Pentagon Chief orders new inquiry into US airstrike that killed dozens in Syria

The Pentagon is expected to announce the inquiry Monday after notifying Congress

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Credit: AFP Photo

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III on Monday ordered a new high-level investigation into a US airstrike in Syria in 2019 that killed dozens of women and children, according to a senior Defense Department official.

The investigation by Gen Michael Garrett, the four-star head of the Army’s Forces Command, will examine the strike, which was carried out by a shadowy, classified Special Operations unit called Task Force 9, as well as the handling of the task force’s investigation by higher military headquarters and the Defense Department’s inspector general, the official said.

Garrett will have 90 days to review inquiries already conducted into the episode, and further investigate reports of civilian casualties, whether any violations of laws of war occurred, record-keeping errors, whether any recommendations from earlier reviews were carried out, and whether anyone should be held accountable, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation had not been announced.

The Pentagon is expected to announce the inquiry Monday after notifying Congress. The House and Senate Armed Services committees have said they are investigating the episode.

Austin’s decision comes in the wake of a New York Times investigation this month that described allegations that top officers and civilian officials had sought to conceal the casualties.

In a news conference two weeks ago, Austin vowed to overhaul military procedures and hold top officers responsible for civilian harm, but he did not outline any systemic problems that had allowed civilian casualties to persist on battlefields in Syria and Afghanistan.

The Syria airstrike, which took place near the town of Baghuz on March 18, 2019, as part of the final battle against Islamic State fighters in a shard of a once-sprawling religious state across Iraq and Syria. It was among the largest episodes of civilian casualties in the yearslong war against the group, but the US military had never publicly acknowledged it.

The classified task force investigated the strike and acknowledged that four civilians were killed, but it also concluded that there had been no wrongdoing by the Special Operations unit. In October 2019, the task force sent its findings to the Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida.

But Central Command officials did not follow up and failed to remind a subordinate military headquarters in Baghdad to do so, in what Capt. Bill Urban, a Central Command spokesperson, described as “an administrative oversight.”

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