A U.S. military commander who ordered a 2019 airstrike in Syria that reportedly killed as many as 70 civilians did not violate the laws of war or engagement, according to an independent review by a four-star general released Tuesday.
There was also no effort to cover up the strike in Baghuz, along the border with Iraq, that happened during a counterattack by the Islamic State group against the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces, Army Gen. Michael Garrett found in his review. The incident and number of civilian casualties were first reported by The New York Times.
Garrett's findings were ordered by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and raised questions about the lack of accountability for deadly airstrikes. In August, a U.S. Hellfire missile strike in Afghanistan killed 10 civilians, and two investigations ended without punishment or reprimand for any service members involved. A Rand Corp. study in March found that at least 774 civilians were killed -- watchdog groups say the number is much higher -- by the U.S. coalition during the siege of Raqqa, Syria, in 2017.
"I'm not going to relitigate every single incident of civilian casualties. But it's war, it's combat.
And ground force commanders or commanders in general aren't always going to have perfect visibility," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. "Did anybody get fired because of Baghuz? No, but it's not because we're trying to protect careers. Gen. Garrett had a completely independent look at this strike."
The department "deeply regrets" the loss of life, he said.
The ground force commander at Baghuz in 2019, who is not named in the report, was responsible for U.S. support of the SDF against the terror group during the attack. That commander was given repeated confirmation that civilians were not present, but there were in fact civilians "within the blast radius," Garrett wrote in a summary.
An F-15E fighter jet dropped a 500-pound bomb on a crowd of women and children there, and a second aircraft dropped a 2,000-pound bomb, The New York Times reported. A total of about 70 were killed, according to the paper.
The Pentagon said Tuesday there were a total of 73 casualties, and 52 were enemy fighters, including one child. Four civilians were killed, one female and three children, and 15 civilians were wounded, including 11 women and four children, Kirby said.
Garrett found the commander's "decision to engage the ISIS fighters was necessary to defend SDF partner forces, multiple efforts to distinguish civilians from ISIS were made, and the engagements were proportional."
The order to strike the area was "reasonable," the commander demonstrated concern for civilians, and took steps to reduce harm, the general wrote in the May 11 letter to Austin.
In January, Austin ordered an overhaul of military efforts to protect civilians following the strike in Kabul during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal and an assessment by Rand Corp. that found it "has not been the top priority for anybody in the department."
The U.S. military was criticized for killing civilians throughout two decades of its post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Those conflicts in hostile remote or dense urban locations relied heavily on air power such as jets, bombers and drones and, without troops on the ground to provide intelligence, civilians were often caught in the strikes.
Austin told the services to come up with revised plans to protect civilians within 90 days. Those plans have yet to be released.
"I'll say it again: No other military in the world works harder than the United States military to prevent and to not cause civilian harm. It's impossible to get to zero," Kirby said Tuesday.
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.