Syria Says U.S. Must Pay for Civilians Killed in Strike and Withdraw Troops

The Syrian permanent mission to the United Nations has rejected a report by the United States finding that the U.S. military was not at fault for an airstrike that killed civilians three years ago. Reacting to the Pentagon report, the mission told Newsweek that the U.S. must immediately withdraw its troops and pay for its actions.

The Pentagon released an executive summary Tuesday of an airstrike conducted March 18, 2019, following a much-anticipated review process. It found that the attack that killed what initial estimates said was about 70 people, including civilians, at an Islamic State militant group (ISIS) encampment in the eastern city of Baghuz did not violate rules of engagement or laws of war.

The final assessment, voiced by Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby on Tuesday, placed the figure at 56 dead, four of whom were said to be civilians.

The review, led by U.S. Army Forces Command chief General Michael X. Garrett, found that the strike ordered at the behest of the allied Syrian Democratic Forces demonstrated awareness for non-combatants, even though "civilians were within the blast radius resulting in CIVCAS," or civilian casualties.

US, airstrike, Baghuz, Syria, March, 2019
People flee as heavy smoke rises above the Islamic State militant group's last remaining position in the village of Baghuz during battles with the Syrian Democratic Forces, in the countryside of the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor on March 18, 2019. The U.S. military initially estimated that up to 70 were killed, but a Pentagon report found that 56 were killed, including four civilians. GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images

Garrett directly challenged the findings of The New York Times, which alleged a cover-up of dozens of civilians killed in a November 2021 report. He did, however, identify "administrative deficiencies contributed to the impression that the DOD was not treating this CIVCAS incident seriously, was not being transparent, and was not following its own protocols and procedures regarding CIVCAS incidents."

In Syria, Damascus viewed the strike as one of many conducted as part of what the government considered an illegitimate campaign as Syria's own armed forces conducted anti-ISIS operations with help from Russia and Iran.

"These biased investigations cannot deny the fact that a crime against humanity has occurred in Baghuz," Syria's permanent mission to the U.N. told Newsweek. "Any justifications provided by the U.S. administration for not violating the law of war or the rules of engagement are to circumvent the fact that the U.S. forces deployed in Syria are illegal and they launch military strikes, under the pretext of fighting terrorism, without the approval or coordination of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic."

The statement branded the U.S. summary a "clear attempt to absolve the U.S. occupation forces in Syria of their direct responsibility for civilian casualties under the pretext of fighting the terrorist organization 'ISIS.'"

"Claiming that there is insufficient or inaccurate information about the presence of civilians, and that efforts have been made to distinguish between civilians and members of 'ISIS' are all just empty justifications that are refuted by the fact that civilians have fallen," the mission argued.

The U.S. first became involved in Syria as part of an effort to support insurgents overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after his crackdown on protests erupted into civil war in 2011. Washington turned away from the opposition as it become dominated by jihadis, including al-Qaeda, and ISIS began to take swathes of territory in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

The Pentagon instead turned to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces as a partner in 2015, the same year Russia intervened on behalf of Assad, who had already received assistance from Iran and allied militias. While Washington worked with Baghdad to defeat ISIS in Iraq, the U.S. rejected cooperation with the Syrian government, accusing it of mass human rights abuses as Assad's forces and their allies took on rebels and jihadis.

The two campaigns ran in parallel, resulting in the collapse of ISIS' self-proclaimed "caliphate" with the fall of its final bastion in Baghuz days after the U.S. strike that remains the subject of controversy.

The Syrian mission pointed to Garrett's recommendations of clearer guidelines to avoid further civilian casualties, calling them "an admission of negligence that calls for accountability.

"It also raises serious questions about the reasons for not addressing such loopholes previously," the mission added, "especially since the Baghuz incident is not the first of its kind."

The mission argued that "it is time for the U.S. forces to immediately withdraw from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic, to hold them accountable for their crimes, and to obligate them to compensate the victims."

The Pentagon has repeatedly come under fire for its handling of civilian casualty incidents, including those that have occurred under President Joe Biden. One particularly high-profile incident, also exposed by The New York Times, led to the deaths of up to 10 civilians in the Afghan capital of Kabul as U.S. forces scrambled to withdraw from a 20-year war in the country.

Then, too, an investigation was conducted finding no wrongdoing on the part of U.S. forces.

The findings of the Baghuz report led to a tense exchange in the Pentagon between Kirby and reporters as he sought to defend why personnel "simply doing what their mission required them to do in accordance with the Laws of War" would not be punished.

"Then you tell me," Kirby told reporters, "should they be held accountable?"