US Investigating Charges That Airstrikes Killed Civilians in Syria

FILE: This Wednesday June 8, 2016 video grab shows smoke rising from the city of Manbij, Syria. (ARAB 24 via AP)
FILE: This Wednesday June 8, 2016 video grab shows smoke rising from the city of Manbij, Syria. (ARAB 24 via AP)

The U.S. military has begun a formal fact-finding investigation based on an initial "credible" assessment that airstrikes killed numerous civilians July 20 near the ISIS stronghold of Manbij in Syria, a spokesman said Wednesday.

The military was also conducting an assessment of whether an additional airstrike near Manbij on July 23 may have killed civilians, but that assessment has not reached the formal investigation stage, Army Col. Chris Garver, spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said in a video briefing to the Pentagon from Baghdad.

Garver likened the investigation of the July 20 incident to an Article 15-6 fact-finding investigation under Army regulations. Article 15-6 investigations carried out by an appointed officer do not come under the Uniform Code of Military Justice but could potentially lead to disciplinary action.

The colonel said U.S. and coalition partners have conducted more than 500 airstrikes in recent weeks in and around Manbij, a key ISIS "reception center" in northeastern Syria for foreign fighters crossing from Turkey. The Syrian Arab Coalition backed by the U.S. had taken about half of the city, but fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, had fallen back on the city's center and were resisting fiercely, he said.

"We think about 50 percent of the city has been retaken," but the ISIS defenders were putting up a fight "unlike what we've seen before," Garver said. The defenders were falling back and continually reinforcing their new positions rather than retreating and looking for escape routes as happened in the recent siege of Fallujah, he said.

"That's why the pace has been so slow, so deliberate," he said. The defenders in Manbij were continuing to plant improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, and "they're putting snipers in minarets and mosques," he said.

After the July 20 airstrikes near Manbij, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the military would look into reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group, and Amnesty International that civilians had been killed. Social media also cited witnesses reporting on civilian deaths, with estimates ranging from 10 to 15 to well above 100.

"Being scrupulously careful in avoiding civilian casualties and being transparent about this issue is a reflection of the civilized nature of this coalition," Carter said at an anti-ISIS coalition meeting of defense ministers at Joint Base Andrews near Washington.

Citing accounts from local activists and documentary evidence, Amnesty International said the airstrikes on al-Tukhar village outside of Manbij killed at least 60 men, women and children in their homes.

"The bombing of al-Tukhar may have resulted in the largest loss of civilian life by coalition operations in Syria. There must be a prompt, independent and transparent investigation to determine what happened, who was responsible, and how to avoid further needless loss of civilian life," said Magdalena Mughrabi, interim deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International.

Garver said that the highest number of civilian deaths from the July 20 airstrikes from open-source reporting was 73. He said that "credible evidence" from the initial U.S. assessment was enough for the command to conclude that "Yes, we have enough to initiate a formal investigation."

In a previous briefing to the Pentagon on July 22, he said that Syrian Arab Coalition, or SAC, fighters had been engaged on July 20 in fighting in Manbij against what he called "Daesh," an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

"During that portion of the fight, our SAC partner force observed a large group of Daesh fighters in a convoy who appeared to be readying for a counter-attack against SAC troops in the area, and a strike was called in on Daesh," Garver said.

"The strike was against both buildings and vehicles," he said. "Afterwards, we received reports from several sources, both internal and external, that there may have been civilians in the area who are mixed in and among the Daesh fighters."

Garver also said that ISIS has a track record in Manbij and elsewhere of using civilians as human shields or as "bait" to draw in airstrikes that kill innocents and then can be used as propaganda against the U.S. and the coalition.

"So the Daesh leaders in Manbij were using the civilians -- we talked about human shields -- but using them as bait to try to draw us into shooting civilians as well. They were trying to draw the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] into shooting civilians as well," Garver said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, said after the July 20 airstrikes that thousands of civilians in Manbij were trapped in their homes and reportedly were being "killed if they leave their homes or attempt to flee."

"Families are unable to access local cemeteries to bury their relatives who have died or been killed," al-Hussein said, "and are burying them in their gardens or keeping the corpses in bunkers."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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