U.S.: Civilians died in July strike in Syria
Says up to 24 killed, far short of claims
WASHINGTON — The sun had yet to rise over the northern Syrian village of Al Tokhar on July 19 when a U.S. airstrike obliterated much of the town, leveling adobe buildings and killing families as they slept.
Soon grisly photos of bloody corpses and grieving survivors began appearing on social media, alerting the world to the carnage.
A Pentagon statement issued Thursday said the bombing of Al Tokhar killed about 100 Islamic State fighters. But it also said that up to 24 civilians “who had been interspersed with combatants” were mistakenly killed in the attack.
The total is far less than the 100 or so civilian casualties that independent Syrian monitoring groups blamed on the airstrike. But it’s still the worst civilian death toll from a single U.S. raid since the war against Islamic State began in mid-2014.
The case, days after the Pentagon acknowledged a coalition air raid in September had killed dozens of Syrian-backed troops in error, highlights the limits of an air war that relies on highly trained crews and the most high-tech aircraft, targeting and munitions in history.
Six additional botched airstrikes have killed 30 civilians in Iraq and Syria this year, according to the Pentagon, bringing the official civilian death toll from U.S. mistakes to 173 since mid-2014.
Several hundred civilians have been reported killed in U.S. airstrikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia in recent years, though hard figures are difficult to pin down.
In all, the Pentagon has received 257 allegations of civilian casualties since mid-2014. It has ruled 181 were not credible. Several officers and crew members have been disciplined, but An analyst says advances in aircraft targeting processes “can never be made perfect.” none has been prosecuted for violating the laws of war.
U.S. officials say the death toll, while regrettable, is still remarkably low given the relentless pace of bombing by coalition aircraft: More than 60,000 munitions have been dropped in Iraq and Syria over the last 30 months.
“Do we make mistakes? Sure, we do, but it isn’t deliberate,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, now dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Arlington, Va. “I can promise you: There isn’t a military in the world that takes the time and care to avoid civilian casualties like the United States.”
Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations, said: “Even though the U.S. military is unparalleled in their targeting processes, bad things happen. The errors come from both the ground and the sky. Advances in technology may improve processes, but they can never be made perfect.”
On Sept. 10, for instance, U.S. warplanes targeted an Islamic State tactical unit in the militants’ Syrian stronghold of Raqqa. It instead killed five civilians, according to a Pentagon investigation.
A week later, an hourlong air raid on a garrison in the eastern Syrian town of Deir el-Zour mistaken killed about 60 Syrian government-backed troops, rather than Islamic State fighters.
Pentagon investigators later determined that an analyst’s warning that surveillance did not indicate that Islamic State was at the camp was not forwarded to the commanders who authorized the attack.
The military was convinced it had identified the right target in Al Tokhar.
U. S. reconnaissance drones had prowled above the Syrian town for weeks,