Skip to main content

Pentagon inquiry finds no fault in 2019 Syria strike that killed civilians

Internal investigation blamed Syrian Kurdish forces for failing to mention the presence of civilians when calling in US airstrike.
Syria attack

An internal Pentagon investigation into a March 2019 airstrike that killed several civilians during the final battle against the Islamic State in Syria found no violation of the military’s rules of engagement.

Instead, the inquiry blamed local Kurdish-led Syrian fighters for relaying faulty information while requesting US air support.

  • The full report remains under wraps, but a declassified summary released by the Pentagon on Tuesday concluded that the US commander responsible for the strike was unaware that civilians were “within the blast radius” after receiving repeated confirmation from Kurdish forces that no noncombatants were present.

  • The US commander “acted reasonably and within the bounds” of the rules of engagement and the law of war, and “demonstrated awareness and concern for [civilian casualties] and took steps to mitigate harm,” the memo concluded, without offering specifics.

  • The New York Times reported in January that as many as 80 people had been killed by the strike on the jihadis’ final holdout, a patch of riverbank packed with remaining fighters and their families along the Euphrates near the Syrian town of Baghouz.

  • US Central Command said at the time that 16 of those killed were IS fighters and four were civilians, but could not account for the status of the remaining 60 people who died.

  • The Times’ report raised questions as to how US Special Operations Forces and their Syrian partners classified enemy combatants during the battle to defeat IS, and shed new light on failures by US Special Operations Forces to report civilian casualties.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin personally tasked US Army Forces Command chief Gen. Michael Garrett to investigate the incident after the Times revealed the military’s failure to properly account for the strike.

  • Garrett’s inquiry also concluded that four civilians – one woman and three children – were killed. An additional 15 civilians were wounded, among them 11 women and four children, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters Tuesday.

  • 52 other people killed by the airstrike were deemed to have been IS combatants, all male, and among them one child soldier, Kirby explained. Two male combatants were wounded, he said.

"We are letting you see everything," Kirby told reporters, adding that the Defense Department is holding itself accountable, despite no findings of wrongdoing in the strike’s procedures.

  • Garrett’s investigation did find numerous failings by US personnel in documenting and reporting the incident – including missed deadlines and failure to administratively conclude the review so that it could be reported to Congress in accordance with US law ­­– but the general’s public memo made no mention of potential disciplinary measures.

  • Those failures, Garrett wrote, “contributed to the impression that the DOD was not treating this ... incident seriously, was not being transparent, and was not following its own protocols and procedures regarding [civilian casualties] incidents.”

Austin ordered top Pentagon leadership on Tuesday to actively enforce future civilian casualties reporting deadlines and adopt lessons learned from Garrett’s report into an ongoing reform of US military policies regarding civilian casualties.

Failure to do so can "foster the false perception that the Department is not upholding our commitment to these responsibilities," the defense chief wrote in a memo to top military brass and Pentagon policy officials.

Garrett’s investigation “made several recommendations for improving processes and training,” Austin wrote, without revealing specifics.