People who live near where the bombs fell — about 10 miles north of Manbij in northern Syria — said the only planes they'd seen since June were from a U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State. The area is just a few miles north of the front line between the Islamic State and the coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). If Tuesday's airstrikes were indeed by coalition jets, and not Russian or Syrian government warplanes, this would easily be the highest civilian toll from any action by the coalition since it formed in 2014.
Faced with the likelihood of a grave error by the coalition, U.S. officials responded cautiously, emphasizing the need to verify what had happened.
"If the information supporting the allegation is determined to be credible, we will then determine the next appropriate step," a statement from U.S. Central Command said. The military also said that it had carried out 18 airstrikes on Tuesday around Manbij. That is a small chunk of the 450 strikes near the town since May and the 10,500 total since the campaign began.
"This has been the most precise air campaign in history, and we’re going to make sure that it stays that way, but I don’t have any further information on this," said Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition. The U.S. military has since announced that it is launching an investigation.
But the probability that it was a coalition airstrike makes this a huge deal, beyond the fact that dozens, if not hundreds, of civilians died. The dead and their kin are the same people whose hearts and minds the coalition hopes to win over. The deaths, and the perception that they were caused by the coalition, mean that that hope is probably lost. Liz Sly, one of The Washington Post's Middle East correspondents, reported that many fighters in the SDF were questioning whether they could remain in the force.
“People are now full of hatred for the SDF. We thought they were coming to finish ISIS, but it seems they are finishing us first,” said Jassem al-Sayed, a politician from Manbij, speaking with Sly over the phone. ISIS is an alternative acronym for the Islamic State.
From the perspective of a Western onlooker, Tuesday's strikes are easy enough to write off as another grisly chapter in a grinding war. And for the U.S. military, it is probably another internal investigation that will wear on until the public has largely forgotten which airstrikes and which civilians it is talking about. The average time between a strike and the release of a redacted Centcom investigative report is seven months, said Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But in November, Centcom announced that it would stop publicly releasing the results of each and every investigation. But standards for how much is released had anyway been unclear. Centcom news releases, often published in bulk on Friday afternoons, usually list only a date, a location and an estimate of civilian damage, while the nitty-gritty of the investigation is redacted or simply unreleased.
In other words, it is possible but improbable that we will hear the final word from the U.S. military on what happened Tuesday and whether the coalition bears any culpability.
The U.S. military has no strategic imperative to kill Syrian civilians, so the probability of faulty intelligence being the cause is high. Being so close to the front line, it is entirely possible that civilians there were being used as human shields for the Islamic State, as they have been elsewhere.
But a prolonged investigation resulting in a redacted document would be tantamount to obfuscation. If the coalition isn't to blame, why isn't it rushing to absolve itself?
Is it possible that if the media paid more attention to such atrocities, there might be a greater sense of outrage and urgency? That something like this wouldn't seem so routine? Because it isn't, even if hundreds are being killed in Syria's civil war every day.
The Post has had one staff-written article on the airstrikes, which failed to make it to the top of the home page online. The New York Times and most others "ran a wire." Television stations ran an item in their tickers. But writing more than what has been written is tough. The strikes took place in a war zone. How do you get there to verify people's stories — and make it out alive? And from below, fighter jets are hard to recognize.
The following video shows coalition forces bombing a location north of Manbij two weeks ago, right next to where Tuesday's bombing occurred. It gives a sense of what an airstrike looks like from the perspective of a pilot, or a drone.
Without an official answer from the coalition, it is almost impossible to verify who dropped the bombs, leaving reporters in a gray zone of speculation. And even if it turns out that the airstrikes were by Russian or Syrian forces, it's not like they would ever own up. Their airstrikes have killed many, many more civilians than those by the coalition. The haziness of the truth only contributes to a larger narrative bubble we see around the war in Syria — one in which civilians are mostly death tolls or collateral damage.
That haze is probably one reason that, despite the unusually high death toll in this week's airstrikes and the high possibility of U.S. culpability, neither candidate for the American presidency has issued a statement of condolence or concern.
The U.S. military is usually very strict about avoiding civilian casualties. It turns down countless target requests from its partners in Syria and Iraq because it can't verify the situation on the ground. The White House's numbers on civilian deaths from drone strikes in counterterrorism operations are low. But, then again, few agree with those figures. Last year, a London-based group of journalists published a study saying that in the coalition's first 12 months of airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, it killed 459 civilians in 57 incidents. The Pentagon admits only to 26 deaths. And egregious mistakes have led to U.S. drones blowing up wedding processions in both Afghanistan and Yemen.
Each of these is a tragedy, and a setback for American objectives. Syrians and Americans alike deserve to know what happened.