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US: Flawed Military Review of Civilian Casualties in Syria

Missteps Show Need for Congressional Oversight to Catalyze Change

Black smoke billows from the last small piece of territory held by Islamic State forces as US-backed fighters attack the area with artillery and airstrikes in Baghouz, Syria, March 3, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Andrea Rosa 2019 AP Photo/Andrea Rosa

(Washington, DC, May 19, 2022) – The US military’s review of a 2019 airstrike in Syria highlights fundamental and ongoing flaws in US handling of accountability for civilian harm, Human Rights Watch said today.

The US Defense Department on May 17, 2022, released a public summary, but not the full report, that acknowledges faults in the military’s initial handling of the strike, but is deeply deficient and finds no one accountable. Otherwise available information on the airstrike suggests preventable flaws in both the initial investigation and subsequent review including lack of transparency, a lack of information from witnesses, an overly elastic definition of combatants, and lack of amends for civilians harmed.

“It’s disappointing but not surprising that the US Defense Department has once again refused to hold itself accountable for civilian deaths,” said Sarah Yager, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “In addition to resolving obvious flaws in its investigative process, the US military should publish the full review, as a show of respect to the victims’ families and to prevent future abuses.”

A New York Times article  published in November 2021, found that dozens of civilians were killed by a US airstrike that hit Baghouz, Syria, in March 2019. The article also documented a series of actions taken by individuals within the Defense Department to cover up the extent of civilian harm caused by the strike.

Shortly after the article’s publication, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, ordered a review of the facts of the strike and adequacy of the investigation that followed. Several months later, he also directed the military to create a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMRAP) to include the creation of a military “center of excellence” for civilian casualties. An executive summary of the military’s review of the 2019 Syria strike was published alongside a memo from Austin and a new article from the New York Times citing high-level military sources. The full review is classified and not available to the public.

The information available about the US military review suggests that it, like the initial investigation, was characterized by serious flaws.

First, the Defense Department did not provide any information to support its claim that most people killed as a result of the strike were enemy fighters. Instead, the military apparently classified all adult males as combatants regardless of their participation in hostilities, in contravention of international humanitarian law standards on distinguishing between civilians and combatants. Groups including Human Rights Watch have previously said that the Pentagon should reassess its definition of civilian status. Perhaps as a result of the mischaracterization of those killed, the review’s assessment of the number of civilian casualties notably differs from reports by Airwars and the New York Times.

Second, when conducting this airstrike, the military apparently relied on incorrect information from Syrian allies. Instead of properly verifying the information they received, US forces used footage from a low-resolution drone camera that apparently could not distinguish among people on the ground.

Third, the review provides no evidence that investigators talked to anyone outside the US military. Instead, it appears that the military reviewers relied upon the same incomplete information in the review that they relied upon to conduct the airstrike.

The review also does not mention offering amends, financial or otherwise, to civilian victims who were identified.

Austin said that he is committed to reforming how the US Defense Department prevents and responds to civilian harm. To help him do so, the US Congress should pass the Protection of Civilians in Military Operations Act, introduced earlier in May by Senator Elizabeth Warren, alongside Representatives Ro Khanna, Jason Crow, Sara Jacobs, and Tom Malinowski. Among other things, the legislation would establish the “center of excellence” that Austin conceptualized in his recent civilian harm memo as a hub within the Pentagon for fixing the many known flaws in US operations that lead to civilian harm.

“The US military’s inadequate investigation of the strike in Baghouz shows why Congress needs to get involved in reforming the military’s handling of civilian harm,” Yager said. “We had high hopes for Secretary Austin’s commitments earlier this year to reform, but the many missteps in this inquiry leave us deeply concerned that the US military hasn’t gotten the memo.”

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