The U.S. military covered up airstrikes in Syria that killed as many as 64 women and children in what could have very well amounted to a war crime, the New York Times revealed. The two March 2019 airstrikes took place near the town of Baghuz and were ordered by a classified special operations unit, Task Force 9, which was in charge of ground operations in Syria and operated largely in secret. The airstrike amounted to one of the largest incidents involving civilian casualties in the war against Islamic State, but the U.S. military never acknowledged it. What’s more, military officials seemed to go through as much trouble as possible to keep the death toll under wraps even as shocked officers called for investigations.
It was only after the New York Times presented the military with its findings that the Central Command acknowledged the strikes took place but insisted they were justified. The Central Command, which oversaw the airstrikes in Syria, said 80 people were killed in the strikes and said 16 fighters and four civilians were killed. The Central Command said it was not clear whether the other 60 people killed were civilians, partly because women and children could have been combatants.
In the statement, a spokesman for the Central Command said that “we abhor the loss of innocent life” and assured that the military takes “all possible measures to prevent them.” But the Times investigation reveals there didn’t seem to be much of an effort to find out what really happened. The same unit that ordered the strike was tasked with investigating it and unsurprisingly it found everything was above board.
As shocking as the revelation of the airstrike is, the Times investigation also points to how it seemed to be part of a pattern. Even though the United States has insisted its airstrikes were precise and targeted, and any claims of civilian casualties were thoroughly investigated, it turns out that isn’t really true. Even though there were strict rules in place regarding civilians, they were repeatedly ignored by the secretive special operations unit.