U.S.: Civil­ians died in July strike in Syria

Says up to 24 killed, far short of claims

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By W.J. Hen­ni­gan

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,

THAER MO­HAMMED/GETTY-AFP

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