forces partnered with the United States, and “multiple efforts to distinguish civilians from ISIS were made.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that Garrett decided it was unnecessary to discipline any military personnel involved in the operation. Kirby, in defending the Pentagon’s handling of the matter, said the willingness of U.S. officials to discuss the issue shows a commitment to owning its mistakes.

“We have to have a high bar for accountability for something like this given that it was in the midst of combat in the fog of war,” Kirby said. “If you can prove that an individual deliberately caused civilian casualties and violated the wars … then of course, there will be cause for holding people accountable.”

The case in Baghouz, coupled with similar failures on other battlefields, has fueled criticism that the Pentagon is either unwilling or incapable of holding commanders accountable when U.S. forces errantly kill civilians.

Botched drone strike that killed 10 civilians in Kabul was not a result of criminal negligence, Pentagon says

In another high-profile and recent example, U.S. troops killed 10 civilians, including several children, in an August drone strike in Afghanistan. In that case, the Pentagon opened an investigation after media scrutiny of claims made by senior leaders that the attack had killed an Islamic State operative targeting the U.S. evacuation from Kabul. An investigation later determined the killings were not the result of criminal negligence and that no one should not be punished.

Kirby, on Tuesday, defended such decisions when the mistakes facing scrutiny were made under duress. Garrett, the investigating officer for the incident in Syria, found that the ground commander made the best calls he could, Kirby said.

“Look, I understand the questions about accountability,” he said. “In war, not every decision goes exactly as you predict it will.

“Did anybody get fired because of Baghouz? No. But it’s not because we’re trying to protect careers.”

Last year, U.S. military officials said the strikes around Baghouz had killed at least 16 Islamic State fighters and four civilians, while acknowledging more than 60 others were injured. The Pentagon said then that it was “unable to conclusively characterize the status” of those individuals, but that the group included “multiple armed women” and “at least one armed child.”

Garrett determined that the ground commander, who is not identified in the materials released Tuesday, validated hostile actions by Islamic State fighters in the area and “repeatedly received confirmation that no civilians were in the strike areas.” The commander, Garrett found, was unaware that civilians “were within the blast radius” of the attack.

The strikes occurred in the southeastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zour, near the Euphrates River, as local forces aligned with the United States had cornered one of the last significant pockets of Islamic State fighters — intent to end the multiyear war.

U.S. military officials said previously that the day of the incident, the Islamic State fighters carried out a complex attack on U.S.-backed Syrian forces. Numerous U.S. aircraft responded, launching strikes as Syrian forces reported they were in danger of being overrun.