The American bombers came in several waves in the middle of the night.
Hours earlier, Islamic State militants had used the Syrian village of Tokhar to launch mortar attacks at U.S.-backed forces nearby. As the July 19 air raid began, dozens of people had gathered near a cluster of buildings on the northern edge of the village.
U.S. warplanes had pounded Tokhar twice already in July.
Just before 3 a.m., A-10 and B-52 aircraft bore down on the village again. Their 500-pound bombs struck their targets and, when the dust settled, at least 95 people lay dead, thrusting Tokhar into the center of an international debate over how the Syrian war has been waged and who has paid the price.
According to conflicting Syrian and U.S. accounts, the attack was either a major victory for the United States and its allied ground forces or the worst case of civilian casualties by the United States since the war against the Islamic State began. U.S. officials said the strike killed a large group of Islamic State fighters; Syrian activists said the people killed in Tokhar were mostly men, women and children seeking shelter from the war around them.
The contradictory narratives about what happened that night reveal the difficulty of determining outcomes in an air campaign that has taken place beyond the reach of journalists, aid groups and other independent observers.
“In a conflict of this nature, where we’re in close quarters fighting and Islamic State is deliberately using human shields, it’s inevitable that civilians will die,” said Chris Woods, director of Airwars, a Britain-based group that tracks allegations of civilian casualties.
“Where we have tensions is around how [U.S. military officials] tend to depict reporting of civilian casualties purely as propaganda,” he said. “What we too often see is the coalition downplaying credibly reported reports.”
While the vast majority of the Syrian war’s nearly half-million dead have been killed in ground clashes or regime air attacks, the U.S. government has confirmed that 55 civilians have died in more than 11,000 U.S. strikes conducted in Iraq and Syria since 2014.
Activists say those findings grossly understate the extent of civilian deaths. They blame an insular military process for evaluating civilian death allegations, one they say fails to sufficiently consider on-the-ground reporting by residents and activists that is often the sole counter-narrative to military officials’ version of events.
The figures from the U.S. Central Command show a rate of one civilian death for every 200 strikes that U.S. planes have launched in Iraq and Syria.
That’s a vastly lower figure than the war in Afghanistan at its height — a rate of one dead civilian for about every 15 strikes — or during six years of counterterrorism strikes in countries including Pakistan and Yemen, where the White House in a recent study found that a civilian died for every four to seven strikes.
The relatively low death toll for Iraq and Syria is even more striking in light of the U.S. military estimate that 45,000 militants have been killed in two years of attacks by air and via long-distance rockets.
“The numbers that Centcom is putting out would suggest an order of magnitude increase in effectiveness,” said Christopher Kolenda, a former Pentagon official who is a senior fellow at King’s College London. “It just doesn’t come across as very credible.”
Military officials describe elaborate measures taken to protect civilians, including pinpointing of civilian locations, legal and intelligence reviews, extended surveillance periods and use of precision munitions.
Since strikes began in 2014, the Obama administration has adapted those procedures, seeking to ensure, for example, that a greater number of strikes have a “shift cold” option. That means that planners identify a location, such as an empty field, to which they can divert a munition after it is fired in the event a civilian suddenly appears near the target.
“We recognize that it’s an operational imperative to demonstrate to the people of Iraq and Syria that, unlike ISIL, we take very seriously the prevention of death and injury of civilians,” said Pentagon spokesman Gordon Trowbridge. ISIL and ISIS are acronyms for the Islamic State.
Military officials express pride in what they see as a precise, judicious campaign. “It’s really, quite frankly, an amazing thing that we haven’t killed more civilians than we have,” said one military official who, as others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operations.
At the same time, the Pentagon has relaxed some rules governing strikes in Iraq and Syria — for example, by empowering officers of lower ranks than required earlier in the war to authorize strikes.
Those more flexible rules reflect pressure from inside and outside the military to increase the pace of strikes and make greater progress against a group seen as posing a serious threat to the United States and its European allies.
When allegations of civilian deaths emerge, officials conduct an initial assessment to determine whether they believe the claims warrant an investigation. Since 2014, U.S. military officials have deemed about a quarter of casualty allegations to be credible.
Centcom has already launched an investigation into the Tokhar strike.
Such investigations, typically headed by a colonel or a higher-ranking officer, can last months. During the course of the probe, investigators interview U.S. military personnel and review flight footage and intelligence findings. They do not typically interview witnesses or Syrians, but they sometimes receive on-the-ground accounts passed on from the State Department or the U.S. Agency for International Development, which work with civil society groups in Syria.
Some, but not all, investigations incorporate the online documentation — including cellphone images and social-media posts — that has become an important feature of the Syrian war.
In the hours that followed the July 19 bombing, activist groups from Tokhar and the nearby city of Manbij posted reports on Facebook and Twitter about large numbers of slain civilians. Several hours later, the Islamic State’s media arm tweeted that at least 160 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed.
Eventually, the names and photos of at least 70 alleged victims, including people described as village residents and families displaced by the nearby fighting, emerged online.
Neil Simmonds, who tracks events in Syria for Amnesty International, said his group had struggled for clarity about the criteria Centcom uses to consider reporting from local activists or civic groups.
“We have a name and a picture, and that still seems to fall short of credible evidence,” Simmonds said.
Navy Cmdr. Kyle Raines, a Centcom spokesman, said investigators’ assessment of allegations from local sources depends on whether “sufficient verifiable information” is available.
In the initial hours after the strike, several Twitter accounts tweeted pictures showing photos of rubble and dusty corpses. Those photos were not from Tokhar and had appeared on the Internet previously. To military officials, the posts were proof that Islamic State supporters were using the attack as propaganda.
But a Facebook group that was the source of much of the social-media information about the Tokhar strike — Manbij Mother of all the World — quickly flagged those photos as fake and warned people to disregard them.
Officials acknowledge that assessing the validity of claims in Syria presents a particular challenge. For much of the war in Afghanistan, U.S. troops called in airstrikes, examined bombing debris firsthand and interviewed witnesses. Little of that can occur in Syria, where the United States has only a tiny Special Operations presence with a much more limited mission.
Activists say that the Centcom investigation process, in setting a high bar for validating claims of errant deaths, may reinforce an inaccurate picture of the war.
“It’s really dangerous, obviously, if you think that you’ve conducted [thousands of strikes] and you’ve only killed 55 civilians. Then you probably do think you’re doing a brilliant job,” Simmonds said. “But we all know that’s a terrible underestimate.”
The murkiness surrounding the events of July 19 also highlights the challenges inherent to the growing U.S. collaboration with allied ground forces in Syria.
In recent months, tensions have increased between Arabs in northern Syria and Kurdish fighters from the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Kurdish forces come from other areas of Syria and have played a key role in recapturing territory from the Islamic State.
Some Arab residents have accused the Kurdish forces, which often relay targeting information to U.S. forces advising from behind the front lines, of placing insufficient importance on civilian life.
After the strikes, the Manbij Military Council, an SDF affiliate that speaks for U.S.-backed groups in the area, denounced the reports of civilian casualties as propaganda and said it had confirmed that civilians were no longer in the village before the air raid took place.
In the days leading up to July 19, SDF Kurdish forces and Islamic State militants had clashed repeatedly in the area around Tokhar.
According to a former Tokhar resident who goes by the name Abu Abdullah and now lives outside Syria, many fellow villagers fled after the militants’ arrival in 2014 because they resented the group’s strict rules about grooming and dress.
By mid-July, a small number of militants were coming and going from the village, sometimes using surrounding areas to fire on SDF forces, Syrians who spoke with residents said. Adnan al-Hussein, a journalist from Manbij who has spoken with people in Tokhar, said the Islamic State activity continued on the day of the strike.
At about 1 a.m. on July 19, a small number of militants launched mortar fire from inside the village and then withdrew, according to Hussein’s account. Remaining civilians took shelter in the northern area of the village, he said.
The planes, carrying laser-guided GBU-54 and GBU-31 bombs, struck several hours later.
While one group reported that as many as 203 people had died, between 70 and 80 civilians were named, including at least 11 children, according to reports compiled by Airwars. Among the alleged victims, according to those reports, was a man named Suleiman al Dhaher, who was killed along with at least five of his children and grandchildren, including two infants. Some sources reported that the area struck was a school occupied by displaced Syrians. “The victims of the massacre were all civilians, not a single member of ISIS,” according to Abu Abdullah.
But U.S. officials, speaking in detail about the strike for the first time, described elements that they say show that the people gathered in Tokhar that night were not civilians. Instead, the officials said, they were militants preparing for a major counterattack on allied forces in Manbij, where an intense battle was unfolding.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an incident that is under investigation, the officials said the village had been under drone surveillance for three weeks. Few civilians had been observed in the preceding 10 days.
U.S. officials cross-checked information from allied ground forces with their own intelligence. “The thought is that ISIL came in and told villagers to leave,” the official said. “The surveillance backed that up.”
The officials said the militants had been instructed to pose as civilians in a bid to elude enemy attack. They even arranged tractors in nearby fields to make it look like farming was still taking place.
U.S. officials say they think that a much smaller number of civilians died, perhaps about 10, and put the militant death toll at 85. Officials said they based those estimates not just on aerial surveillance but also on information provided by personnel from U.S.-backed Syrian forces who visited the village shortly after the strike to verify its results.
Asked whether Tokhar had been a legitimate attack, the official said: “Absolutely. . . . This was a valid military target.”
The Washington Post was not able to independently verify either the U.S. or Syrian accounts.
Kolenda, who recently co-wrote a report on the strategic impact of civilian casualties, urged the Pentagon to adopt new technologies, such as means that would allow civilians to transmit location information when using mobile phones to document attacks. Such tools may take on greater importance as the United States increases its reliance on air power to address threats in places such as Somalia or Syria, where U.S. officials are often unable to verify events directly.
“The military recognizes the moral and legal imperatives, but it has been very slow to appreciate that civilian harm, even if it’s inflicted within the laws of armed conflict, can be very damaging to our interests,” he said. “The Pentagon has got to get its arms wrapped around that.”
Zakaria reported from Istanbul.